Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Linda describes some of the other slave owners in the city, and the violence they inflict on their slaves. One planter, Mr. Litch, devises grotesque punishments like tying a man under a piece of roasting meat, so that drops of fat continuously fell and burned him. Mr. Litch doesn’t give his slaves enough to eat and encourages them to steal from the neighbors; he frequently murders his slaves, but is so wealthy he never faces punishment.
It’s evident that Mr. Litch takes pleasure in implementing these “creative” punishments. He’s not only dehumanizing his slaves by treating them worse than animals; by failing to show any moral compass, he’s forfeiting his own humanity as well.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Linda says that “cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities.” A neighbor of Mr. Litch punishes a slave by forcing him to spend a winter night outside and naked.
The idea that the ills of slavery can easily spread is calculated to appeal to readers wary that its effects may soon be felt in the North.
Themes
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One female slaveholder whips her slaves “with the might of a man.” On her deathbed, she forbids any of her slaves from looking at her after she’s died, but one maid sneaks into her room and slaps her dead face. She’s later discovered and sold to Georgia.
In this case, the slaveholder’s behavior means that she contravenes feminine roles – something Linda presents as reprehensible, and which she avoids doing herself.
Themes
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A slave named James tries to escape his cruel master but is recaptured; his master punishes him by flogging him and locking him inside a cotton gin, where there’s no room to sit up or turn around. The man dies of his wounds and is partially eaten by rats before being discovered. No one comments on his cruel death, because masters are allowed to do whatever they want to slaves. James’s master is a “highly educated” man considered a “perfect gentleman” and a devout Christian, although “Satan never had a truer follower.”
This is a truly disturbing episode, and it shows how Southern society has perverted religious doctrine to endorse and justify actions that are obviously sinful. Remarking on the master’s high status in Southern society, Linda casts doubt not only on his behavior but on the twisted social mores which enable him.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
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Exceptions to this trend are rare. Linda knows one young woman who owned a woman and six children, whom she treated very kindly. When the young woman becomes engaged, she offers to free the slave family, but they decide to stay with her, having been well-treated for so many years. Soon, the new husband sells many of the children and rapes the eldest daughter, who gives birth to his illegitimate child. The young woman is devastated to see that “her own husband had violated the purity she had so carefully inculcated.” Although she tries her best to shelter the other daughters, many of them suffer the same fate. Linda concludes that the husband would have been a better man, and the wife much happier, without slavery.
Here, Linda argues that even the rare and relatively benign mistress cannot shield slaves from the system that oppresses them – nor can she save her own marriage from corruption. In passages like this, Linda argues that abolition is a moral imperative not just from the slaves’ perspective but in order to foster and preserve strong marriages.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
In fact, the “all-pervading corruption produced by slavery” is so great that Linda can hardly describe it. No matter how kindly raised a slave girl is, she will eventually succumb to the atmosphere of “licentiousness and fear” created by her masters, whom it’s impossible to resist.
Linda reiterates that personal principles – like her own – are not enough to fight the degradation of slavery. At a certain point, society must insure that individuals are free to act on their best moral impulses.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Meanwhile, the sons of slave owners grow up believing it’s completely acceptable to sexually abuse slave women, and even their daughters become corrupted by the rumors they hear or arguments they observe. Sometimes, white women become sexually involved with enslaved men; this is considered scandalous, and any children they have are killed or sent away.
Slavery is not just destructive for marriages but becomes a pernicious influence on children. Here, Linda shows how slavery prevents white women from existing peacefully within their most socially valued roles: wife and mother.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
In short, slavery is “a curse” to white families as well as black ones, destroying their happiness and moral integrity. However, almost no slave owners are concerned with “the widespread moral ruin” that attends their way of life.
Linda both sums up the moral degradation caused by slavery and casts serious doubt on the moral status of slaveholders, who don’t care about these problems at all.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
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