Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 40 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
William decides to move to California and takes Benny with him. Ellen is flourishing at school; everyone is very kind to her, especially when they discover that her mother is a fugitive slave. Meanwhile, Linda returns to work for Mr. Bruce, who has remarried and had another baby. The young Mrs. Bruce is a woman of “excellent principles” with a “hearty dislike” for slavery, who proves a loyal friend to Linda.
The new Mrs. Bruce proves equal to her predecessor when it comes to supporting and respecting Linda. Again, her behavior contrasts with that of white women in the South, especially Mrs. Flint.
Themes
Women Theme Icon
Around this time, the abolitionist movement suffers a blow in the form of the Fugitive Slave Laws, which empower anyone to recapture escaped slaves and return them to the South. Many families leave the city altogether; others are torn apart when one spouse finds out that the other is a fugitive. The passage of this law is one of the reasons that William moves to California and Linda, fearful for her safety, goes out as infrequently as possible and always uses back roads—she’s enraged that she has to sneak around like this in a “city calling itself free.”
The Fugitive Slave Law was presented as a compromise between the increasingly embittered North and South, but Linda shows that it’s actually an abandonment of the values supposedly so important in free states. Slavery is a matter on which compromise is equal to complicity.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
In the street one day, Linda meets a former slave from her own city, Luke. This man had a particularly cruel master—although he was an invalid who relied completely on Luke for survival, he whipped him every day, often summoning the constable to carry out the punishment when he lacked strength. Linda is overjoyed to see he’s escaped, but worried that he’s not truly free, even in New York. He reassures her that he ran away not from his master but from a speculator, who’s unlikely to come looking for him.
Linda juxtaposes Luke’s terrible life under slavery with the risks he continues to run as a fugitive in the North. In allowing him to be returned to the South, she implicitly suggests, Northerners are not just allowing slavery but proving themselves complicit in Luke’s beatings.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Luke tells Linda that he plans to go to Canada. Before his escape, he cleverly obtained some money from his master by hiding some bills in an old pair of pants, which he then asked to have as a hand-me-down. Linda says that this anecdote is “a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery,” but she does feel Luke deserves the money, given how much work he’s done unpaid.
Probably in the attempt to impress her readers with slaves’ scrupulous honor, Linda is holding herself and Luke to extremely strict standards. Many modern readers would agree that Luke is certainly entitled to reparations, given the years of abuse and hard labor he’s suffered.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
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Again, Linda receives warning that Dr. Flint knows she’s in New York and is trying to capture her. She confides in the young Mrs. Bruce, who immediately rallies to her aid. She even suggests that Linda take her baby on her escape from the city; carrying a white child will render her less suspicious, and if she’s caught, her capturers will have to return the child, and Mrs. Bruce might be able to advocate for her release.
Both Mrs. Bruce and Linda prove themselves active and daring mothers – they understand how the necessity of caring for children can make them vulnerable, but they also see how this status can be turned to their advantage.
Themes
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One of young Mrs. Bruce’s relatives scolds her for risking herself this way, but she says she’d much rather pay a fine or go to prison rather than have Linda “torn from my house.” Linda goes to New England, where she stays briefly with a senator who knows Mrs. Bruce; but the man is so frightened of the fugitive slave laws that he sends her to hide in the countryside for a month, after which she returns to New York.
Mrs. Bruce’s attitude ensures that her home really is a place of security. Although her independence and daring contravenes her society’s ideals of femininity, she is living up to Linda’s ideal of domesticity.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon