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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


by Harriet Jacobs

Analysis: What's Up With the Title?

Here's proof that words matter. Check it out:

"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"


"Incidents in the Life of Harriet Jacobs"

See the difference? By using the universal-sounding phrase "a slave girl"—with particularly emphasis on that "a" rather than, say, "the," Jacobs makes her story about more than just herself. It may seem like a humble move, like, "Oh, look at little ol' me not even putting my name on the thing," but it's actually a way of making her life into an archetype for, well, all enslaved girls everywhere.

Using the word "girl" also alerts readers that this isn't just your ordinary slave narrative, which was already a well-established genre in 1861, when the book was published. So if you feel like the whole slavery thing is getting a little stale, here's something a little different: it's the very first one about a girl.

And finally, moving backwards, we get to "incidents." This is kind of a cool word to find here, because it suggests that Jacobs isn't claiming to tell a nice, neat, integrated story of her life. There's no creative nonfiction to muddy up the facts, just life as she happened to live it. Now, whether or not you want to believe her claim that all she's writing is incidents—that's a different story.

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