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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 21 - 30


In Chapter 18 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does Aunt Martha's faith in humanity save Linda Brent?

With nowhere to go Linda claims that God "raised up 'a friend in need." A woman who visits Aunt Martha by chance turns out to be a "kind benefactress." She asks Martha to trust her. Aunt Martha looks at her "earnestly" and finds that "something in expression of her face said 'Trust me!' and she did trust her." The benefactress offers to conceal Linda until an opportunity arises for her to escape North as long as her name remains secret. This signifies a turning point for Linda's escape and helps her to be more trusting, an issue with which she understandably struggles.

In Chapter 28 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what does the drama surrounding Nancy's burial reveal about Mrs. Flint and the institution of slavery?

Nancy's burial incites a conflict between her owner and her family: Which has the right to inter her mortal remains? Who has the greater claim to grieve her loss? In this event Nancy's family—that is, Aunt Martha—prevails, but along the way Mrs. Flint is revealed as callous and selfish, and the power relations of slavery are also revealed. During Nancy's life her mistress Mrs. Flint treated her "with cruel selfishness." Upon Nancy's death Mrs. Flint turns "very sentimental"; she now wants Nancy buried in the Flint family plot. Brent imagines that Mrs. Flint pictures her sentimental gesture as "a beautiful illustration of the attachment existing between slaveholder and slave, if the body of her old worn-out servant [is] buried at her feet." Mrs. Flint's gesture is selfish; burial with the Flints would separate Nancy from her real family. When Mrs. Flint asks a clergyman if he objects to burying a slave in the Flints' plot, he answers that perhaps Nancy's mother might have some say in where her own daughter is buried. Aunt Martha is consulted and her wishes honored, but as if on a whim. Martha has a strong emotional claim on Nancy but little power; Mrs. Flint has a weak, illusory, sentimental bond with Nancy but all the institutional and legal power. The role of the clergyman as advocate of the enslaved family subtly subverts the church's conventional role as upholder of the institution of slavery.

In Chapter 28 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does Linda Brent use two contrasting perspectives to describe Nancy's funeral?

Linda offers several perspectives on Nancy's funeral, two of which are in direct contrast: She imagines how Northern travelers might view what they see as they drive past the cemetery; in the slaveholders' attendance at the funeral, they would see a "tribute of respect to the humble dead" and "a touching proof of the attachment between slaveholders and their servants." The Northerners' view is illusion. She speculates on a different narrative that the slaves could have told the Northerners; in heightened rhetoric and in the first person plural, she writes, "We could have told them a different story ... that would have touched their hearts, if they had any hearts to feel for the colored people." Linda uses verbal irony in this second perspective; the story that the slaves "could have told" is in fact the story she is telling her readers, a story that she hopes touches readers' hearts. Also implied in the phrase "could have told" is the idea that they were not asked. This account also reveals Linda's narrative strategy: her story is not a contrast between the Northerners' sentimental illusions about happy Southern slaves on the one hand and the former slave's cold, miserable truth on the other. Instead this telling of the "life of a slave girl" is also emotionally charged; Brent stakes her call to action on a narrative that touches readers' hearts. She offers the response that innumerable other enslaved families would have liked to share.

As depicted in Chapter 29 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, why does Aunt Martha struggle with Linda Brent's departure for the North?

During Linda Brent's time in the garret, Aunt Martha avoids the subject of her leaving. Instead Martha begs her granddaughter to contact Dr. Flint about freeing her, offering to pay any price. Whenever Linda talks about her escape to Martha, Martha recalls her son's capture and imprisonment. Because Linda and Benjamin are so close in age Aunt Martha could feel like Linda is her daughter, just as Linda feels Benjamin is her brother. Before Linda's departure a runaway slave is murdered, and the death rocks Aunt Martha to her core. Typically a symbol of calm patience, Martha weeps and moans. Brent finds her terror "contagious." In contrast to Linda's narrative which often invokes themes of death as release, Martha fears losing Linda to death and would rather keep her hidden, but safe, than to risk her death.

