In her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs uses the pseudonym Linda Brent to describe her own upbringing as a slave within a white household. In doing so, she focuses on the vulnerability and moral predicament of black women who are powerless against the sexual abuses of white men. Linda wants to fulfill contemporary norms of feminine chastity and respectability; moreover, she wants to present herself as a proper young woman in order to gain respect and sympathy from her audience. However, under the conditions of slavery this proves impossible: Linda is subjected to constant harassment from her lustful master, Dr. Flint, and to gain protection from him she eventually has an extramarital affair and two children with another white man, Mr. Sands. While Linda often expresses shame and remorse for these decisions, by emphasizing her lack of alternatives she argues that it’s unfair to impose the same sexual principles on enslaved black women and free white women.
Throughout the narrative, Linda takes pains to establish her moral character and to emphasize her adherence to contemporary ideals of female sexual virtue. Linda grows up under the care of a strict and religious grandmother, and she speaks highly of the “pure principles [she] instilled in me.” As a teenager Linda is courted by a free carpenter and hopes to marry him, thus creating a respectable future for herself and her children. Even when describing the sexual abuse she suffers from Dr. Flint, Jacobs refers to it obliquely, saying that her master harasses her with “words that scathed ear and brain like fire” and leaving the reader to infer exactly what he’s saying. Similarly, when Linda becomes involved with another white man in order to gain protection from Dr. Flint, she never speaks explicitly about sex; instead, she describes her choice by saying that “I shall be a mother” soon, couching her actions in terms of maternity, which is seen as much more respectable than female sexuality.
Once free, she seeks to present herself as a virtuous and respectable woman. For example, when she arrives in New York she’s outraged when a porter proposes to convey her and her belongings through the city in his open-backed truck, which she sees as inappropriate and immodest. In situations like these Jacobs emulates the Victorian prudishness of white society; she does so both out of serious moral conviction and in order to emphasize her similarity to her white female readers, whom she wants to view her as a fellow woman instead of a slave.
However, as Linda’s conflict with Dr. Flint and relationship with Mr. Sands shows, it’s impossible for enslaved women to fulfill ideals of sexual purity when they’re powerless against predatory white men. Young women of her time are supposed to be ignorant in all matters of sex (a quality which Linda evokes with her oblique discussion of the subject) but Linda says that “the influences of slavery” have allowed Dr. Flint to “pollute [her] mind with foul images” and “made [her] prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of the world.” Linda stands her ground admirably against Dr. Flint, but he constantly tells her that she “was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing.” In the eyes of the law, this is completely true – Linda has no recourse against him, and it’s only with luck and vigilance that she evades rape.
In order to gain some protection from Dr. Flint, Linda accepts the advances of another white man, Mr. Sands. This decision saves her from rape and gives her some extremely limited agency in her choice of sexual partners, but it also requires her to sacrifice the sexual virtue that is so important to her. Linda speaks of this decision in drastic terms, calling it “a plunge into the abyss,” but she also contrasts her situation to that of free women, “whose purity has been sheltered from childhood” and “whose homes are protected by law.” As a slave, she has no option to “keep myself pure.”
While Linda initially expresses remorse about this part of her life, she eventually concludes that black women should not feel ashamed for failing to live up to the standards of a system that actively oppresses them. When first describing her liaison with Mr. Sands, Linda says it “fills me with sorrow and shame”; appealing to her reader, she asks “ye happy women” not to “judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely.” While she understands that she has no alternatives, she speaks of this decision as a severe moral failing on her part. However, as she grows older Linda begins to take a less critical view of her moral qualities. When a friend in the North says that people might treat her with “contempt” if they knew her children were illegitimate, she responds that “God alone knows how I have suffered; and He, I trust, will forgive me.” Implicitly, she refuses to hold herself accountable to standards that, for slaves, are impossible to fulfill.
Later, when her daughter Ellen is setting off to boarding school, Linda forces herself to disclose the secret of her paternity, expecting the girl to be disappointed in her. Instead, Ellen says, “I never think any thing about my father. All my love is for you.” This compelling moment of acceptance and understanding from her daughter shows Linda that, in the eyes of those who matter, her moral character is untainted; she doesn’t need to feel accountable for the sexual abuse she endured as a girl.
Throughout the novel, Jacobs emphasizes the “wrongs, sufferings, and mortifications” that are specific to enslaved women. Her focus on the sexual abuse she and others endured is a political stance and an argument against slavery; but it’s also a personal exploration of the impossibility of fulfilling moral codes without personal autonomy, and the account of a journey from shame towards empowerment and self-respect.
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse ThemeTracker
Sexual Virtue and Sexual Abuse Quotes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
The girl’s mother said, “The baby is dead, thank God; and I hope my poor child will soon be in heaven, too.”
“Heaven!” retorted the mistress. “There is no such place for the like of her and her bastard.”
The poor mother turned away, sobbing. Her dying daughter called her feebly… “Don’t grieve so, mother; God knows all about it; and He will have mercy upon me.”
For my master, whose restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night, seeking whom to devour, had just left me, with stinging, scorching words; words that scathed ear and brain like fire. O, how I despised him! I thought how glad I should be if some day when he walked the earth, it would open and swallow him up…
He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of…But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him … He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things.
If God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration in the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave. I know that some are too much brutalized by slavery to feel the humiliation of their position; but many slaves feel it most acutely, and shrink from the memory of it.
She felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted; but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband’s perfidy. She pitied herself as a martyr; but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed.
The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. Jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home, and it is ravaged of its loveliness.
Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters. Do you think this proves the black man to belong to an inferior order of beings? What would you be, if you had been born and brought up a slave…
But O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished I too could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws…
I know I did wrong. No one can feel it more sensibly than I do…Still, in looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others.
Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.
I replied, “God alone knows how much I have suffered; and He, I trust, will forgive me. If I am permitted to have my children, I intend to be a good mother, and to live in such a manner that people cannot treat me with contempt.
I did not discover till years afterward that Mr. Thorne’s intemperance was not the only annoyance she suffered from…he had poured vile language into the ears of [Grandmother’s] innocent great-grandchild.
I thought that if he was my own father, he ought to love me. I was a little girl then, and didn’t know any better. But now I never think any thing about my father. All my love is for you.