Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by

Harriet Jacobs

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Outside Grandmother’s house is a small shed, which has a tiny garret between the joists and the pointed roof. Phillip has constructed a trap door for access into the garret, which is barely more than a “hole” with no room to sit up and no vents for light or air. Linda has a mattress to sleep on, but it’s so cramped she can barely turn over and mice constantly run across her bed. However, in the morning she’s comforted by hearing the voices of her children outside.
The garret in which Linda will spend the next years is another “house” that doesn’t fulfill the expectations of a home. Homes are supposed to be refuges that enable their residents to live moral and productive lives, but the garret is more like a trap, from which it’s impossible to emerge at all. Moreover, while it does give Linda some security, it also constantly reminds her of the danger in which she and her family live.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
The garret is uncomfortable and depressing, but Linda says she would easily choose living here over living in slavery. Even though her life as a slave was “comparatively devoid of hardships”—she’s never worked on a plantation or been severely punished—it’s worth any struggle to escape.
As she does when Dr. Flint offers to build her a cottage, Linda makes clear that material advantages can never compensate for a lack of freedom.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
At night, the family brings Linda food and keeps her company, but she’s completely alone during the day. She crawls around the garret for exercise; one day she finds a nail and bores tiny holes in the wall, through which she can get some fresh air. Peering through them, she can see her children playing in the yard and people walking through the street—even Dr. Flint.
Even though Linda is technically at home with her family, as a fugitive she’s largely isolated from them – this physical and emotional distance underscores the often-insurmountable impediments slavery places on family life.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon
Soon after this, Dr. Flint goes to New York again, believing he’s discovered some new clue. When he returns, Benny (who doesn’t know where Linda is) sees him in the street and tells him he wants to see his mother. Dr. Flint threatens to cut off his head.
Dr. Flint’s violent response to a child’s most basic and understandable desire shows that he doesn’t really see Benny as a child – or a person – at all.
Themes
The Dehumanizing Effects of Slavery Theme Icon
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Linda gradually gets used to reading and sewing in the feeble light. However, life in the garret continues to be difficult—in the winter she’s freezing, and her feet get frostbite. People in the city have a habit of stopping to gossip in the street, and she often hears people talking about her and speculating that she’s in the free states. Dr. Flint often tries to bribe Benny and Ellen into divulging their mother’s whereabouts, but Ellen says nothing, and Benny tells him he thinks his mother is in New York.
This is one of the first chapters in which Benny and Ellen start to display characters of their own – it’s important and saddening that their mother can only observe their development from afar, rather than participating in or guiding it.
Themes
Motherhood and Family Theme Icon