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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 | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the first sentence of Chapter 1 in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl establish the author's storytelling style?

In the first sentence, "I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away," Linda Brent shares the grim circumstance of her birth and simultaneously counts her blessings. She is grateful for her sheltered childhood, however brief. In the story of her later life she continues to acknowledge that many female slaves suffer worse conditions. In his small town, her master is a physician who cares about his reputation. Because Dr. Flint fears Linda's highly respected grandmother, known in town as Aunt Martha, Linda receives better treatment than many slaves, and Dr. Flint is the only one allowed to punish her. Throughout the book Brent continues to frame her own story in the context of other, worse fates, and in this way she adds other voices to her call to abolish slavery.

In Chapter 2 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in what way and for what purpose does Linda Brent create verbal irony in describing Mrs. Flint?

Some of Linda Brent's statements about Mrs. Flint have a second, opposite meaning. For example: Mrs. Flint, like many southern women, was totally deficient in energy. She had not strength to superintend her household affairs; but her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash. Linda's literal statement about Mrs. Flint's lack of energy for physical work highlights the fact that Mrs. Flint does not do the work of running her own household. For verbal irony the author contrasts the strength of Mrs. Flint's nerves, highlighting Mrs. Flint's indifference to the slaves' suffering. Using such verbal irony serves numerous purposes. It exposes her mistress's hypocrisy, criticizes other Southern slave-owning women, and reveals the narrator's intelligence and insightfulness.

In Chapter 3 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, for what purpose does Linda Brent contrast the lives of slave women and free Northern women?

Linda Brent contrasts two scenarios of death and motherhood in Chapter 3. Of Northern women's children she remarks, "They are your own, and no hand but that of death can take them from you." She contrasts this image with that of a slave mother waiting on New Year's Day to learn if her children will be torn from her and wishing that "she and they might die before the [next] day dawns." She supports the slave scenario with the image of a mother whose seven children are sold to a slave trader. The woman walks the street yelling, "Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me?" Through the juxtaposition of images of slave women and free Northern women, Linda elicits sympathy from her target audience through the pathos of motherhood.

In Chapter 4 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what is significant about the miracle Benjamin encounters in Baltimore?

While fleeing New Orleans, Benjamin falls ill and stops in Baltimore for several weeks. His master's neighbor sees him on the street and recognizes him. Benjamin fears the worst. Instead, however, the man is kind and solicitous. He informs Benjamin that others from their town are visiting Baltimore and advises him to leave town soon. He also says he will let Martha know he saw him, a promise he keeps. A slaveholder, he treats Benjamin with ordinary human decency, but as Brent writes, "That man was a miracle." Brent's heightened language emphasizes how very rarely such decency is found in the system of slavery.

Based on the description in Chapter 6 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does being part of a community help Linda Brent avoid Dr. Flint's advances?

Linda Brent uses Dr. Flint's respectable position to her advantage. To avoid his advances she at first pretends that she doesn't understand his words and signs. Unfortunately Dr. Flint catches her writing one day and begins slipping her secret notes; when Linda tries to say she can't read them, he recites them to her slowly. Linda manages to elude him by remaining in plain sight during the day, since she knows he would not want others to know how he preys on her. At night she relies on her own close-knit community; she finds emotional and physical protection by sleeping next to her Aunt Nancy. To emphasize that community is important to her survival, Linda says, "How often did I rejoice that I lived in a town where all the inhabitants knew each other!"

In Chapter 9 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, for what purpose does Linda Brent employ images of death?

Images such as the following expose the cruelty of slavery at its worst and demonstrate how slavery corrupts white slaveholders and their wives: James, a little boy who is captured when he runs away, is whipped and stuck in a cotton gin. After five nights, the gin is opened and it is discovered that rats are eating James's dead body. The husband of the so-called "humane slaveholder" fathers many slave children, a moral affront to his wife. Knowing that her husband has "violated the purity she had so carefully inculcated," the humane slaveholder dies "peacefully, glad to close her eye on a life ... made so wretched by the man she loved." Linda Brent describes these deaths with great pathos in the hope that Northern women will be moved to work to abolish slavery.

What argument for literacy does the author make in Chapter 13 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

In Chapter 13 Linda Brent describes how Uncle Fred asks her to teach him to read. He wants to be closer to God through reading the Bible. Brent warns him of the dangers. Then, inspired by his "happy smile," she instructs him three times a week. After six months he can read the New Testament and find any text in the book. Through the depiction of this good man and the innocent, spiritual use to which he puts his reading, Linda makes an appealing case for permitting slaves to be literate. Of Uncle Fred she writes, "There are thousands, who, like good uncle Fred, are thirsting for the water of life; but the law forbids it, and the church withholds it."

What is the significance of the songs described in Chapter 13 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

Chapter 13 gives examples of slave hymns and a church hymn; they serve to comfort and inspire the singers. About slave hymns Brent says slaves "never seem so happy as when [they're] shouting and singing at religious meetings." Many are illiterate and the songs enable them to express themselves. In addition, when Brent recounts how Dr. Flint berates her for "preach[ing]" to him about religion, she uses a scrap of song as commentary for her readers: "Ole Satan's church is here below;/Up to God's free church I hope to go." At a Methodist meeting Linda Brent sits next to a mourning mother. The town constable coldly chuckles at her misery. After her outburst the meeting continues, and the congregation sings the church hymn as if they are as "free as the birds" that sing around them.

In Chapter 4 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, why does Linda Brent give Benjamin her pin?

The pin shows the bond between the two characters. Before Benjamin flees, his mother meets him at Aunt Martha's. Linda begs Benjamin to stay. He refuses, cursing slavery, which dehumanizes him and other slaves as "dogs ... foot-balls, cattle, every thing that's mean." Angry, Linda yells at him to leave and "break your mother's heart." Mention of Aunt Martha, someone who sees the positive in everything, softens Benjamin. Brent regrets her outburst. The two of them have always connected over the injustice of their lot. Before he disappears Linda attaches her pin, the most valuable thing she owns, to his lapel. When Benjamin is sick in Baltimore, he sells most of his belongings but keeps her gift, a sign of their bond.

What purposes does the editor's introduction serve in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

The editor's introduction bolsters the the book's claim to authenticity by having an educated white woman vouch for the truth of the former slave's story. Editor L. Maria Child assures the audience that she has "no reason for changing [Linda Brent's] lively and dramatic way of telling her own story." Child offers reasons to trust Linda Brent and herself: Brent has lived with an affluent family in New York for 17 years, and these white Northern people respect her. Although the story's character names are fictionalized, Child knows the real people and places; thus she can vouch that the story is true. Addressing people who might think a slave would lack the writing skill evident in the following pages, Child credits Linda Brent's gift to "quick perceptions," the mistress who taught her to read and write at a young age, and her "favorable circumstances" in the North.

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