So, Linda has a tricky job. She has to make emotional pleas for abolition, but she also wants to make sharp, pointed critiques of the whole institution of slavery—including Northern complicities. In other words: how is she going to make her point without alienating her readers?
Well, one strategy is employing both methods at once or one after the other, to maximize her chances of succeeding with the reader. Linda often uses exclamations such as “O, reader,” when she's going after the emotional appeal: “O, what days and nights of fear and sorrow that man caused me! Reader […] I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered” (5.4).
But then she'll sharpen that up with a catchy, biting aphorism, like “Cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities” (9.6), or "Hot weather brings out snakes and slaveholders" (34.10). She's also not afraid to lay on the sarcasm, as when she writes, of the rare slaveholder who is a good Christian, "Her religion was not a garb put on for Sunday, and laid aside till Sunday returned again” (9.13).
Basically, this seems to be a narrator who can't make up her mind whether she wants to lecture her readers or make them cry. It could be that this uneven tone helps explain why Incidents wasn't immediately popular.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Jacobs seems to know herself that something is up with her ending:
Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. (41.25)
By “the usual way,” Jacobs means that both novels such as Jane Eyre and slave narratives like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave typically end with marriage and a retreat into comfortable domesticity. (We didn’t pick Jane Eyre out of a hat: the last chapter of that book begins with the sentence, "Reader, I married him" [38.1]. Sounds to us like Jacobs is making herself a little allusion, there.)
So, Jacobs is saying that she knows perfectly well her ending is a little off. Although Linda is free now, she still lives in servitude to Mrs. Bruce and her life’s dream—“to sit with my children in a home of my own” (41.25)—hasn't come true.
And it's not just that this traditional marriage ending hasn't happened. It seems like Jacobs might not even want that tradition ending. See, white women of your typical nineteenth-century novel and the African-American men of slave narratives seem to value marriage as the ultimate goal of life (and of their stories). But not Linda. Linda values legal and physical freedom.
When you think about it, this makes sense. For women in the nineteenth century, especially the first half, marriage meant that you basically became your husband's property. Now, we're not at all saying that it was like being a slave—but it was definitely a kind of legal bondage. So why would Linda want to end by becoming someone's property again?
The first two-thirds of the novel take place in Edenton, North Carolina, the town where Harriet Jacobs was actually born and raised.
We don't learn very much about Edenton. Linda doesn't describe it, but we get the sense that it's a small town with only one or two main streets. From her hiding space above her grandmother's shed, Linda seems to be able to keep a good eye on what's happening.
It's also a tight-knit town, and the black and white communities seem closer than you'd expect. Linda says that "many people" in the neighborhood wanted to buy crackers from her grandmother, and all the white people respected her so much that no one would buy her when Dr. Flint put her up for sale (1). And, before Mrs. Flint gets jealous about her husband's interest in Linda, "there had been a time," Linda says, "when Dr. Flint's wife came to take tea with us, and when her children were also sent to have a feast of 'Aunt Marthy's' nice cooking" (16).
One of the weirdest things for us reading this narrative is that the picture of slavery it draws—while obviously awful—isn't exactly what we're used to hearing. We don't really meet any slave hands; nobody we know is whipped (although there's definitely physical abuse); and none of the main characters are sold away. Dr. Flint, presumably, could have used force and raped Linda whenever he wanted, but instead he seems to think that he needs to win her consent.
Sure, it's obviously not really consent, since, you know, he owns her. But Linda, her children, and most of her extended family seem to exist in this odd state where they're enslaved but have some surprising freedoms. Like, after Linda is pregnant and has her first child, she stops living with Dr. Flint, even though she's still his slave.
One thing to think about is that North Carolina didn’t play a huge role in the early slave trade. The numerous little islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks were risky for ships, so slave traders preferred to land in ports either to the north or the south of North Carolina. North Carolina also lacked the huge plantations of the Deep South.
This narrative helps us remember that there were lots of different kinds of slavery. In a way, it's an answer to people who said—and this was something that people actually did say—that slaves were better off than the poor in other countries. Well, Linda goes to England and tells us straight out that they're not. She says, "I repeat that the most ignorant and the most destitute of these peasants was a thousand fold better off than the most pampered American slave" (37).
And from some perspective, Linda is a pampered slave. She gets to stay with her family; she's never raped or whipped; she wins respect and even affection from many of the white people in her town. But Incidents reminds us that, no matter how nice this setting seems in comparison to, say, a rice plantation in Georgia or a cotton plantation in Alabama, Linda is still a slave.
Just as the white and black communities are more intertwined than you might expect, the Northern and Southern states have a close relationship. And this close relationship makes the North just as culpable for slavery as the South.
Sure, at first Linda is blown away by how awesome Northern city life is. Her first morning in Philadelphia is a revelation:
At daylight, I heard women crying fresh fish, berries, radishes, and various other things. All this was new to me. I dressed myself at an early hour, and sat at the window to watch that unknown tide of life. Philadelphia seemed to be a wonderfully great place. (31)
But Linda quickly figures out that the North isn't quite the promised land it was supposed to be. When her son, arriving in Boston, says, "I 'spose free boys can get along here at the north as well as white boys" (34), she doesn't have the heart to tell him about a little thing called Jim Crow. The North might oppose slavery, but they sure didn't oppose racial stereotypes.
