Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As the years pass, Grandmother manages to buy a small home by making and selling preserves and bread. She tells her enslaved children and grandchildren to “pray for contentment,” but Linda and her youngest son Benjamin reject this argument, feeling that it can’t be “the will of God” for them to languish in slavery.
Religion enables Grandmother to endure slavery; but for Linda and William, it’s an inspiration to assert their rights and eventually make their escape.
Themes
Christianity Theme Icon
Grandmother can’t help Linda with the new oppression she’s now facing. Dr. Flint, “whose restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night,” has begun to harass Linda constantly, telling her that she must “obey his command in every thing” and “surrender” her will to him. One afternoon, as she’s trying to decide what to do, William approaches her, upset because Dr. Flint’s son, Nicholas, bullies him constantly and threatens to whip him when William, who is stronger, beats him up.
It’s clear that Dr. Flint is beginning to sexually harass Linda, but she will never explicitly reveal what he’s saying to her and what he’s demanding. She’s using the propriety of her language to present herself as fulfilling the ideal of feminine modesty, even though her circumstances make it increasingly hard to do so.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Linda counsels William to be “good and forgiving,” but she knows that she herself does not feel forgiving towards Dr. Flint and she knows that it’s in their “God-given nature” to “question the motives of those around” them, rather than accepting their actions.
Linda toggles between feeling that religion demands her to forgive her abusers and believing that it empowers her to demand her own rights. By the end of the narrative, she will be strongly advocating the latter approach.
Themes
Christianity Theme Icon
In February, Grandmother has just bought Linda a badly-needed pair of shoes. However, the shoes’ noise bothers Mrs. Flint and she forbids Linda to wear them again. Linda has to run a long errand barefoot in the snow and she goes to bed sick, thinking she will die in the night and her mistress will be glad to get rid of the “little imp.” Her only consolation is that she loves young Emily Flint; it seems the little girl loves her as well, but Linda wonders if her feelings are really true.
Mrs. Flint frequently describes Linda as a monstrous or inhuman creature, such as an “imp” – this reflects her conviction that Linda is somehow uncivilized and less than human. However, Mrs. Flint’s behavior clearly shows that it’s she who is inhumane. This contradiction will persist throughout the narrative.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
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One day, William comes to Linda telling her that their Uncle Benjamin has impetuously gotten in a fistfight with his master, an offense that can lead to great punishment. That night Linda meets Benjamin at Grandmother’s house; he says that he’s running away before he can be punished. Linda warns him about all the disasters that can befall runaways, but he tells her this is better than being treated like a “dog.” Benjamin flees the city aboard a ship, but the captain sees his description in an advertisement for runaway slaves, arrests him, and sends him back to the city jail.
Uncle Benjamin is Linda’s first inspiration to take her life into her own hands and aspire to run away. However, he also demonstrates to the reader all the perils that await slaves who try to escape – here, he’s brought back into slavery and faces unknown punishments. Even if he did manage to escape, he would be cruelly sundered from the family that is obviously central to his life.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
At night, the family sneaks into the jail to visit Benjamin. Grandmother is deeply distressed to see her son in prison; she tells him to trust in God, but he says it’s impossible for a hunted man to think about God. At the moment of capture, he thought about throwing himself into the river, but remembered his mother and decided against it. Despite her entreaties, he refuses to beg his master’s forgiveness.
Benjamin’s irreverent comment here hints that Christian doctrine, as presented by slaveholders to slaves for their own purposes, rings uncompelling and false. Linda will eventually arrive at a Christian faith that incorporates and values her humanity and love for her family.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
To punish his insolence, the master keeps Benjamin chained in jail, where he’s covered in vermin. Grandmother has to sneak him food and new clothes. After three months, a slave trader buys him with the intention of selling him in New Orleans. Grandmother starts saving up money and writing to friends in New Orleans, but before she does so, Benjamin makes another escape attempt. He’s delayed in Baltimore for three weeks and even spotted by a white acquaintance, but the man keeps his secret and helps him find a safe route to New York.
As is the case when her other children and grandchildren face problems, Grandmother has to fulfill maternal roles and provide for her family without any of the respect or protection that is accorded to free mothers. Moments like this help create the sense that slavery violates the sanctity of motherhood.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Once Benjamin has reached New York, he meets up with his brother Phillip, who is there on business for his mistress. He encourages Phillip to escape and join him, but Phillip is reluctant to leave Grandmother alone. Benjamin says she should use her savings to buy Phillip and, if possible, Linda. After he and Phillip bid farewell, the family never hears from Benjamin again.
For Uncle Benjamin and for many slaves, there’s a trade-off between escape and family. Linda will undertake the complex project of attaining her freedom without losing her children, showing the unique problems that enslaved mothers face.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
When Phillip brings this news to Grandmother, the old woman is sadder at losing Benjamin than she is happy about his freedom. Eventually, she purchases Phillip for eight hundred dollars. That night mother and son sit around the hearthstone, proud of each other for securing their independence. The family says to themselves, “he that is willing to be a slave, let him be a slave.”
This is a potentially troubling passage, because it seems to suggest that slaves are responsible for securing their own freedom – when, as Linda shows, this is impossible most of the time. What she’s probably trying to do is convince the reader that slaves possess moral determination and dignity, even if she ignores for a moment the obstacles they face in achieving freedom.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon