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"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet Jacobs

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During the 1850s, when Jacobs was writing her book, slavery was a highly explosive issue in the rapidly expanding United States. Americans argued bitterly over whether or not slavery should be allowed in new territories like California, Kansas, and Nebraska. The Compromise of 1850 sought to hold the Union together by designating California a free state, but it also enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, which facilitated the recapture of runaway slaves. The solution was only temporary, and the divisions that led to the Civil War continued to deepen. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to bloody confrontations between pro- and anti-slavery settlers in those territories. In response to these conflicts, the Underground Railroad became more active and abolitionists increased their propaganda efforts, in which slave narratives such as Incidents played a crucial part.

Slave narratives were the dominant literary mode in early African-American literature. Thousands of accounts, some legitimate and some the fictional creations of white abolitionists, were published in the years between 1820 and the Civil War. These were political as well as literary documents, used to promote the antislavery cause and to answer pro-slavery claims that slaves were happy and well-treated. Most slave narratives feature graphic descriptions of the violent whippings and severe deprivation inflicted on slaves, attempting to appeal to the emotions and conscience of white readers. Some of the most famous narratives, such as Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, also tell the inspiring story of a brutalized slave's journey toward self-definition and self-assertion. Like other slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl chronicles the abuses of slavery, the slave's struggle for self-definition and self-respect, and the harrowing details of a dangerous escape. However, Jacobs's story also emphasizes the special problems faced by female slaves, particularly sexual abuse and the anguish of slave mothers who are separated from their children. Because of its unique point of view, and because of the skilled, novelistic way Jacobs tells her tale, the book has become one of the most celebrated slave narratives of all time.

Critics have compared the style and structure of Incidents to the hugely popular "sentimental novels" of the nineteenth century, many of which tell the story of a young girl fighting to protect her virtue from a sexually aggressive man. Jacobs knew that her contemporaries would see her not as a virtuous woman but as a fallen one and would be shocked by her relationship with Sawyer and the illegitimate children it produced. In spite of her embarrassment, Jacobs insisted on telling her story honestly and completely, determined to make white Americans aware of the sexual victimization that slave women commonly faced and to dramatize the fact that they often had no choice but to surrender their "virtue."

When it was published, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was well-received and accepted as a legitimate documentation of the horrors of slavery. For most of the twentieth century, however, scholars believed the book to be a fictional tale written to further the abolitionist cause, and that "Linda Brent," its protagonist, had never really existed. They speculated that Lydia Maria Child, who was a successful novelist as well as an activist, must have been the memoir's real author. Not until the 1980s, when the critic Jean Fagan Yellin discovered a cache of letters from Harriet Jacobs to Lydia Maria Child, did Jacobs again receive credit for her work. Yellin went on to research Jacobs's life and verify that the events of Incidents are true and accurate.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl opens with an introduction in which the author, Harriet Jacobs, states her reasons for writing an autobiography. Her story is painful, and she would rather have kept it private, but she feels that making it public may help the antislavery movement. A preface by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child makes a similar case for the book and states that the events it records are true.

Jacobs uses the pseudonym Linda Brent to narrate her first-person account. Born into slavery, Linda spends her early years in a happy home with her mother and father, who are relatively well-off slaves. When her mother dies, six-year-old Linda is sent to live with her mother's mistress, who treats her well and teaches her to read. After a few years, this mistress dies and bequeaths Linda to a relative. Her new masters are cruel and neglectful, and Dr. Flint, the father, soon begins pressuring Linda to have a sexual relationship with him. Linda struggles against Flint's overtures for several years. He pressures and threatens her, and she defies and outwits him. Knowing that Flint will eventually get his way, Linda consents to a love affair with a white neighbor, Mr. Sands, saying that she is ashamed of this illicit relationship but finds it preferable to being raped by the loathsome Dr. Flint. With Mr. Sands, she has two children, Benny and Ellen. Linda argues that a powerless slave girl cannot be held to the same standards of morality as a free woman. She also has practical reasons for agreeing to the affair: she hopes that when Flint finds out about it, he will sell her to Sands in disgust. Instead, the vengeful Flint sends Linda to his plantation to be broken in as a field hand.

