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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

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Compare and contrast Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Frederick Douglass's An American Slave.

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"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a slave narrative written by Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive slave from North Carolina. First published in 1861, the book details Jacobs's life as a young woman and her eventual escape from slavery. The autobiography includes vivid descriptions of her family life and the unique challenges that she faced as a slave, including repeated sexual attacks by her master."

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There are many comparisons between Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. This is to be expected, as both were written to expose the horrors of slavery to a Northern readership. Both stress the brutality of slavery, describing in detail the physical punishment and degradation that enslaved people received at the hands of white masters, overseers, and, in Jacobs's case, mistresses. Both Jacobs and Douglass learned to read at a relatively young age, a fact that set them apart from many other enslaved people. Both therefore emphasize the importance of education. Both point to the terrible effects that slavery has on enslaved families. In the end, both come from the same genre of literature—the slave narrative—that was intended to rally support for the abolitionist cause.

But the most significant difference in the two narratives is that Jacobs, as a woman, points to the indignities and horrors that enslaved women were forced to endure. Dr. Flint, her lascivious owner, is constantly attempting to sexually assault her. This, of course, is horrific, but the young girl is also forced to endure the sometimes violent scorn of Flint's jealous wife, who believes that the doctor has been successful in his attempts and holds Linda (Jacobs's name in the book) responsible despite, or perhaps because of, her helplessness. In this way, Jacobs not only relates her own experiences, but appeals to contemporary white middle-class notions of femininity. Her victimization was outrageous to both male and female readers, and she portrayed it as almost ubiquitous among slave societies. In one especially grim passage, she described a young enslaved girl, impregnated by her master, whose wife mocked her amid a fatal childbirth:

I once saw a young slave girl dying soon after the birth of a child nearly white. In her agony she cried out, "O Lord, come and take me!" Her mistress stood by, and mocked at her like an incarnate fiend. "You suffer, do you?" she exclaimed. "I am glad of it. You deserve it all, and more too."

In this way, Jacobs illustrates a layer of horror to slavery that Douglass alludes to but cannot know, as he is a man.

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One of the most significant differences between these two narratives is the writer's approach to his or her audience, respectively.

Douglass, known as a strong orator and keen intellectual, uses logic and reason in his narrative to prove his points. The narrative is mostly void of emotional appeals or descriptive language; rather, Douglass relies on critical reasoning to expose the anti-Christian and dehumanizing horrors of slavery. His argument is political: he is appealing to abolitionists on an intellectual, rational level.

Jacobs, on the other hand, uses the tropes of the sentimental novel (which were written for female audiences) to appeal to her readers who are primarily women. She describes the anguish of being a mother separated from her children, the vulnerability of the female slave's body in relation to her master, and her primary values of family and motherhood. While she follows the familiar slave narrative story of bondage to escape to freedom, she infuses the male-dominated form with issues specific to her gender. Incredibly conscious of her Northern female white readers, Jacobs details the many ways in which she is preyed upon.

Thus, there exists a clear gender divide between these two narratives, a divide that Jacobs makes use of. Knowing that her narrative needs to stand out from a male-dominated genre, she uses her gender as an asset in the telling of her story.

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Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) both have elements of the conventional fugitive slave narrative. Both authors recount their horrific experiences as slaves and their escape northward. The authors also explain how they came to be literate in order to counter proslavery arguments that their narratives were not authentic. Finally, they prove themselves devout Christians who expose the hypocrisies of their supposedly religious southern slave masters.

However, their narratives differ both in style and substance. Douglass, a rousing orator, writes with rhetorical flourishes that he used on the lecture circuit, including repetition and allusions to Biblical stories. Jacobs, on the other hand, uses the style of the popular women's domestic novel to stress her commitment to family and home (this was also the style of the very popular Uncle Tom's Cabin). Douglass, a man, fights for his freedom and wins it, while Jacobs's story is more complicated. Having given birth to children with a white man of her choosing, she has to not only fight for her own freedom but also that of her children. Hence, her path to freedom is different and in some ways more complicated than that of Douglass.

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As noted in the above answer, both Jacobs and Douglass relay their stories as slaves in the American south.  As such, they are both similar in that they describe their relationships with the owners of the plantations on which they live, the way of life on the plantations, and the hardships that they struggled to endure.  However, Jacobs and Douglass employ quite different writing styles to tell their stories.  In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs more often breaks from the standard tone and style of the slave narrative and uses emotional language to convey events.  For example, in the chapter about the slaves' New Year's Day, the narrator explains that slave families were often broken because they were taken to the auction block at the start of the year.  The narrator then uses exclamation points and interjections to express the anguish that slave mothers felt when they were separated from their children.  In contrast, Douglass does not use this type of language in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  His tone and style are much more objective (the only exception is the apostrophe in the middle of the narrative that explores Douglass' watching the ships in the harbour).  This is a major difference between the two narratives.

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