Study Guide

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Themes

  • Slavery

    Ready for the big reveal? Slavery is bad. No, seriously, it is. And Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to prove it. But what Jacobs has that other slavery-is-awful narratives don't have is the personal experience of enslaved women. If you think it's bad for men, just wait until you see what it does to women, children, and families. The whole point of Incidents was to get Northern white women off their couches to actually do something about this whole atrocity, and, if it wasn't particularly effective, it sure wasn't for lack of trying.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. How does Linda try to convince the reader that slavery is wrong?
    2. Who is the primary symbol of slavery in the book?
    3. What does slavery do to families? To women? To children?
    4. What are the different challenges faced by male and female slaves? By children and adult slaves?

    Chew on This

    Jacobs argues that slavery is bad for everyone involved, not just the slaves themselves. Since she was writing for a Northern white audience, it was important for her to show how slavery corrupted all kinds of people.

    Jacobs suggests that, just as female slaves faced particular challenges under slavery, they also had special ways to resist it.

  • Race

    The world was pretty simple in pre-Civil War America: whites were civilized, Christian, and innately moral; blacks were primitive, amoral, and savage. Not so fast, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl says. Actually, it's the other way around. Jacobs's account shows white slaveholders as the truly cruel and primitive ones, dragging everyone else down with them. In fact, the two races are much more entwined than most white people would have wanted to think. In creating black characters that look white, pointing out that many slaves have white ancestors, and showing noble black and base white characters, Jacobs blows a hole in the very idea of racial purity. (Not that many people seemed to care. But at least she was vindicated in the end, right?)

    Questions About Race

    1. What ideas about race seem to keep slavery going?
    2. Does Jacobs suggest that there are essential differences between blacks and whites? If so, what are they?
    3. How does the fact that many slaves had a white parent challenge the racial basis of slavery?
    4. What racial issues does Linda face when she moves to New York?
    5. According to Incidents, how essential are conceptions of race to slavery?

    Chew on This

    Jacobs undermines ideas of racial inferiority throughout Incidents.

    Incidents challenges the idea that black women were primitive and amoral by depicting them as pious and principled.

  • Women and Femininity

    Jealous mistresses, creepy old men, and constant bodily threats: just one more day in the life of a slave woman. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl doesn't pull its punches in describing how women are extra-specially degraded under slavery. Yet Jacobs also shows how strong bonds between women—like those between Linda and Aunt Martha, or Linda and Mrs. Bruce—could be educational, loving, and transformative. Friendships between women cut across class and race lines.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What makes being a slave girl particularly difficult?
    2. What is the role of female friendship in the novel? How are Linda's male friends and helpers different from the women who help her?
    3. Which women in the novel seem to adhere to the "cult of true womanhood"? Which do not? What, according to Incidents, is the role of women in nineteenth-century America? Is it different in the North and South?

    Chew on This

    Jacobs suggests that hiding in the crawlspace gives Linda a kind of male power, because it allows her to look at people without being seen.

    Incidents's direct appeal to white readers is one way that Jacobs attempts to convince readers that black and white women are fundamentally the same.

  • Family

    Slavery is a family affair in almost every sense of the word. Even more than race, it seems that what family you're born into determines your status. Family is an emotional anchor, but in that way it's a physical anchor as well—like how Linda's devotion to her children keeps her hiding out in a crawlspace for seven whole years. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is just as much about keeping her family together as it is about achieving personal freedom. And the best way to keep families happy? Abolish slavery.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why is family so important to the slaves we meet?
    2. How do slave laws control African-American families?
    3. What are white families like in the novel? What are black families like?
    4. What does it mean that Linda’s story ends in freedom instead of marriage?

    Chew on This

    Slavery ruins families either by physically separating them, in the case of slave families, or corrupting them, in the case of white families.

    Jacobs depicts slave families as being kind and loyal, while the white slave-holding families are greedy and cruel.

