Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The slave narrative has become a crucial genre within African American literary studies. Invariably, its central theme is escape from bondage to freedom. At the beginning of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, the child Hannah never complains, but she is unhappy with her lot in life. She desires the freedom to be able to read and grasps it when she can. When the opportunity arises for her to escape, it seems as if she desires to reach the North even more than does her mistress. Unlike her physically and emotionally weak mistress, Hannah possesses the wherewithal and the determination to continue, but she remains with her mistress, who sinks ever deeper into insanity. She adapts to new masters and new surroundings, bides her time, and, when life becomes intolerable, she finally finds a way to escape.

Loyalty is another theme throughout the novel. Unlike her white masters, Hannah is loyal to a fault. She hardly criticizes her taskmasters, and she risks her life to run away with her mistress. Indeed, she even offers to become the slave of Mrs. Henry, the woman who nursed her back to health. She obeys the intolerable Mrs. Wheeler’s every whim—all out of loyalty.