Compare Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass based upon the following central quotations from each narrative: “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women” (Jacobs) and “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man” (Douglass).

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jacobs's book focuses in several chapters upon an aspect of the slavery system that women were forced to experience and which, arguably, only the women subjected to it would be able to describe in visceral detail, as she does.

Early in the narrative, she gives an account of her own ancestry and the fact that her maternal grandmother was "the daughter of a planter in South Carolina." Later on, she elaborates on the behavior of the "masters" as a whole, and the complete normality under the slavery system of these men forcing themselves on the young enslaved women. Apart from having to endure this from the men, the young women would typically become the objects of a special hatred from the masters' wives—the obvious jealousy directed by the plantation mistresses against them because their husbands preferred to have sexual relations with the enslaved women rather than with their own wives.

This tragic situation was the secret history of slavery. It was ironic in the sense that "miscegenation," the mixing of the races, was in some sense viewed as the worst violation of the racial code, since it implied the possible "obliteration of the white race." Yet the practice of it by the slaveowners themselves was the rule rather than the exception. Jacobs says of her own experience with the master, Dr Flint:

O, what days and nights of fear and sorrow that man caused me.

In contrast, the quote from Douglass is a positive statement of the ability enslaved people such as himself had to overcome the system. Though Jacobs ultimately has the same message, that the unjust system can't endure, those parts of her book dealing specifically with the experiences of women could not have been written with the same authenticity by Douglass or any other male, despite his own powerful and unsparing descriptions of the overall cruelty the system inflicted upon both men and women.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 28, 2020
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Harriet Jacobs and her “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and Frederick Douglass in his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” are two of the most significant works in a genre called fugitive slave narrative. They were written at a similar time; though Jacobs was hesitant to publish hers, Douglass wrote several versions of his story over several decades. Both of these former slaves managed to escape to the North and wanted to expose slavery for the evil thing it was. While they share that common theme in their writing, each of them has a unique perspective and voice which is reflected in their stories.  

Douglass says this:

You have seen how a man was mad a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.

This reveals two important things about his narrative. First, it is told from a man’s perspective, and second, he is the hero of his own story. His slave experience certainly demonstrates emotional aspects of his life, but it primarily recounts physical battles and victories. As a field slave, he was abused and beaten until he decided to stand up against his master who eventually sent him to Covey, a man whose job it is to “break” slaves.

During the first six months, of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me. 

Douglass eventually stands up to him and refuses to be broken, and that is when his journey to freedom really begins.

Douglass’s voice is much more polished than Jacobs’s, as he was a prolific speaker about his own story before he ever wrote his narrative. He has been empowered by his experience.

Jacobs, on the other hand, writes this:

Slavery is terrible for a man, but it is far more terrible for women.

Her narrative, then, is written from a woman’s perspective, and she is not a particularly heroic figure. Her story is a confession:

I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me.

In fact, she essentially moves from being a domestic slave in the South to being a domestic former slave in the North. While she certainly suffers physical abuse, her story is primarily an emotional one; because of the story she has to tell, her primary appeal is to women. She is ashamed of herself when writes about the compromises she had to make for the sake of her children and about her life as a sexual slave; however, she, like Douglass, takes a stand and refuses to let Doctor Flint to touch her. She, too, is empowered by this experience and is eventually able to leave.

Her voice is much more timid, even apologetic, than Douglass’s; in fact, it often reads like fiction because she “hides” true identities—including her own—in her story. She has been made fearful by her experience. 

Jacobs and Douglass simply write the female and male versions of slavery. The accounts tell equally of depravity and ugliness though they are different views of the same rotten institution. Like most who managed to escape the shackles of slavery, these two authors share a common bond of tenacity and authenticity. Their voices are different—one is timid, quiet, and almost apologetic while the other one is loud, strong, and confident—but they are both authentic. Jacobs is still rather searching for her identity as a free woman and a mother; Douglass knows just who he is: “a slave who was made a man.” She wants women to speak out against the oppression of other women, and he wants all men to do something to stop slavery. Both voices need to be heard.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial