Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Linda Brent is born into slavery, but she “never knew it” for most of her childhood. Her father is a carpenter who works independently of his mistress in exchange for paying her a certain sum per year, and Linda lives with her parents and her younger brother William in a “comfortable home,” unaware that she is a “piece of merchandise who can be taken away at any time.
In the first passage, Linda’s nostalgia for her childhood and comfort that she derives from her childhood home contrasts with the lack of protection it actually affords her, thus setting up a tension between the value of family life and the threats posed to it by slavery.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Linda is also under the care of her grandmother, a strong and determined woman. The illegitimate daughter of a planter, Linda’s grandmother was freed at her father’s death and set off with her mother for St. Augustine; however, they were recaptured and sold back into slavery. Working hard and gaining the respect of her owners, she bakes and sells crackers in her scant free time in order to leave some money for her children. She even makes enough to give her mistress a loan when she needs it. However, when the master dies, her children are divided among his own and she sees many of them sold away.
Grandmother’s story exemplifies the betrayals and humiliations slavery inflicts upon even those who try to accustom themselves to life within the system. Grandmother legally acquires her freedom as a young girl, and later serves her owners apparently without resentment, but this doesn’t improve her life or those of her children. These misfortunes will help convince Linda that it’s useless to live by the “rules” of slavery, and imperative to escape it altogether.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
When Linda is six, her mother dies. Her mother’s mistress – the daughter of Grandmother’s mistress – has always been kind to her, and promises on her deathbed that nothing bad will happen to her children. She takes Linda into her own house, giving her only light work to do and teaching her to read the Bible and sew. Linda says that such happy times can’t last long for an enslaved child.
Just as in her own childhood home, Linda remains blissfully unaware of her enslaved state at the mistress’s house. This creates a tenuous parallel between life among her family and life in the mistress’s service, but Linda will soon show that the two aren’t equivalent at all.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
When Linda is twelve, the mistress dies. Linda is old enough to worry about what will happen to her, and her family hopes that the mistress has been kind enough to free her in her will, in honor of her mother. However, Linda notes, “the memory of a faithful slave does not…save her children from the auction block.”
Here, Linda is referring to Grandmother’s “faithful” service, which doesn’t prevent her owners from selling her children. She argues that even an apparently peaceful coexistence between slaveholders and slaves is just a veneer concealing an inevitably exploitative relationship.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
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In her will, the mistress gives Linda to her five-year-old niece, Emily Flint. The family’s hopes are dashed, and it’s bitter to remember that the same woman who taught Linda to “love thy neighbor as thyself” didn’t actually “recognize [Linda] as her neighbor.” Thinking about it now, Linda tries to forget about the “act of injustice” and remember the mistress’s kind behavior towards her. Along with Linda, several of Grandmother’s children are separated among the mistress’s relatives, despite her long faithfulness.
Throughout her narrative, Linda will employ Biblical quotations to point out the hypocrisy of slaveholders who claim to be Christians. This helps her appeal to a highly religious audience and refute the argument, promoted by pro-slavery advocates, that the institution is somehow divinely ordained and sanctioned.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
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