Considering Chapter 4 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what is Benjamin's role in Linda Brent's life?

Linda Brent refers to Benjamin's heart as her "pure, sunny spot." She uses the image of light here to represent their hopes of freedom, which contrast with their present situation. "A spirit too bold and daring for a slave," as Brent describes him, Benjamin bonds with Linda over cursing their lot. Benjamin escapes, is imprisoned, and is bought by a slave trader, then escapes again. This time he is helped by a white man and safely reaches New York. His flight foreshadows Linda's own; she will, similarly, be helped by a kind white person, her "benefactress," who helps Linda in her long journey toward freedom.

In Chapter 5 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, for what purpose does Linda Brent address the reader?

When exposing the trials of girlhood, Linda Brent addresses the reader in three different passages. Linda tells the reader that if "you" believe only half of what she tells you about slavery, "you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke." Without yet having described to her readers the "degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery," she instructs readers that these will move them to abolish slavery. After sharing her experiences of sexual harassment, Linda tells her Northern women readers that she doesn't want sympathy for herself; after all, she has escaped those conditions. She writes to elicit compassion for all female slaves. Linda addresses readers in a call to action, appealing to Northerners to change the system. She confronts their silence and holds them accountable.

In Chapter 4 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does Benjamin express his unbreakable personality?

Benjamin's character seems to personify the unbreakable life force that oppression, chains, and bars can't extinguish. After Benjamin is captured, he is led through town and made an example of. In prison his chains are eventually removed and he is allowed visitors. Then after three months someone reports Benjamin singing and laughing, and his jailers chain him again and move him to a different cell. He removes his chains and asks someone to deliver them to his master. As punishment he receives bigger chains and is forbidden to have visitations. Benjamin doesn't leave on his terms, but he makes the best of his imprisonment and finally escapes North.

In Chapter 6 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, why does Jacobs choose to set Mrs. Flint's confrontation with Linda Brent as a scene, not a summary?

Jacobs uses a scene to display Mrs. Flint's acknowledgment of her husband's plan for Linda Brent to sleep in his room. Instead of saying, for instance, "Mrs. Flint is angry," readers see her face change colors and hear her bawl and moan. Instead of hearing her ask Linda to swear on the Bible, readers see her make Linda put her hand on her heart, kiss the book, and vow to God that she will be honest. The extremity of the mistress's demand shows both Mrs. Flint's doubt in Linda's intentions and her desperation over the possibility of her husband's infidelity.

As shown in Chapter 13 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what is the effect of asking Northern women to imagine themselves in the South?

After sketching portraits of several slaveholders, Linda Brent ends the chapter by addressing her imagined reader, a Northern woman. She invites the Northern woman onto a Southern plantation, telling her to pose as a slave trader. She says, "Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls." The passage shakes up any Northern woman who might be reading Linda Brent's autobiography for the idle pleasure of temporarily imagining what it's like to be a slave. Although it is natural to bond emotionally with a story's protagonist (even in the case of a true story), the invitation to pose as a slave trader reminds Northern women of their power and position. And although the author asks her readers to imagine something counter-factual, the promised result is not a few hours' entertainment, as a novel might provide, but a truth revealed, that of the true conditions of slavery.

As described in Chapter 13 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how do Dr. Flint's and Linda Brent's views of religion differ?

After Dr. Flint's foul words pollute Linda Brent's mind, she reminds her master that he is a member of the church. He says because of his age and social position, religious attendance is expected of him; he has no desire for a relationship with God. Linda reflects on the hypocrisy of his response; she has suffered the master's cruelest treatment during his "Christian" life. When he offers to make her "as virtuous as [his] wife," she tells him the Bible does not support his words. In response he curses her and reminds her she has no rights, compounding his hypocrisy.

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