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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl | Study Guide

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl | Chapter 40 : The Fugitive Slave Law | Summary



After their business fails William leaves for California with Benny; Ellen enjoys her boarding school and continues to attend it. When Linda returns from Rochester she calls Mr. Bruce to visit Mary, and he suggests she care for his and his second wife's newborn. Linda, threatened by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, fears going outside. Passed in 1850 the law was a compromise between the northern and southern states that required northerners to cooperate with laws governing the capture and return of escaped slaves. Soon after it passes the first captured slave, Hamlin, is returned to the South. Fortunately William is not bound by the law, for his master was the one who brought him to the free states; but Linda is. When in public, she takes back streets. Every night Linda checks the newspapers for the announcement of visitors from the South.

Linda recounts a story of a slave from her town, Luke, who was badly beaten and abused by his bedridden master and the constable. Now Linda runs into Luke on the street, and he tells her he has fled a speculator. He explains she is even more at risk than he is, having run away from a master. He tells her how he put his master's money in his old trousers, so when the man passed away and Luke dressed his body and was given the pants, he pocketed the money which he used to escape.

When spring returns Linda receives warning that Dr. Flint plans another trip to New York to hunt her down. Linda informs the new Mrs. Bruce of her danger, who makes arrangements for Linda and lets her take the baby. This action protects Linda because if she is caught, the baby will be returned to the Bruces, giving the Bruces an opportunity to save Linda. "The noble heart! The brave heart!" Linda says of her employer.

Linda and the baby go to New England, where a senator's wife hides her. After a month she returns to New York with the baby.


Linda's freedom in the North is clouded by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, a "reign of terror" for the black population in the North. When she discusses the reactions to the law in the North she uses the repetition of many to heighten the horrors of this unjust law, its long reach, and the innocence of its victims: "many families, who had lived in the city for twenty years" and "many a poor washerwoman, who, by hard labor, had made herself a comfortable home" now must flee.

Luke's "theft" of his abusive master's money echoes Linda's aversion to paying for freedom. She asks the reader how a slave can possibly be expected to have more regard for honesty "than ... the man who robs him?" Readers are hard-pressed to disagree.

Mrs. Bruce's kindness to Linda is remarkable; she allows her own baby to be sent into hiding in order to protect her employee. She is a reminder to readers that while many whites have oppressed Linda, some others have helped her. Slavery, not the white race, is to blame for Linda's fears and suffering.

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