When she discovers that Benny and Ellen are to receive similar treatment, Linda hatches a desperate plan. Escaping to the North with two small children would be impossible. Unwilling to submit to Dr. Flint's abuse, but equally unwilling to abandon her family, she hides in the attic crawl space in the house of her grandmother, Aunt Martha. She hopes that Dr. Flint, under the false impression that she has gone North, will sell her children rather than risk having them disappear as well. Linda is overjoyed when Dr. Flint sells Benny and Ellen to a slave trader who is secretly representing Mr. Sands. Mr. Sands promises to free the children one day and sends them to live with Aunt Martha. But Linda's triumph comes at a high price. The longer she stays in her tiny garret, where she can neither sit nor stand, the more physically debilitated she becomes. Her only pleasure is to watch her children through a tiny peephole, as she cannot risk letting them know where she is. Mr. Sands marries and becomes a congressman. He brings Ellen to Washington, D.C., to look after his newborn daughter, and Linda realizes that Mr. Sands may never free her children. Worried that he will eventually sell them to slave traders, she determines that she must somehow flee with them to the North. However, Dr. Flint continues to hunt for her, and escape remains too risky.

After seven years in the attic, Linda finally escapes to the North by boat. Benny remains with Aunt Martha, and Linda is reunited with Ellen, who is now nine years old and living in Brooklyn, New York. Linda is dismayed to find that her daughter is still held in virtual slavery by Mr. Sands's cousin, Mrs. Hobbs. She fears that Mrs. Hobbs will take Ellen back to the South, putting her beyond Linda's reach forever. She finds work as a nursemaid for a New York City family, the Bruces, who treat her very kindly. Dr. Flint continues to pursue Linda, and she flees to Boston. There, she is reunited with Benny. Dr. Flint now claims that the sale of Benny and Ellen was illegitimate, and Linda is terrified that he will re-enslave all of them. After a few years, Mrs. Bruce dies, and Linda spends some time living with her children in Boston. She spends a year in England caring for Mr. Bruce's daughter, and for the first time in her life she enjoys freedom from racial prejudice. When Linda returns to Boston, Ellen goes to boarding school and Benny moves to California with Linda's brother William. Mr. Bruce remarries, and Linda takes a position caring for their new baby. Dr. Flint dies, but his daughter, Emily, writes to Linda to claim ownership of her. The Fugitive Slave Act is passed by Congress, making Linda extremely vulnerable to kidnapping and re-enslavement.

Emily Flint and her husband, Mr. Dodge, arrive in New York to capture Linda. Linda goes into hiding, and the new Mrs. Bruce offers to purchase her freedom. Linda refuses, unwilling to be bought and sold yet again, and makes plans to follow Benny to California. Mrs. Bruce buys Linda anyway. Linda is devastated at being sold and furious with Emily Flint and the whole slave system. However, she says she remains grateful to Mrs. Bruce, who is still her employer when she writes the book. She notes that she still has not yet realized her dream of making a home for herself and her children to share. The book closes with two testimonials to its accuracy, one from Amy Post, a white abolitionist, and the other from George W. Lowther, a black antislavery writer.
The book's protagonist and a pseudonym for the author. Linda begins life innocently, unaware of her enslaved state. In the face of betrayal and harassment at the hands of her white masters, she soon develops the knowledge, skills, and determination that she needs to defend herself. Linda is torn between a desire for personal freedom and a feeling of responsibility to her family, particularly her children.
Linda's master, enemy, and would-be lover. Although Dr. Flint has the legal right to "use" Linda in any way he chooses, he seeks to seduce her by means of threats and trickery rather than outright force. Linda's rebelliousness enrages him, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of breaking her will. Throughout the long battle over Linda's right to own herself, Dr. Flint never shows any sign of remorse or understanding that she is a person with rights and feelings.
Linda's maternal grandmother and chief ally. Aunt Martha is pious and patient, suffering silently as she watches her children and grandchildren sold off and abused by their masters. Aunt Martha also represents a kind of maternal selfishness, grieving when her loved ones escape to freedom because she will never see them again. For her, family ties must be preserved at all costs, even if it means a life spent in slavery.
Linda's mistress and Dr. Flint's jealous wife. Mrs. Flint is characterized mainly by her hypocrisy. She is a church woman who supposedly suffers from weak nerves, but she treats her slaves with callousness and brutality. Mrs. Flint demonstrates how the slave system has distorted the character of southern women.