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 41 - 50


As shown in Chapter 18 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how do the Brents' chances for happiness rest on the whims of their owners?

To coax out information about Linda Brent, her family members Nancy, William, Benny, and Ellen are imprisoned. Ellen's measles go untreated, and she develops an eye infection. Sick, she is released with Nancy, whom Mrs. Flint cannot spare around the house. At the home of the Flints, Ellen is inconsolable and begs to be taken back to jail. Mrs. Flint, unable to stand the crying, makes her slave Bill walk Ellen back to jail. Of Ellen Mrs. Flint says, "If she would be quiet I should like to keep the little minx." If Ellen hadn't screamed, Mrs. Flint would have kept her as her daughter's waiting maid. Of this change of fate the author says, "I have always considered it as one of God's special providences that Ellen screamed till [she] was carried back to jail."

In Chapter 19 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what is the effect of adding supernatural elements to the story of the sale of Linda Brent's children?

On the night her children are sold, Linda Brent has a vision. As she sits near the window, a patch of moonlight illuminates the floor, and Linda sees Benny and Ellen. She panics, wondering what her vision could mean. Betty confirms, later, that her children are free. In this scene the symbolism of light and dark showcases Linda's happiness. Of her children's freedom she says, "The darkest cloud that hung over my life [has] rolled away." On the previous night the unexplained occurrence might have been a foreshadowing of the good news. Without knowing, Linda watches as the "darkest cloud" rolls "away," and moonlight—hope—shines through. The vision underscores the role that individual destiny plays in the liberation of slaves in this era.

In Chapter 9 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what purpose does superstition serve in the sketches of cruel slaveholders?

Brent includes five examples of violent masters. Two have supernatural incidents. Mr. Litch is afraid "to be alone after nightfall." Brent reasons that he "might have believed in ghosts." On his deathbed, often the site of repentance, Mr. Litch's brother says, "I am going to hell; bury my money with me." When he dies his eyes stay open. The injustices of these slave owners are troubling. Perhaps the supernatural touches associated with the brothers are meant to serve as cautionary tales for other slaveholders, who still have the potential for betterment. Their actions are punished, if not by humans, then by otherworldly forces.

In Chapter 16 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does the author describe Linda Brent's conflicting emotions?

In describing the scene with Aunt Martha, the author uses the repetition of sentences that begin with "perhaps" to signify the uncertainty of the transition ahead. Of Aunt Martha Linda Brent says, "Perhaps these were the last talks I should ever have with the faithful old friend of my whole life!" When she calls her grandmother a "friend," she expresses the depth of their family bond. The author also uses absent characters to show her emotions. Linda is comforted by recalling, as on many other days, the blessing her mother gave her when she died. Linda also visits the cemetery to seek her deceased father's blessing. Out of the "death-like stillness" Linda hears her father. He advises her to keep moving, so she hurries to begin her journey with "renovated hopes."

As indicated in Chapter 35 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what is the importance of Linda Brent's standing up for herself at the Pavilion?

In the dining hall a man says that Linda Brent, the only African American nurse, should move to the end of the table, feed Mary while standing behind her, and then eat in the kitchen after the other nurses finish. Linda refuses to eat there, and Mrs. Bruce orders their food to the room. Waiters and guests then complain. Linda demands equal treatment. Once people at the Pavilion realize she stands up for herself, they respect her. The chapter ends with a call to action which, unlike other such moments in the book, is addressed to "colored" people rather than Northern women: "Let every colored man and woman do this, and eventually we shall cease to be trampled under foot by our oppressors."

As displayed in Chapter 36 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, why is Mrs. Bruce's kindness to Ellen significant?

Mrs. Bruce's kindness to Ellen is significant because it both furthers Linda Brent's development of trust and leads to her freedom. After Ellen discovers Mr. Thorne sent Brent's address to Dr. Flint, Linda confides in Mrs. Bruce, who promises to protect Linda and arranges for her to leave town. In late October Ellen arrives in worn, out-of-season clothes to hide with her mother. Linda, fearing discovery, gives Ellen the clothes she is wearing. When Mrs. Bruce notices, she buys Ellen warm clothes. This kindness is significant because Mrs. Bruce, whom Linda has been reluctant to confide in due to her struggle with trust, goes beyond what she promises. A critical point in their female friendship, this kindness also furthers Linda on her journey to eventual freedom.

What special moment between Ellen and Linda Brent is described in Chapter 27 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and why is it special?

At Mr. Sands's suggestion Linda Brent sends Ellen to Brooklyn for care and schooling. Brent convinces Aunt Martha and Phillip to allow them to spend Ellen's last night together. Because Ellen was only two years old when Linda fled, she wants to give Ellen a memory of her in case anything happens. Linda tells Ellen to be good. She asks Ellen to pray for her and to pray that they will be reunited. Linda says the "moments [are] too precious to lose any of them" and vows not to sleep. When she kisses Ellen's forehead during a silence, Ellen murmurs that she's awake. This shows how tender the moment is to both characters, showing that the deep connection of family can endure a separation.

As described in Chapter 20 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, why does Linda Brent respond as she does to Snaky Swamp?

The fact that Linda Brent is willing to endure the presence of snakes shows her desperation. While Phillip builds a hiding place, Linda hides in Snaky Swamp during the day with Peter. Because of the poisonous bite Linda received earlier, snakes terrify her. They have come to represent her anxieties about capture. There are so many snakes slithering around in the swamp that Linda and Peter have to beat them away with sticks. When Linda must return to Snaky Swamp the second day, she barely summons the courage to rise, but she says "even those large, venomous snakes were less dreadful to my imagination than the white men in that community called civilized." This comparison of the "civilized" white men of her community to venomous and terrifying snakes re-emphasizes not just Linda's personal fear of snake bites, but the deeper fear of the systemic injustice of her everyday life.

As portrayed in Chapter 17 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does a disagreement between Linda Brent and Sally demonstrate the power of motherhood?

When Linda Brent flees she trusts her grandmother's housemate Sally with her secret. Sally begs Linda to stay because Aunt Martha is "all bowed down" with age, making it difficult for her to care for children. Sally tells her of Aunt Martha's plans to purchase Linda and the children, and tells her not to leave. Linda shares her master's plan to bring her children to the plantation, then asks Sally, "Now, would you advise me to go back?" Sally then changes her mind and supports her, saying, "No, chile, no." When Linda references motherhood, a deep, unspoken bond passes between them, and Sally agrees to help Linda escape.

As described in Chapter 15 of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, how does spring rejuvenate Linda Brent?

To a character like Linda Brent, who constantly uses light to symbolize hope, the coming of spring with its return of sunlight promises longer days and new life. These are powerful motivators for her. With spring her hope returns, and she plans ways to secure her children's freedom. She uses images of spring flowers to exhibit how her dreams of freedom for herself and her children will not die: "My drooping hopes came to life again with the flowers." After Dr. Flint rejects Martha's offer to buy Linda, Linda evokes the symbol of light and dark once again. To show that she will not be daunted she states, "I had a woman's pride, and a mother's love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should rise for [my children]."

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