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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Themes

This Study Guide consists of approximately 43 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
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Degradation Inherent to Slavery

Ms. Jacobs' narrative focuses less on the slaves' poor quality of life than on the dehumanizing nature of slavery itself.

The author does tell the reader about slaves who are starved, overworked, and forced to face the elements with inadequate clothing and shelter, but she leads one to believe that poor living conditions, however unfortunate, are not the most significant part of the problem, and that simply improving the slaves' physical living conditions will not make the institution of slavery less oppressive or less evil.

Many times, the author tells the reader that she believes it is better to be poor than to live as a slave—even as a comfortable, well-fed/clothed/housed slave. While she admits that poverty can severely limit a person's options (and expresses pity for the impoverished people she sees in Europe), she still believes that the poor individual, who cannot be bought and sold at auction, and who benefits from social institutions such as marriage that are protected by law, is more fortunate than any slave. The law also protects the freeborn person from battery, murder, and rape—protections often not available to slaves.

The narrator herself appears to have lived much more comfortably than most slaves. The poor white people who search her grandmother's home after the insurrection are envious of the level of comfort that Linda and her family enjoy. The reader is left with the impression that Linda never had to suffer from serious privations until after her escape, when she goes into hiding. As terrible as the living conditions in her hiding place were, she was never tempted to return to her comparatively comfortable life in slavery.

Home and Family

The quest for a home of one's own and a stable environment in which one can tend to the needs of one's family is always the primary goal of Linda and her grandmother.

Upon obtaining her freedom, Linda's grandmother, called "Aunt Marthy", establishes herself in a comfortable home and tries to create a stable home and base of support for her children, her grandchildren, and later her great-grandchildren. Aunt Marthy is free to leave and go to the free states, where she would likely suffer less from racial discrimination, but refuses to leave the small town where she has suffered under slavery while she still has family enslaved there. She does an admirable job of holding her family together considering the circumstances (all of her living descendants are somebody else's legal property), but is often frustrated at the hurdles Dr. Flint and others put in her way when she is only trying to look out for her family. She is finally able to purchase the freedom of Phillip, facilitate the purchase (and later emancipation) of Benny, Ellen, and William, and enable the escape of Linda.

Linda's primary motivation, much like that of her grandmother, is to keep her family together, provide a stable home for them, and make every effort to secure them a chance at future happiness. Although she defies all odds by freeing both herself and her children from slavery, moving with them to New York, finding herself acceptable employment, and providing a decent education to her children, Linda is still dissatisfied at the end of the book because she still does not have a home of her own and because she and her children are living separately.

This aspiration of home and family, as presented in this narrative, is largely a feminine one. While Benjamin and William free themselves from slavery at the first opportunity and have no strings to tie them down, Linda and her grandmother are forced to consider their family responsibilities before they take drastic action. The desire to serve the needs of their family keeps Linda and Aunt Marthy in the South for a long time (in the case of Linda, in abject circumstances) while the men in their family are free to pursue better lives for themselves on their own.

Gender

While the original audience of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl certainly saw it as a piece of abolitionist literature, modern viewers are likely to view it as a feminist work.

Ms. Jacobs adamantly believes that, while slavery is a horrible and evil thing for any human being of either gender, it is infinitely worse for women than it is for men. According to her, the female slave has to endure all of the sufferings of the male slave, on top of an entire class of sufferings that are specific to the woman slave. Most notably, that of sexual harassment and rape at the hands of her master or any other number of men who have absolute power over her (such as her overseer, or sons of her master).

Also, the women in the story appear to be burdened with responsibilities toward their family, and therefore have less freedom to look out for their own interests than their male relatives. While Benjamin and William both manage to escape with relative ease and no responsibility to anyone but themselves, Linda must look out for the best interests of her children in securing her own freedom. Her grandmother, whose freedom has been legally granted, nonetheless spends the rest of her life in the South trying to defend the interests of her family. Linda's Aunt Nancy is one of the most selfless characters in the book. She spends her entire life as a poorly treated slave in Dr. Flint's household. Whenever she can find time to get away from the Flints, she is actively offering her family whatever help she can. Aunt Nancy claims that getting her relatives safely to freedom and giving them stability is what she wants most in life, and doesn't appear to want anything for herself. Both of her brothers eventually obtain their freedom; however, Nancy, although a constant support to her family, is never able to escape slavery herself.

This section contains 989 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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