The other problem, Linda suggests, is that there just isn't enough difference between North and South. Northerners marry Southerners; Southerners vacation in the North. She's constantly afraid that someone from the South is going to see her and recognize her as a fugitive slave, and it gets worse when Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Law.
Look, we're not saying that the North isn't better. Obviously, it is. Linda finds work, friends, and freedom. But Incidents seems to be saying that, as long as the North is still part of the same country, it's just as much to blame.
“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is perpetual bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, Slavery; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.”
—A Woman of North Carolina
“Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give ear unto my speech.”
We start off with Angelina E. Grimke’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. Published in 1936, Grimke’s essay musters the heavy artillery of both the Declaration of Independence and the Bible to point out that, you know, slavery might not be the most American or Christian thing to be doing. By quoting a female abolitionist, Jacobs lets us know that she's (1) well-read, and (2) part of a long line of outspoken ladies.
Then we head back in time for the second quote, from the Hebrew Bible's Book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah is lecturing the women of Jerusalem for being self-indulgent and lazy. Just what you want to hear, right? Well, this quote lets Jacobs highlight women as her targeted audience and to raise her novel up to the status of prophecy: whether they like it or not, women need to hear this message in order to be truly moral beings.
Taken together, both epigraphs really boost Jacobs’s authority—a bold move for a former slave woman.
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.
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.
Pop quiz: Which classic Brit Lit poem begins with the poet talking about a couch?
Answer: William Cowper's "The Task” (1784), which also happens to be the source for Jacobs's chapter title, "The Loophole of Retreat":
'Tis pleasant through the loopholes of retreat
To peep at such a world; to see the stir
Of the great Babel and not feel the crowd;
To hear the roar she sends through all her gates
At a safe distance, where the dying sound
Falls a soft murmur on the uninjured ear.
Here, the loophole represents a place from which the poet can view the world’s misfortunes. Not so much for Linda, who experiences the loophole as a particularly intense form of slavery, so much that it becomes a symbol for the captivity of Southern slaves. Separated from her family, physically uncomfortable, voiceless, and so powerless that she can't even move, Linda is getting a crash course in what slavery is like for the majority of slaves.
But maybe the reference to Cowper (pronounced "cooper," BTW) can let us put an unexpected spin on Linda's crawlspace. Sure, it's a hellhole of rats, ants, and snow, but it's also protection from Dr. Flint, and a place where she can keep an eye on her kids.
It gives her a new, or at least deeper, perspective on slavery, since, as she says, "Southerners have the habit of stopping and talking in the streets, and I heard many conversations not intended to meet my ears" (21). It's a perch from which she can really come to terms with how awful slavery is.
So, in a strange way, the attic also comes to represent certain possibilities within slavery. The most important aspect of the attic is that Linda chooses her confinement. She would rather lie immobile for seven years than allow Dr. Flint possession of her body. In this sense, the crawlspace becomes a symbol of Linda’s self-possession and resilience in the face of adversity.
Dr. Flint is definitely a real person and a character in his own right. Jacobs based him on her real-life master and tormenter, Dr. James Norcom, and he seems to have been as awful as she said.
In Incidents, however, Dr. Flint rises beyond the real-life man and becomes a symbol of the cruelties and casualties of slavery. Linda talks about the "all-pervading corruption produced by slavery" and the fact that "the slaveholder's sons"—like Dr. Flint, we assume—"are, of course, vitiated, even while boys, by the unclean influences every where around them" (9).
In his sexual obsession with Linda, Dr. Flint illustrates that slavery corrupts and abuses children. His cruelty to her children shows that institution of slavery ruins family bonds. And, in his constant lies to his wife, Dr. Flint shows that slavery makes "jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home[s]" (6) of white families.
By making Dr. Flint into a symbol of everything that's wrong with slavery, especially with white slaveowners, Linda turns her own struggle into a mythical allegory against evil. Each time that Linda resists Dr. Flint’s advances, she's also resisting slavery’s violent, immoral, corrupting power.
Incidents may be an autobiography, but it's also a mythic account of Linda's rise out of slavery and triumph over evil. In that sense, Linda herself is a big, fat symbol: of triumph, of determination, and of the American spirit.
Even the title of the book tells us that she's more than just an individual person. "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" strips the story of personal details and makes the slave girl of the title a symbol for all slave girls, everywhere. Linda's struggles are no different than any other girl's struggles.
But, of course, they are, because Linda manages to persevere her way out of slavery. Her story does not end "in the usual way" (41), because Linda is not just a symbol of an oppressed and degraded slave girl: she's a symbol of an American icon, the go-getter who pulls herself (or himself) up by her bootstraps to win respect, independence, and fortune. Sure, Linda's fortune might be her children rather than a pile of cash, but it's still a pretty good ending.
