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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

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

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The central theme of this book which is very different from the majority of slave narratives is the experience of slavery from the point of view of slave women. This is what makes this account so different. Jacobs argues throughout that slavery as experienced by women is much more harsh and terrible than slavery experienced by male slaves:

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.

She proves her argument through the presentation of her own life and the way that she has to cope with not only the "burden common to all" slaves but also the horrendous experience of being used sexually, and having absolutely no opportunity to resist such treatment. One of the most ethically troubling sections of this narrative is when she anticipates criticisms that her readers will have of her submitting to this situation and she defends herself by stating that her audience of presumably mostly white readers, whom she calls "virtuous reader" with perhaps an element of mockery, has never had to face the reality of her situation, where she is "entirely subject to the will of another." This account raises deeply troubling questions about the pragmatism of morality in deeply disturbing situations such as slavery, and also one person's ability to judge another if they themselves have not experienced that situation. 

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What are the themes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

The most important theme of this powerful account of life as a female slave is the inhumanity of slavery. Jacobs takes great pains to ensure that those who practise slavery cannot be viewed as benevolent in anyway, as she argues that slavery is so toxic it ruins the sense of right and wrong that those who own slaves have. The complete and total power that slave owners have result in their unrestrained behaviour with no legal barriers or censure. This can be seen in those owners who are depicted as better than others, such as Mr. Sands. Note the way that he promises to free his children, but yet during a time of financial hardship the temptation to sell them and profit through their sale is too great.

Of course, it is not just slave owners who suffer from slavery, and much of Jacobs' narrative concerns the impact of slavery on the slaves themselves. One of the recurring themes of this account is the way that slavery is worse for women than for men, as Jacobs says:

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 is of course highlighted by one of the most powerful passages in the book when Jacobs reveals how she consented to have sex with her master. She states that unless a woman has occupied the same hardships and position of having no power as she has, they are not able to judge her. For the slaves, Jacobs argues, slavery is damaging because it prevents them from fully developing as humans.

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