A Slave Girl Essay, Research Paper
Harriet Jacobs in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl uses clear detail and straightforward language, except when talking about her sexual history, to fully describe what it is like to be a slave. Jacobs says that Northerners only think of slavery as perpetual bondage; they don’t know the depth of degradation there is to that word. She believes that no one could truly understand how slavery really is unless they have gone through it. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl do not only tell about the physical pains and hard labor that she went through. It mostly concentrates on the emotional viewpoints on it and what it did to shape who she is. When writing her story, Jacobs had a clear motive. Her motive was one of a political taking. She writes through her experiences and sufferings to make it clear to people, mainly the Northerners, and more specifically white women in the North, how slavery really is. She does not want sympathy, however, she does want “to arouse the women in the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women of the South, still in bondage” (460). Jacobs wants people to take action in antislavery efforts. Jacobs in telling her story uses many techniques to make it effective. Some of the techniques that she uses are dealing with the use of her language, her selections of incidents and details, and her method of addressing an audience.
Harriet Jacobs tells her story by breaking it down into sections according to different important aspects of her life. In doing this, each section is described vividly to give the reader a full effect and greater understanding of how it was to be treated as property. Like was said before Jacobs does not want sympathy. Jacobs would have
rather not told her story, but she believes it is important to in order to try to help people get involved in antislavery efforts. Her story is mainly for political reasons. She brings up many important issues concerning slavery, even forbidden topics that some people, mainly white people, would rather not bring up. For instance, the topic of sexual abuse of slave women is a topic that was not usually publicly discussed. Jacobs is troubled and ashamed of her sexual history, however, she talks about it in a way that politicizes it. She presents it as a public political concern; this was not usual in conventional nineteenth century polite discourse. She wants to cover all ground and issues concerning slavery.
Jacobs tries to speak out to the women in the North by talking about motherhood and sexual behavior, things they can relate to. She talks about her children and the unfortunate death of one of them. Losing a child is one of the most horrible things that could happen to a mother. Jacobs talks about this painful occurrence to strike the hearts and mothering nature of white women. Why does she want to reach to the hearts of these women? Maybe it is because Jacobs says that no one could really understand the seriousness of slavery unless they have gone through it. So, in order to have people understand her she had to find people that could relate to her and that she could relate to so that her point could be better understood. So, she talks out to women because what happened to her with her child could possibly happen to them, and it strikes a special place in a mother’s heart. Jacobs wanted the white women in the North to feel how horrible it must be for a mother to lose her child. She couldn’t try to relate to the men because they don’t go through the same experiences as women do.
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs does not use her real name. Instead she uses Linda Brent. By doing this Jacobs separates “life and narrative, a person and a person rendered on the page, between the experience of slavery and the conventional ways of telling the story of slavery” (497). This helps the story concentrate more on the political purpose rather then the personal story. This technique casts her as part of a community of persecuted people rather than just a person with a sad, incredible story. It lets readers know and realize that this is happening to not only her but also many of her people.
Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in a way that showed her evolution from a child to a poorly educated slave girl/ young adult to a well-established free black woman. As she grew older from a child to a young lady things started to change and things started to get harder. Jacobs wanted to show how her life got more difficult as the years went by. She also wanted to show Northerners that slaves aren’t property, they are human beings just like them and go through changes like they do. Throughout Jacobs story you could see that family was a big part in her life and the reader sees how she shows love for them. However, the reader also sees how the bonds of family who loved each other dearly were broken due to slavery.
Jacobs not only talks about relationships with family, she also talks of the relationship with her master and also with his wife. However, she does not descriptively entail what her master did to her sexually. She is disturbed and ashamed of it. Her technique of just hinting at her master’s acts is a way of conveying that. Using detail may hinder the full effect of it. By the way she did it, it lets the readers infer and possibly
think of the worse possible thing that he could have done to her, which conveys how the situation was and how she felt.
In the story, Jacobs tells of how slavery not only made slaves unhappy, but also made the owners unhappy, especially the wives of the slave owners. The master’s wife was jealous of Harriet because the master wanted Harriet sexually. Jacobs apologizes for her sexual behavior with her master, but she says that slave women should not be judged by the same standard as others. Jacobs uses sarcasm when saying “Pity me, and pardon me, o virtuous reader…” (490) to show how ashamed she is and show that it deeply bothers her. She also uses it to let the readers know that they have done things in their life that they are not proud of either, so why judge her on what she had done. Besides using sarcasm, Jacobs also uses standard abolitionist rhetoric and overwrought sentimental style, and also a combination of both.
Jacobs swore to herself that she would never engage in sexual acts with her master, however, she broke her promise to herself. By confessing to it, Jacobs shows how evil slavery was, whereby it could make a person give up their own integrity by choice and go against something they believe. This is something that a person has to live with for the rest of their lives, and this shows how degrading slavery is.
Harriet Jacobs uses the technique of apologizing to the readers over and over in the beginning of the text before she starts telling her story. She does this to show that even with her lack of higher education she still puts herself forth into public discussions because she feels it is very important to make her point and to try to get more people involved in the antislavery movement. This shows great dedication. She apologizes for
something that is not her fault and says it in a way that shows her lack of education was not by choice and that it was one of the effects of slavery. Jacobs tells the readers that she trusts they will excuse deficiencies because of her circumstances. This way she is directing readers to concentrate on her motives, not on her as an individual and not on her writing abilities. She furthermore points out that she did not write about her life-story for her own search for closure or comfort. She did it for a greater purpose; she did it to help her persecuted people, and this is what she wants the readers to be directed to.
When telling her story Jacobs had to form it into a literary representation for a white reading public. In order to do that her writings were subjected to linguistic codes and literary conventions. She had to write about an unconventional thing, slavery, in a conventional way. In doing so, the writings become transformed into something that doesn’t represent her slave culture. However, Jacobs believed that the topic of sexual abuse of slave women, which is an unconventional matter, should be brought forth into public discussions. She writes about her sexual history in a manner that politicizes it, which is unusual for someone to do during those times. Also, to try to keep a sense of slave culture within her telling of her life, in parts of the writings she talks in “slave language”. For example, she refers to God throughout her story, which reflects how God and faith were important aspects in a slave’s life and in their culture.
Throughout the story of Jacobs’ life, you can see that Jacobs does use many effective techniques to get her point across. Her story was very powerful and probably helped in the antislavery movement, therefore fulfilling her goal. In the end she is thought of as a “new kind of female hero” (497). She has gone through many hardships
and she “articulates her struggle to assert her womanhood” (497). Even with her lack of a higher education, she shows intelligence throughout her writing. She had her own way of getting her points across, one being that a person could not possibly fully understand the degradation of slavery if he/she did not go through it themselves. This is a point within itself because it further relays the fact that slavery was a very horrible, evil and degrading thing.