  • Rules and Order

    Well, it's not like anyone stays in slavery by choice. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl takes a hard look at the three laws that keep the institution of slavery going: (1) Slave-children always follow the condition of the mother, so plantation owners just added to their wealth by raping and impregnating their slaves. (2) Slaves could not read, write, learn, or teach, so they'd never find out that things could be different. (3) The Fugitive Slave Law, which made it illegal for Northerners to help runaway slaves. What's the point of taking this legal look at slavery? By living in a country governed by these laws, Northerners implicitly allow slavery to continue.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What rights, if any, do slaves have? What are slaves not allowed to do?
    2. What is the role of non-slave owners—poor whites, northerners, and free blacks—in upholding the laws of slavery?
    3. What is the Fugitive Slave Law? How does Linda talk about the Fugitive Slave Law, and what role does it play in the text?

    Chew on This

    When Jacobs writes that the novel is her “testimony,” she uses legalistic terminology to put her country on trial.

    The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 brought slavery to the North, since it made northerners responsible, by law, for returning fugitive slaves to their masters.

  • Friendship

    For Linda, friends aren't just all you need—they're all she has. And that turns out to be enough. Her friendship with Peter, a fellow slave, gets her on the northbound boat to Philadelphia; her friendship with Betty secures her a place to hide out after her escape; and her friendship with the Bruce family finally wins her emancipation. While many early American novels tend to value independence and solitude, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl highlights the importance of community and friendship, particularly for a female slave seeking freedom.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What role do friends play in the novel? How does Linda emphasize the importance of friendship?
    2. Who are Linda’s friends, and how do they help her? Does she ever seem to indicate why and how she has so many friends?
    3. What kind of barriers exist to friendships between slaves? Between whites and blacks?

    Chew on This

    Whereas male slave narratives tend to highlight individualism and the solitary pursuit of freedom, Incidents stresses the importance of friendship and community in achieving emancipation.

    Jacobs suggests that her friendships are unusual in slave communities. Since slaves are rarely permitted to talk to one another when they are not working, it is difficult for strong friendships to form.

  • Contrasting Regions

    How different are the North and the South, really? America may have been a world divided in the nineteenth century, but the division wasn't as absolute as you might think. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl doesn't hold back when criticizing Northern prejudice or complacency. Jacobs actually gets angry when she realizes that, even up North, there was a long way to go before blacks would be equal with whites. And then both the North and South are contrasted to England, the magical wonderland of racial harmony—which, frankly, seems a little too absolute to be true, especially considering that in the mid-nineteenth century Britain was gleefully oppressing people of other colors all over the world.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. According to the novel, how are the northern and southern states different? How are they the same?
    2. What experiences shape Linda’s opinion of the Free States? Does her opinion change over the course of the text?
    3. What is Linda's experience of England? Does it seem true, or is she merely trying to make a point? Does it seem that Northerners or Southerners are more helpful to Linda? How much of a difference is there, really, between people living in the South and North?

    Chew on This

    Incidents suggests that, although slavery is illegal there, the North imitates the racial attitudes of the South.

    Jacobs expands her critique to America more generally when she travels to England and sees the lack of race prejudice there.

  • Religion

    Under slavery, religion becomes an instrument of evil. She reminds us that slaveholders tried to use religion to keep their slaves in check. After Nat Turner’s insurrection, the elite whites hire a free black man to deliver sermons to their slaves on the importance of being obedient. Jacobs aimed her anti-slavery message in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl at northern Christian women, so it was important for her to show slavery makes heathens out of black people. Maybe, she suggests, white women could spend more time abolishing slavery and less time funding foreign missions.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How does Incidents show religion being used to justify slavery? How is it used to condemn slavery?
    2. How does Jacobs use the Bible in Incidents? What is the purpose of her many Biblical quotations?
    3. According to Linda, can someone be a good Christian and participate in slavery as either slave or master?
    4. According to the novel, what role does music play in African-American spirituality?

    Chew on This

    Jacobs appeals to her northern religious readers by adopting a religious, pious narrative persona.

    Incidents suggests that slave-holders often manipulated religion to suit their own ends.