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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 | Symbols



Literacy is critical to Linda's survival. Even when Linda faces the "great" injustice of her life, being willed to Emily Flint, she thanks her mistress for teaching her how to read and write: "for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory." In addition to using letters to communicate, Linda repeatedly uses them as a way to save herself, as when she tricks Dr. Flint by forging letters from New York while she is in the garret. They signify literacy's power and its potential role in abolishing slavery, which is why Linda is determined to obtain freedom: so that her children can receive an education.

Light and Dark

At the outset of the narrative Linda Brent, living in a racist society as a slave, uses light and darkness to contrast the differing lots of each race, white and black, under slavery. When Linda becomes aware of the dangers that come with maturity for a female slave, she remembers observing two girls in the street, a free white child and her slave, laughing together. Witnessing both girls' beauty but knowing their paths will differ drastically, she turns away. She uses light and dark to contrast their futures. The "fair" child will have flowers, sun, and a wedding. The slave will not find love and will drink from "the cup of sin, and shame, and misery." Here light is associated with hope and freedom, and dark with hopelessness and oppression.

Aunt Martha

Throughout the narrative Martha, commonly called "aunt Martha" by townspeople, represents many things. Her consistent characteristics are faith, patience, and goodness. She finds positivity in almost everything, even in death, but what she symbolizes above all is motherhood. She becomes Linda's mother figure after Linda's own mother dies. She is kind and supportive but can also be fierce in her maternal aspect; her motherly instinct astonishes even her sometimes. When Martha witnesses Dr. Flint striking Linda, for instance, she throws him out and tells him he'd better start praying to save his soul.


Snakes symbolize Linda's fear of capture. She describes the serpent of slavery and several times compares slaveholders to snakes. Her equating of snakes with the fear of captivity moves from the figurative to the literal in the course of the book. She receives a poisonous bite while hiding from pursuers, and while Phillip builds her garret she is forced to hide in Snaky Swamp.

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