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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 | Themes



In a preface Linda Brent shares her purpose for telling her story, a female experience of slavery: To raise awareness of the unrepresented issues of gender, motherhood, and fear of sexual assault for enslaved women. In her words, there is "no shadow of law to protect her" from the violence and abuse of white men.

However, the book's scope is not limited to her own experience or to the female experience. She includes observations of cruelty to slaves in her town and neighboring towns. By outlining "holidays" like the slaves' New Year's Day and disclosing news of the gruesome death of Charity's son and the abuse suffered by her friend Luke, she demonstrates how slavery legalizes unimaginable torture. By comparing the poor of England to slaves, she shows how it is the institution of slavery, not poverty, that causes the slaves to suffer.


Linda Brent gives detailed character sketches to show how the institution of slavery and its cruel practices foster greed, wickedness, and lasciviousness in slaveholders. "The degradations, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery," she writes, "are more than I can describe." These corruptions ruin many slaveholders and their wives, including those who had potential for living moral lives. Readers witness this potential in Linda's depiction of characters such as the slave trader who waives the fee for freeing Linda's children and William. Linda also shows that slavery continues to exist because corrupted powers like the church and the law protect slaveholders.


Linda claims her greatest disappointment is when her mistress—a foundational joy in her life, who let her sew for hours and gather berries—betrays her trust. After promising Linda's mother that Linda and her brother William won't suffer and despite instilling her with church teachings, Linda's mistress treats her like property.

Throughout her journey Linda finds trust difficult and must learn on a case by case basis that some whites can be trusted. Her experiences with the two Mrs. Bruces—the first treats Linda kindly and buys clothing for Ellen, while the second allows Linda to take her own baby into hiding as further protection against capture—helps to break down the barrier of her mistrust.

Call to Action

Linda Brent's autobiography addresses Northern women directly, at one point calling them "you happy free women," to ask them to help abolish slavery. One of the distinctive features of her slave narrative is the ongoing conversation Linda Brent holds with these ideal readers, whom she believes have the most potential to ignite change due to their privilege and compassion. Occasionally Linda Brent addresses others too: blacks in the North and Northern men.

Female Friendship and Community

In Linda Brent's journey, female friendships and community are invaluable. Her strong foundational relationships and the kindnesses she encounters along the way are key to her survival. Aspects of these friendships—care, selflessness, sympathy—are witnessed in little and big moments throughout the autobiography. Characters who especially embody this theme include her grandmother, Martha; the kind benefactress, Betty; and the first and second Mrs. Bruces.

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