Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Linda leaves the next morning, accompanied by Ellen but leaving Benny, who is sick, with Grandmother. At the plantation, she has to leave Ellen with the kitchen slaves and work as a housekeeper, preparing the plantation house for the imminent arrival of Nicholas Flint’s new bride. Ellen is upset by the sudden changes in her life and often cries herself to sleep. Nicholas brags to the neighbors that he will disabuse Linda of her “town notions.”
While Linda was able to somewhat preserve the integrity of her young family in the city, it’s impossible to take care of Ellen in the same way here. Linda has to sacrifice her own maternal concerns in order to facilitate the happiness – or at least the housekeeping – of another family.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Linda works hard, not wanting to seem “too much of a lady.” Every day she sees Nicholas beat other slave children, while their mothers stand by powerless. She feels it would be better for Ellen to die than live like that. One day, Ellen sobs in the yard the entire time Linda is working. Eventually the little girl runs away, and Linda later finds her sleeping under the raised foundation of the house. Later, she learns that Nicholas Flint found a snake under the house just that afternoon.
Nicholas’s appalling behavior towards the children and the incident with the snake characterizes the plantation as a place of lurking and imminent danger, especially for slave families. This starkly contrasts with the rosy image slaveholders like to put forth, in which slaves are safe and content with their lot in life.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
The next day, Linda sends Ellen back to Grandmother without asking permission. She doesn’t get in trouble because she’s been such an efficient housekeeper for the past week.
Even though Dr. Flint is trying to crush Linda’s sense of autonomy, she won’t concede that anyone else has the right to control her children.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
After three weeks on the plantation, Linda sneaks out at night to visit her children, walking quickly and fearfully back to the town. Grandmother lets her in and the whole family gathers, crying to see her. She looks over her sleeping children and Benny wakes up, telling her he’s happy that they haven’t “cut off your head at the plantation.” On the way back, she hears patrols riding through the night but manages to hide behind a tree.
This scene compellingly evokes the simple desire of families to be together, but the secrecy and patrols demonstrate the unique difficulties that enslaved families face. Throughout the narrative Linda juxtaposes the universal feelings and concerns that slaves share with the ways in which slavery disregards and threatens them.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
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After another week, Nicholas’s great aunt visits the plantation. This woman, Miss Fanny, is the one who bought Grandmother at auction and freed her; in subsequent years she’s often visited Grandmother, and the old women like to sit around sewing and remembering old stories. Mrs. Flint hates that people from her family associate with Linda and Grandmother, but fortunately Miss Fanny has an independent fortune and can do what she wants.
The evident respect which Miss Fanny displays for Grandmother, and Linda’s kind feelings towards her, make her a marked contrast to Mrs. Flint. Moments like this offer a vision of more empathetic and cohesive relationships between white and black women – but unfortunately, they’re a rarity in this narrative.
Themes
Women Theme Icon
Linda is happy to see Miss Fanny, especially when the old woman confides that she’s visited specially to check on her and see if she can help her in any way. She tells Linda that she will never “feel any peace” about her and Grandmother until they are dead and gone to Heaven. Linda tells the old woman to not worry about her, concealing that she’s in the midst of planning an escape not to death, but freedom. She knows that she could escape by herself, but she mostly wants freedom for her children, and she’s trying to devise a plan to get them out as well.
Linda has often shared Miss Fanny’s wish that she might die soon – however, as a mother she’s gained the will to live. Linda often states that enslaved mothers need social protections, but she also shows that motherhood is an extremely personally empowering part of her life, which helps her draw on previously unknown strengths.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
After six weeks the house is ready for the new bride, and Linda receives permission to spend that Sunday with her family. She goes to Grandmother’s house; the calm day contrasts with her turbulent mind, as she’s wondering if she’ll ever spend a day like this at home, surrounded by her family, again. She visits her parents’ graves and promises to save Ellen from the trials she’s endured.
Grandmother’s house has often represented the only calm and security of Linda’s life. It’s natural that, as she starts to think about leaving, visiting it should excite feelings of uncertainty and loss.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Again, Linda feels shame that she hasn’t managed to be as pure and virtuous as her mother. But as she passes the slaves’ meeting house, destroyed and decrepit after Nat Turner’s rebellion, she seems to hear her father’s voice telling her “not to tarry” until she is free. Her faith in God is renewed and strong.
For a long time, Linda has thought of herself as betraying and disappointing her parents. Now, she’s able to evoke a sense of approval and take strength from their memory – showing how her criticism of her own sexuality is beginning to wane.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Linda’s plan is to hide with a friend for a few weeks, until Dr. Flint gets tired of searching for her. She predicts that Dr. Flint will worry about the children disappearing as well, so he will sell them to Mr. Sands. Linda is packing her things when Grandmother comes into the room, sees what she’s doing, and scolds her for worrying an old woman and leaving her defenseless babies alone.
Linda feels that her first duty as a mother is to free her children – even if doing so involves substantial risk. On the contrary, Grandmother sees motherhood as mitigating the cruelty of slavery as much as possible without taking risks to escape it.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
She says Linda should not depend on Mr. Sands for anything but “stand by our own children, and suffer with them till death.” Uncertain, Linda promises to stay for now. When the children climb into Linda’s lap, Grandmother pets them and accuses Linda of not loving them as she does.
While Linda derives her strong maternal feelings from Grandmother, she will eventually move away from the older woman’s passivity and embrace a more decisive vision of motherhood.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Linda returns to the plantation, and soon the bride arrives. The slaves are excited, hoping the young Mrs. Flint will be a good mistress, but Linda has heard bad things about her character and knows that new wives like to assert their position through displays of cruelty. The new bride is beautiful and eager to see her new home; Linda pities her, knowing that “soon clouds would come over her sunshine.”
Here, Linda contrasts young Mrs. Flint’s unfettered power over the slaves with her lack of power in her own marriage, which will soon go the way of Dr. Flint’s. It’s unsurprising that this combination leads to the degradation of character and cruel behavior towards slaves.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
At dinner Linda has to wait upon Dr. Flint and Mrs. Flint, who are visiting. She hasn’t seen her old mistress for five years, and the woman seems happy to see her humbled and serving at the table. Dr. Flint forces her to run dozens of errands during the course of the dinner.
Even though it’s Dr. Flint who has really betrayed and harmed his wife, she blames Linda and takes out her feelings on her – possibly because she has much more power over the young woman than over her husband.
Themes
Women Theme Icon
Linda starts working as a maid for the young Mrs. Flint. As she expected, the bride soon displays her authority over the slaves. She oversees weekly distribution of the slaves’ meat allowance, where different amounts are given to each man, woman, and child. When an elderly man arrives to collect his meat, the mistress takes it away from him and says that slaves who can’t work should eat grass.
Through actions like this, the young Mrs. Flint contravenes expectations of docile and nurturing female behavior. In moments like this, Linda plays on her readers social expectations to encourage condemnation of slavery on the basis that it jeopardizes social mores.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
After a week, the older Mrs. Flint visits the plantation for a private conference with the young Mrs. Flint. Linda assumes that they’re talking about her, and Mrs. Flint is urging her to be kept on the plantation at all costs. As she leaves, Linda hears her instructing her daughter-in-law to send for Linda’s children tomorrow. Later, a white neighbor that Linda knows confirms that they are bringing the children in order to tie her to the plantation. Linda knows she needs to act immediately.
It’s not the hard work Linda is subjected to on the plantation, or the humiliation of waiting on the Flints, but rather her children’s safety that finally prompts her to act. By framing her decisions in this way, Linda presents herself as centered around her children, thus increasing her respectability and credibility among her readers.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon