Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 31 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When they arrive at the harbor in Philadelphia, the captain finds a “respectable looking colored man” and asks him to assist the women in finding the train to New York. The man turns out to be a pastor, Reverend Durham; he treats Linda like an old friend and offers to host her in his house and find Fanny a place to stay as well. Linda gratefully bids farewell to the sailors and the captain.
Throughout the rest of the narrative, Linda will fall in with religious and activist groups in the North. While she doesn’t speak explicitly of her later life’s work here, moments like this foreshadow her future as an abolitionist – and an author of a slave narrative.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Linda is curious to travel through such a large and busy city. Mrs. Durham welcomes her into her home and impresses Linda with her high level of education and refined manner. Linda envies her security in her home and her knowledge that her children are protected by law.
At first, Linda thinks that black people in the North have completely equal rights – however, she will quickly see that the situation is more complicated.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
After dinner, Mr. Durham takes Linda for a walk. She tells him her entire story, even confessing that she has two children out of wedlock. He is very sympathetic but tells her not to be so truthful everyone, as people might “treat you with contempt.” Stung, Linda says that God understands her trials and he will forgive her; as soon as she can, she intends to be a good mother and live respectably.
This is an important moment – Linda has often criticized herself about her sexual past, but it’s clear she’s overcoming her feelings of shame, and no longer feels that her extramarital affair prevents her from leading a good life or being a good person. Again, her feelings of empowerment are connected to her strong sense of maternal duty.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Later in the evening, an abolitionist friend of the family arrives, eager to meet Linda. They ask about her escape but are cautious not to inquire about her marital status or the father of her children; Linda appreciates their consideration. After some consultation, Linda decides to stay with the Durhams for a few days until someone can escort her and Fanny to New York.
The frankness with which Linda describes her sexual abuse and affair with Mr. Sands contrasts with her timidity here. Moments like this highlight her journey from feeling ashamed of her past to realizing it’s not her fault and wanting to share her story with others.
Themes
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon
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That night, Linda goes to bed a free woman for the first time. Hours later she wakes up to fire alarms; when a fire breaks out in her own city, the slaves and free black people always have to fill the fire engine with water and bring buckets. She assumes they will have to get dressed and go out, but Mrs. Durham’s daughter tells her that there is no such custom here.
In Philadelphia, Linda learns that her responses to every new event are no longer necessarily dictated by her race. Her feelings of safety here contrast with the fear that returns after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Laws, when she’s living in New York.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
The next day, Mrs. Durham shows Linda Philadelphia’s busy markets and takes her to an art gallery where some portraits of her children are hanging. Linda has never seen paintings of black people before, and she’s amazed. She is grateful to the other woman for displaying no judgment or censure, even though she know about Linda’s unusual past.
Portraits of the Durham children seem like a small detail, but they demonstrate a recognition of the humanity of black children at least on the part of the artist and his viewers – something Linda has never seen at this public level in the South.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
After five days, a friend accompanies Linda and Fanny to New York. She discovers that they have to travel in the second-class compartment, as the first-class ones are only for white people. Linda is saddened to see “how the north aped the customs of slavery.” The car is full of crying babies and men smoking and drinking; “coarse jokes and ribald songs” abound, and Linda finds the atmosphere “sickening.”
This scene is an abrupt contrast to the previous – showing that, although strong and respected black communities exist in the North, institutional racism is still prevalent. Linda’s strong objections to the atmosphere in the train heighten her characterization of herself as “respectable” and adherent to conservative norms of behavior.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Theme Icon