Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
by Harriet Jacobs
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Rules and Order Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Chapter.Paragraph
Even if he could have obtained permission to marry me while I was a slave, the marriage would give him no power to protect me from my master. […] And then, if we had children, I knew they must "follow the condition of the mother." (7.18)
You wouldn't think Jacobs would have to point this out, but here she's teaching the reader that, in contrast to what they may have heard about slavery—that slaveholders were kind, for instance, or that slaves were happy—an elaborate legal system keeps slaves oppressed.
But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also […] could have had a home shielded by laws; and I should have been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate. (10.3)
This is sneaky. Here, Jacobs suggests that white women are no purer than slave women. Rather, the purity of white women “has been sheltered” and their homes “are protected by law.” So, a white woman’s alleged purity is really just legal and social protection.
Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. (10.6)
Jacobs engages the reader by highlighting the differences between Linda and her audience. As a narrator, Linda is so endearing that the reader wants her to succeed—but, just when we want her to succeed, she tells us that she can't.