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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Summary, Characters, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

This article discusses Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs. The book details Jacobs' life in slavery and her eventual escape. Read the article, and take the quiz!

Introduction to Life of a Slave Girl

Some of the most popular books and movies today, like Divergent and The Hunger Games, focus on girls that must outsmart authority to save their lives and the lives of their family and friends. There may not be futuristic societies and awesome fight scenes in Harriet Jacobs' autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl but the story of a woman who overcomes the odds to save her family is similar. Under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs details her life as a woman enslaved at the height of the abolitionist movement.

Front Cover of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Front Page of Incidents

Book Summary

The book begins with Linda describing her happy early childhood with her brother and parents. She was made to feel like a person, rather than a piece of property. After her mother died, Linda was sent to live with her mother's mistress, who treated her kindly and took care of her. Shortly afterwards, her mistress also died, and left Linda to her niece, who was still a child as well. The niece's father, Dr. Flint, was cruel to Linda and made sexual advances toward her when she got older. She pursued a relationship with Mr. Sands, a neighboring plantation owner, to save herself from Dr. Flint's attentions.

While Linda is ashamed of her behavior with Mr. Sands, she feels it is better than having to submit to Dr. Flint. Linda becomes pregnant twice and had two children, Ellen and Benny. Dr. Flint becomes enraged at this, and decides to make Linda, Benny and Ellen field hands for Linda's defying him. When Linda finds out about this, she decides to run away, but she does not want to leave her children, so she goes into hiding at the house of her grandmother, Aunt Martha.

Mr. Sands buys their children through a slave trader and sends them to Aunt Martha's to live. Linda is confined to a small space, and becomes permanently disabled from being so cramped, but she can see her children living and playing. She receives news that Mr. Sands, now married and a father with his new wife, has taken Ellen from Aunt Martha's house to Washington, D.C. to take care of his legitimate daughter. Linda, upset that Mr. Sands may never free their children, plans to run north to be truly free and to save her children.

After seven years of hiding from Dr. Flint, she boards a boat and finally escapes. She finds work in New York City with a kind family, the Bruces. She also finds Ellen, who is working for Mr. Sands' cousin. Linda is afraid that Ellen will be taken back South and that she will be unable to save her. Dr. Flint continues to look for Linda and her children, saying that their purchase by Mr. Sands was unlawful, and she runs to Boston, where she is reunited with Benny.

After the death of Mrs. Bruce, Linda goes to England to take care of the Bruces' daughter and experiences a society without racial prejudice. After some time, Linda returns to Boston and sends Ellen to boarding school and Benny to California to live with her brother, William. She spends time taking care of the baby of the new Mrs. Bruce, who is also kind to her.

The Fugitive Slave Act is passed, and it leaves Linda vulnerable to kidnap at the hands of Dr. Flint's daughter, Emily, and her husband, Mr. Dodge, who come to New York looking for Linda after the death of Dr. Flint. Despite Linda's protests at being bought and sold again, Mrs. Bruce pays for her freedom. At the end of the book, Linda still does not have a home of her own, nor is she with her children, but she is free from the horrors of slavery.

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