This is the Linda Brent Show. From the very first page, with the subtitle "Written by Herself," Jacobs highlights that her account is personal and true. She uses "I" throughout, and she doesn't provide any information that she couldn't personally have known. No insights into Dr. Flint's motivations; no clues about what Aunt Martha is thinking, or at least not any that Linda doesn't come up with herself.
At the same time, her narrator is retrospective. Jacobs creates a character to play herself, and she looks back on her life to offer interpretation and reflection. This lets her foreshadow what will happen, as when she writes, “Those were happy days—too happy to last” (1.3). At other moments, she's able to correct false information. At one point, Linda recalls a slaveholder telling her that one of her friends was miserable up north. From her position in the present, she writes, “This whole story was false. I afterwards staid with that friend in New York, and found her in comfortable circumstances” (8.2).
What this does is kind of cool: we have a first-person narrator, but it's almost as though she's telling someone else's story—because in a way, she is. Sure, most of these incidents happened to Jacobs. But she's crafting into a skillful narrative that turns Linda, not Jacobs, into an archetypal figure of female slavery.
Linda doesn’t fully understand the horrors of slavery. She knows that her role is to serve white people, but doesn't really understand what that means. But she's a smart girl, and she starts noticing things. Things like, her new masters, the Flints, are really cruel to her brother William. And the difference between the way her mistress is dressed and the raggedy clothes that she's forced to wear. Or the way Mrs. Flint can't lift a finger around the house but has no trouble watching a slave whipped until she bleeds.
So, yeah. Linda starts getting a pretty good picture of the "monster" that is slavery.
Linda takes a lover, Mr. Sands, hoping that it'll get the lascivious Dr. Flint off her back. Not so much. In fact, Mr. Flint ends up enslaving Linda in an entirely different way. Once her children are born, she can't exactly leave them behind while she goes gallivanting off to seek freedom.
It doesn't get much more nightmarish than this. Linda hides herself away in her grandmother's teeny garret, but it's not the romantic kind. Mice and rats crawl on her, ants bite her, she freezes in the winter, and soaks in the summer. Oh, also, she can't sit or stand, because the ceiling is too low. The one bright point? She can peep out at her children and overhear conversations on the street.
Seven years later, Linda leaves her awfully grave-like crawlspace and goes North. She scores a job as a nursemaid for the British-born Mrs. Bruce who is super nice and helps Linda out a lot. Even though Dr. Flint is still pursuing her, a network of friends and family keeps her safe.
And then Dr. Flint dies. Hooray! Sure, now his daughter technically owns Linda, but the second Mrs. Bruce manages to buy her. Linda and her children are finally free.
Linda realizes she's a slave when she's six years old. One of her mistresses teaches her how to read, and Linda starts getting ideas—like, maybe she shouldn't be a slave. In fact, maybe no one should be a slave.
When Linda is fifteen, Dr. Flint gets that special glint in his eye. He sends her creepy notes and whispers dirty things in her ear. To make the whole experience extra appealing, Dr. Flint insists that he'll never sell her to anyone else. She's going to belong to him forever.
Linda gets herself knocked up, hoping it'll gross Dr. Flint out enough that he'll sell her. No such luck. And now she's stuck, because she can't just jet off to the North and leave her kids behind. Even though she does finally run away, she hides herself in a tiny crawlspace for seven years just so she can be near them.
Finally, Linda's friend Peter comes to her with a plan to board a ship sailing North. After some hemming and hawing, Linda heads for the boat and sails off toward an uncertain future.
Linda loves her new home and her new job, but she doesn't love that Dr. Flint is still after her. Seriously, he just can't take a hint. He tries one ploy after another, but Linda manages to evade him. The suspense rises when the U.S. government passes the Fugitive Slave Act, meaning that all the northerners helping Linda are now breaking the law.
Finally, Linda's employer Mrs. Bruce convinces Dr. Flint's daughter to sell her. With the help of an elaborate community of family, friends, and random do-gooders, Linda has finally achieved one of the major goals of her life: freedom for herself and for her children.
But that's only one of her goals. At the end of Incidents, Linda is still not completely satisfied. What she really wants is the American Dream: to live in her own house with her children.
Linda's happy little life ends at six years old, when she (1) realizes that she's a slave and then, a few years later, (2) is sent to work for the Flint family. Dr. and Mrs. Flint are apparently in competition to see who is the bigger sociopath, and they torment Linda emotionally, physically, and—in Dr. Flint's case—sexually.
Eventually, Linda's had it and runs away. But not very far. By this point, she's had two children by another (white) man, and she can't bear to leave them. Her solution, which we can't entirely get behind, is to hide in the leaky, rat-infested crawlspace above her grandmother's shed. For seven years.
Linda’s friend Peter finds a ship's captain to carry Linda to Philadelphia. The North is not as awesome as Linda had hoped, but it's still pretty great, especially once she manages to reunite with her children. Eventually, she finds work, friendship, and freedom: almost, but not quite, everything she wants.