Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
by Harriet Jacobs
Analysis: Writing Style
Realistic, Conversational, Classic
One early review of Incidents published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle said that the book’s style was “simple and attractive—you feel less as though you are reading a book, than talking with the woman herself.”
That seems about right. Jacobs's language is pretty simple. She’s not big on metaphors or symbolism and gets her meaning across through anecdotes and dialogue. Like this straightforward introduction: "I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood has passed away" (1.1).
Plus, Linda seems to be talking to the reader because, well, she addresses the reader. One key stylistic feature of Incidents is its direct appeals. After zooming in on a slave girl and predicting the horrible future that awaits her, the narrator turns out from the page and directly indicts the reader: “In view of these things, why are ye silent, ye free men and women of the north? Why do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right?” (5.7).
These moments occur when the narrator recounts a vivid scene of violence or injustice. By pairing anecdotes with direct appeals to the reader, the narrator links the institution of slavery to the nineteenth-century reader’s own failure to oppose it.
At other times, the narrator’s address of the reader seems to just be a way to check in through questions such as “Reader, did you ever hate? I hope not” (7.13). In these moments, the narrator wants to draw us into the story and make her experience relevant to our own.
Put a Period on It
But then, after all this talky appeal, we come across something like this doozy:
Being in servitude to the Anglo-Saxon race, I was not put into a "Jim Crow car," on our way to Rockaway, neither was I invited to ride through the streets on the top of trunks in a truck; but every where I found the same manifestations of that cruel prejudice, which so discourages the feelings, and represses the energies of the colored people. (35.5)
What we've got here is a little thing called a periodic sentence. Periodic sentences are a little invention from ancient Greek rhetoric. They're tightly crafted masterpieces of writerly awesomeness, keeping you in suspense until the very last word. But they can also be a bear to read. You've got to keep all these clauses in your head as you read through the sentence and finally put them all together at the end.
In other words, they're basically the opposite of realistic, ordinary speech, which generally consists of people saying things in the order that thought occur to them. So you can imagine that these sentences are a great way of showing off that Jacobs has some real authority. She's not just an ignorant slave. She's a cultured, well-read, skillful writer.