Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
by Harriet Jacobs
Slave Narrative, Sentimental Novel, Gothic Novel
The most obvious genre that Incidents plays with is the slave narrative. Books like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave use a set of conventions including lots that we find in Incidents: a title page with the claim of authenticity; supporting documents from white friends and abolitionists; and then a bunch of particulars in the narrative. We're going to quote a few of these, because they're so dead on:
- a first sentence beginning, "I was born...," then specifying a place but not a date of birth;
- a sketchy account of parentage, often involving a white father;
- description of a cruel master, mistress, or overseer, details of first observed whipping and numerous subsequent whippings, with women very frequently the victims;
- an account of one extraordinarily strong, hardworking slave—often "pure African"—who, because there is no reason for it, refuses to be whipped;
- record of the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write;
- description of a "Christian" slaveholder (often of one such dying in terror) and the accompanying claim that "Christian" slaveholders are invariably worse than those professing no religion (source)
Sound familiar? This is only a partial list, so check out the source for more if you're interested.
The point is, Jacobs obviously knew what she was doing. This isn't just an autobiography; it's a particular kind of autobiography, one that is going to fit readers' expectations.
And she also throws in some surprising twists. Instead of physical abuse of the kind that male slave narratives often record, Jacobs's account emphasizes the sexual abuse of female slaves. By focusing on her family and on getting her children to safety, rather than just herself, Jacobs makes her narrative different. It's almost as though she creates a new genre: the female slave narrative.
A Novel Approach
Check it out:
A brutal, corrupt master pursues a servant. With plots, tricks, and manipulation, he attempts to seduce and ruin her. Eventually, her natural strength and goodness triumphs, and he sees the error of his ways.
If you leave off the "error of his ways," then this should sound pretty familiar. It would sound extra-familiar if you happened to be familiar with books like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Pamela, or, with some variations, Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. These books, popular at the end of the eighteenth century, sound awfully similar to Jacobs's. The big difference? At the end, the victory the heroines win is respectable marriage that preserves their virtue. (Check out "What's Up With the Ending?" for more about the differences.)
So, why does Jacobs's story sound so similar to these sentimental and Gothic novels, with their big bad villains and their creepy domestic spaces, like that crawlspace Linda hides in?
Well, early readers just assumed it was a novel. We know that it's mostly autobiographical, so, sure, maybe she just happened to have a really novelistic life. But check out what Linda says at the end: "Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage" (41).
Apparently, Linda knows exactly what her story sounds like. A far more likely explanation—we think—is that, rather than just happening to sound like a storybook life, Linda emphasized certain incidents in order to craft a narrative that had already proved super-appealing to bored middle-class women. After all, everyone likes a good suspense story.