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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

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In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what is the author's main purpose?

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Harriet Jacobs's purpose in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is to expose how awful life as a slave is for women specifically. She wants to reach other women who are free and show them how terrible slavery is so that they will be opposed to it.

Much literature about slaves during slavery in America focused on the experiences of men. Jacobs, a former slave, was able to focus on the burden it placed on women as well as the unique experiences that female slaves had. She tells her readers at the beginning of the book that she hasn't exaggerated because her purpose is to make the readers understand that everything she says is true. Many people were not exposed to the cruelties of slavery and may have otherwise convinced themselves that she was exaggerating.

Once Jacobs has exposed the cruelty of slavery for women, she wants to convince other women to rally against it. She asks them to empathize with the women who still live in slavery. To help them do so, she contrasts their lives as free women against the lives of the women who aren't free.

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The main purpose of this text is to inform the reader of the true horrors of slavery, but with a specific focus on the experience of slavery from a woman's perspective. What is interesting about this account is the way that Jacobs distinguishes her work from other accounts of slavery which were, in the main, male dominated. Although her account opens with the desire to communicate accurately the experience of being a slave, it becomes clear later on in the text that Jacobs seeks to communicate something that other slavery accounts have not explored: the position of women and their unique experience of slavery. Note how this is signposted in Chapter 14:

Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.

This then is the clear purpose of Jacobs in this text, and this helps the reader to understand her focus on the compromises that Jacobs is forced into, for example, being used for sex by various individuals. The overwhelming argument of the book is to present the full helplessness of female slaves and to argue that they need to be judged by a different moral code than white women because of the complete lack of power and position they have in society. Note the argument that Jacobs presents in this quote; she acknowledges that slavery is a "burden common to all," but then goes on to argue that female slaves have added complications that are unique to them, making their position even more difficult. This text then offers a crucial female perspective on slavery.

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