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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 11 - 20


As described in Chapter 11 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, why and how does Dr. Flint punish William?

When Linda Brent reveals she is pregnant, she is sent to live with Aunt Martha. Dr. Flint is vexed that his property has a romantic interest of her own. He takes his anger out on Linda's brother William, punishing him in Linda's place. When William fails to arrive at work "so early as usual" one day, Dr. Flint jails him. In response William sends a slave trader to Dr. Flint, asking Dr. Flint to sell William. The doctor is angry at William for his "insolence" and keeps him in jail for another two days. William is more than just a convenient substitute target for Dr. Flint's rage at Linda. Because William and Linda are siblings, Dr. Flint can assume that Linda will learn what he does to William, so that his anger will reach its true target eventually.

In Chapter 4 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does Linda Brent create verbal irony to describe Mrs. Flint's punishment?

Mrs. Flint is a cruel slaveholder who does not provide adequate clothing to her slaves. Aunt Martha, however, thoughtfully buys Linda Brent a new pair of shoes in February. Shortly after, the creaking sound of Linda's walking aggravates Mrs. Flint's "refined nerves." The mistress makes Linda remove the shoes, then sends her on a long errand in the snow, barefoot. Linda uses verbal irony to describe a woman who can be sensitive to noise but not to the discomfort of a human. Previously, she says, she had imagined that if something bad happened to her, her mistress would feel "a twinge of remorse." Again using verbal irony she refers to this notion as "extravagant imaginings."

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, who offers to buy Linda Brent, and why does Dr. Flint refuse to sell her?

Knowing how unhappy Linda Brent is at the Flints', several people offer to purchase her. They include Aunt Martha, who wants to purchase all her children; Linda's lover, who wants to marry her; and Mr. Sands, the father of her children. Dr. Flint, however, refuses to sell Linda because she does not "belong" to him. He claims, "She is my daughter's property, and I have no right to sell her." In saying this he hides behind a corrupt law that favors slavery. Dr. Flint often tells Linda that he'll never sell her, but the fact is he values revenge and pride over money.

In Chapter 2 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how is the silver candelabra significant?

Aunt Martha works hard to save her money, "trusting in time" she'll be able to purchase her children. Having faith in her mistress's honor, she loans her 300 dollars. Promising to repay her, her mistress buys herself a silver candelabra. Brent explains to the reader that such a promise to a slave, verbal or written, is not legally binding because "according to Southern laws, a slave, being property, can hold no property." Upon her mistress's death Martha tries to collect payment from Dr. Flint, who calls the estate "insolvent" and claims "the law prohibit[s] payment." However, as Brent notes, that same law "[does] not, however, prohibit him from retaining the silver candelabra, which had been purchased with that money." Thus her grandmother's hard-earned money, intended to benefit her own family by purchasing their freedom, ends up purchasing for her owners a luxury item that Brent "presume[s] ... will be handed down in the family, from generation to generation."

As described in Chapter 1 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does Linda Brent's first experience with betrayal affect her personal journey?

After her mother's death Linda is sent to live with her mother's mistress, who teaches her to read and write. There, she writes, her heart is "as free from care as that of any free-born white child." Linda's mistress promises Linda's dying mother that her children will "never suffer for anything." After her mistress dies Linda discovers that despite her mother's "faithful service," she has been given to her mistress's niece, a child. Of this betrayal Linda writes, "I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong." She struggles to trust others after this incident.

As portrayed in Chapter 16 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what do the slaves hope for from Mrs. Flint's arrival, and why is it significant?

Most of the slaves hope the presence of the bride will improve their conditions, and they even expect she will bring them "little gifts." Linda Brent has reason to doubt and does not share their "merry" mood. She has heard that "young wives of slaveholders often thought their authority and importance would be best established and maintained by cruelty." While the weekly allowances of food are doled out, the new mistress attends to "see how things [are] done on her plantation." She denies food to an old slave, thus revealing her monstrous character and offering a glimpse of the slaves' grim futures.

As seen in Chapter 16 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does Ellen's unhappiness emphasize the dilemma of slave mothers?

Slave mothers tried to protect their children and keep their families together although they had no real control over the children. In Chapter 16 readers learn of Ellen's struggles with her new life at the plantation. At Aunt Martha's she was carefully tended to. Now she is neglected for hours. Shocked by the drastic change from Martha's home to the plantation, Ellen wanders the property and cries herself to sleep. Linda describes her daughter sitting "under the window where I was at work, crying that weary cry that make a mother's heart bleed." After finding Ellen sick and sleeping under the house, Linda sends her daughter to Aunt Martha's on a cart of shingles the following day. Mr. Flint reprimands Linda, saying she should have sought permission first, but Linda gets her own way. This is one of the incidents that ultimately compels her to run away for the safety of her children.

Why is Linda Brent's inclusion of the monetary value of slaves important in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?

Linda's disclosure of the specific monetary values of slaves is a jarring element in the narrative. In Chapter 1 Linda records the first of the book's many sales: her 10 year-old Uncle Benjamin for 720 dollars. Linda mentions exactly how much slaves are valued monetarily to show how dehumanizing it is to be treated like property. The dehumanization is highlighted when prices are fixed to characters the reader has come to know and like, or to an underage relative of the narrator and main character, Linda. Slaveholders used prices to acquit themselves of any other obligation, such as a moral obligation to recognize a slave's lifetime of service. Readers see this in the account of "the old black woman [who] was left to be sold to any body who would give twenty dollars for her."

As described in Chapter 16 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, why are Linda Brent's trips into town significant?

Of her trips Linda writes, "It must be at night, after every body [is] in bed." Terrified, she walks briskly. When she reaches Aunt Martha's, her family gathers around her in "light," which contrasts with the "dreary" road. The trips afford her pleasures forbidden to slaves: autonomy, freedom of movement, and reunion with her family. The trips also expose her to the real terrors of capture during an attempted flight to freedom. These trips are like dress rehearsals for her approaching escape to the North. On these nighttime walks, she contemplates ways for her family to escape. At Martha's, gazing at her sleeping children, her reason for fleeing is reinforced.

How does William's lesson in obedience as described in Chapter 2 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl affect his later journey?

When his father and his mistress beckon William at the same time, William hesitates, not knowing whom to answer. After he favors his mistress, his father scolds him, "You are my child." He demands him to come if he calls, even "if you have to pass through fire and water." This shows how William's life as a slave is complicated. He struggles with choosing between family and master. While Dr. Flint employs him, he witnesses the doctor berating his sister and he weeps bitterly. When Dr. Flint makes him carry evil messages to Linda, he asks if she hates him for doing so. This turmoil tortures him and, undoubtedly, leads to his rebellion.

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