What is the significance of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

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kipling2448's profile pic

kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The significance of Harriet Jacobs’ memoir of her 27 years as a slave, written under her pen-name Linda Brent, is self-evident.  Given how few slaves were taught to read and write, and how few had the capacity to actually record their experiences, Jacobs’ story is a historical treasure.  Incidences in the Life of a Slave Girl is a first-person narrative of what it was actually like to be a slave in America before the Civil War ended that practice permanently (at least in the United States).  Jacobs, in fact, in the preface to her memoir, takes the time to inform the reader of her purpose in writing this autobiography:

“Reader be assured this narrative is no fiction. . .I was born and reared in Slavery; and I remained in a Slave State twenty-seven years. Since I have been at the North, it has been necessary for me to work diligently for my own support, and the education of my children. This has not left me much leisure to make up for the loss of early opportunities to improve myself; and it has compelled me to write these pages at irregular intervals, whenever I could snatch an hour from household duties.”

“I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself; on the contrary, it would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history. Neither do I care to excite sympathy for my own sufferings. But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is.”

Unlike adults captured and transported across the Atlantic in chains, Jacobs, as she states, was born into slavery.  For the first two decades-plus of her life, slavery was the only existence she knew, and her memoir is a journey through childhood and into adulthood that few other first-person records of slavery can hope to match.  As such, it provides the reader insights and observations from multiple perspectives – those of a child and those of an adult. 

If Jacob’s memoir fails, it is in the almost preternaturally benign environment in which she spent the first decade of her life as slave.  While the institution and practice of slavery was obviously an abomination, young Harriet’s family actually had it fairly well, their owner a kind woman who treated them well and taught Harriet to read and write.  The memoir, consequently, takes a turn towards the worse when their owner dies: “When I was nearly twelve years old, my kind mistress sickened and died.”  This is hardly the kind of description one expects to read of a slave-owner, but Harriet recognized her good fortune relative to many others in her situation.  It is telling that, after her owner’s death, Harriet remembers how “[m]y mistress had taught me the precepts of God's Word: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’.”

As her story progresses, however, the indignities and brutalities associated with slavery become more apparent, even though Harriet herself was spared the worst of it in that she was not beaten or whipped.  Nevertheless, hers is an insightful narrative of a life lived in forced captivity at the pleasure of others.  That she would eventually escape to the North and be reunited with her children provides a far happier ending than slave narratives normally provide.  The significance in her story, however, resides in its importance as a first-person history of slavery and in her indictment of the treatment of women at the hands of the opposite sex.

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karenwalcott's profile pic

karenwalcott | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was significant because it allowed its readers to experience the trials and travails of a female slave in America during a 20 + year period. The reader sees Harriet Jacob experience childhood in slavery, as well as in young adulthood and maturity. They see how Ms. Jacobs is constantly at the mercy of the sexual predations of her master and other men in her life. They also witness her anguish at seeing her own children enslaved.

naha's profile pic

naha | eNotes Newbie

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the quest for freedom; pain and suffering (physical and emotional); self-definition; self-assertion; community support and family loyalty (generally lacking in slave narratives by men); and writing as a means of freedom, self-expression, and resistance. Also significant is the issue of literacy, which was often used as a metaphor for freedom, because slaves who learned to read and write were often the ones who ran away. Note, for example, that the letters Linda writes while hiding in her grandmother's garret play an important part in her eventual escape.

Other themes include the moral conflict between slavery and Christianity, color prejudice and racism, the bond of motherhood, family loyalty, and abandonment.

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