Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 39 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After two years of living in Boston, William offers to pay for Ellen to attend boarding school. Linda hates to part with her, but knows it’s important that she get the best education possible. Now that Ellen’s departure is at hand, she resolves to explain to her the circumstances of her birth. She dreads her daughter’s judgment, but doesn’t want her to hear the story from someone else who doesn’t understand the situation.
At this point in her life, Linda is still caught between shame and understanding of her own past. Not only is she worried about her own character, she wants her daughter’s family to be a source of pride and support, not something that alienates her from others.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
The night before Ellen leaves, Linda begins to tell her how Dr. Flint had “driven [her] into a great sin,” but Ellen embraces her and tells her to stop speaking. She has already deduced that Mr. Sands is her father, and she says “he is nothing to me. All my love is for you.” Throughout the months Ellen spent with the Sands family in Washington, he never spoke to her or hugged her as he did his white children. Now, she says, she never thinks about him. Linda is thankful that her secret has not “diminished the affection of [her] child.”
Ellen’s unconditional acceptance of her mother is possibly the narrative’s most touching – and radical – passage. Dismissing her father, she elevates the role of motherhood and sharply criticizes men who don’t fulfill their obligations. Moreover, she argues that Linda’s decisions are nothing to be ashamed of. Cultivating her aura of respectability, Linda can’t take this feminist stance, but she can voice it through her daughter.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Some weeks after Ellen departs for school, Linda receives a letter from William inviting her to join him in establishing an abolitionist reading room in Rochester. She eagerly assents, but after a year the project fails. Linda spends the next year with Isaac and Amy Post, Quakers and “practical believers in the Christian doctrine of human brotherhood.”
Although Linda doesn’t mention it here, her short-lived reading room operated out of the same building as Frederick Douglass’s blossoming newspaper. Moreover, Amy Post is an abolitionist who later encourages Linda to record and publish this very narrative.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon