Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
During her first years at the Flint house, Linda is treated like a child, and sometimes allowed to share “indulgences” with the Flint children. Now that she is fifteen, though Dr. Flint starts to “whisper foul words in my ear,” trying alternately to persuade and coerce her into submitting to him. He attempts to “corrupt the pure principles” Linda has learned from Grandmother, and although she tries to ignore him, she’s trapped in his house and she’s his legal property.
Slaveholders often try to argue that slaves are essentially primitive and lack morals, but Linda flips this script: she learns strong moral principles from Grandmother and those principles are challenged by Dr. Flint, a prominent and educated white man. Ultimately, Linda and Grandmother will emerge as far more morally upright than any of the Flints.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
This is the case for all slave girls, who are powerless against the “insult…violence, or even death” perpetrated by “fiends who bear the shape of men.” Mistresses should protect young girls in such cases, but they are often consumed by jealousy. All young girls who grow up as slaves become “prematurely knowing in evil things,” seeing that their mistresses hate particular slaves or that the most beautiful women attract unwanted attention by men. While some women “are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position…many slaves feel it most acutely.” Everyone in the house knows what is happening to Linda, but no one can do anything against it.
Here Linda begins to discuss the widespread prevalence of sexual abuse of enslaved women, and the extent to which it is accepted by “respectable” society. In particular, she shows how it violates contemporary norms of female modesty and chastity. Young girls who should be ignorant of sex become “prematurely knowing” and women who want to protect their chastity are prevented from doing so. Linda asserts the desire of enslaved women to fulfill these norms, and thus their entitlement to the protections accorded to free women.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Linda wants to go to Grandmother for advice, but she’s both terrified of Dr. Flint’s rage and ashamed of mentioning the subject before the old and pious woman. Nevertheless, Grandmother’s prominent position in the community protects Linda; Dr. Flint is too afraid of the old woman to harm Linda overtly. She knows that her situation would be hopeless if she lived on his plantation.
Even though it’s clearly not her fault that she’s enduring sexual abuse from Dr. Flint, Linda feels ashamed of it for a long time. One of the reasons she strives to present herself as proper and modest is to argue that she doesn’t “deserve” to be harassed – something which should be obvious to the modern reader, but wasn’t in her own era.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Once, Linda sees two children playing together: a white girl and her slave and illegitimate sister. The two are laughing together now, but Linda knows the white girl will grow up beautiful and uncorrupted until her wedding day, while the slave will be forced to drink from “the cup of sin.” Linda wonders why “ye free men and women of the north” don’t take action on these issues.
Throughout the narrative, Linda portrays corrupted and bitter relationships between white women and enslaved women. Moments like this show the lost possibility for empathy or coexistence. By calling out directly to her readers, Linda forces them to feel responsible and involved in the story.
Themes
Women Theme Icon
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