In the memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, discipline, restraint and self-control play a significant role in the life of slave woman Linda Brent. While there were restrictive qualities in her life of slavery, the productive qualities (such as Linda’s self restraint and discipline) may have been the key factor in her eventual escape from the horrible institution. In her early years, Linda was raised to hold her own moral values and for the first six years of her life she experienced a very happy childhood.
At this young age, however, Linda learned that she was, in fact, a slave although she was clueless as to what that entailed. In chapter one she makes the remark that, “Though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise, trusted to them for safe keeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment;” (8) ? this passage foreshadows her realizations of what a life in slavery demands and belittles a person to. Fortunately, because of her grounded upbringing Linda developed a strong sense of moral value and independence which enabled her to overcome future obstacles.
Before her most horrid years, however, Linda’s first experience of slavery with her mother’s mistress was considered a happy one. She states that, “My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit” (10). This chapter’s significance is essential in recognizing that with Linda’s first mistress she was taught to read and spell, which is a rare privilege for slaves. With an unfortunate turn of events (the death of her mistress) however, Linda is placed into the hands of a new master, Dr. Flint.
Here, readers start to get a sense of how Linda has developed mentally as a female and how her strong-willed nature is consistent throughout the memoir. She learns that the reality of slavery is brutal, especially depending on how cruel the master is. As Linda ages, she encounters great sufferings under the rule of Dr. Flint. It pains her to see her brother, William, endure his cruel punishments knowing that any effort to make their lives more bearable is helpless. Her only escape to temporary happiness is through frequent visits with her grandmother, who was once a slave as well.
Although the visits with her grandmother provide temporary relief from her strenuous life, it cannot protect her from losing her desired feminine virtues. Dr. Flint’s continuous attempts to make Linda submit to him, in a sexual manner, corrupts her moral values and innocence. In these dreaded situations, Linda remains level-headed and does all she can to stay strong. Following this further, sexual harassment towards women in slavery was unfortunately extremely common. Through Linda’s accounts, readers can see how restrictive a life in slavery truly was.
It was entirely dehumanizing towards enslaved women and did not allow them their rights to fulfill their fundamental needs. The sexual abuse and harassment by their white masters forced the women to lose their morals and dignity. They had no law that would legally protect them but rather prevented them from having anything remotely similar to a normal life. They could not marry the man of their choice, keep their desire for purity or even raise a family. If they were trapped in the unfortunate circumstance of bearing a child to her master, they still were not able to protect them from the institution of slavery.
Subsequently, there were thousands of enslaved women who experienced the same rejected desires for purity and their basic human rights. However, Linda knew and accepted the fact that the law worked against them in protecting these rights. Although she accepted this way of life, her self-restraint allowed her to avoid submitting to Dr. Flint even if it was a difficult battle to bear. She explains, “I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property, that I must be subject to his will in all things,” (26).
Dr. Flint abuses Linda mentally and physically, consistently trying to force her into submission and proving his domination over her. She does not give in to his demands, thus showing her self-control and sense of worth. However, while she explains that her “soul revolted against the mean tyranny” (26), she also questions what hope there is for an alternative. As an enslaved woman at that time, the constructed importance of purity was stolen and never seen as a crime. On the contrary, though Linda’s self-discipline helped with the avoidance of Dr.
Flint’s sexual requests, she was still trapped in an extremely restricted quality of life. While she happened to fall in love with a free black man, she was denied the right to marry him according to her master. When she hoped for sympathy from the master’s wife, she received nothing but envy and jealous remarks. This lifestyle would break any human down, to the point where dying seems like the better option than living a life in slavery. As Jacobs’ points out frequently in her memoir, living a life in slavery as a woman is even worse.
Contributing to the restrictive qualities of life as a slave woman, they endured the same harsh treatment as men but also often sacrificed the loss of children (who are most likely the children of their masters) and family members in slave auctions. For Linda, she knew that the harassment and emotional abuse would not end so long as she remained at the hands of Dr. Flint. To avoid being trapped in the home that he was creating for her, she makes the rebellious decision to enter into a sexual relationship with an unmarried white man, Mr.
Sands, who has taken an interest in her. By bearing this man’s child, Linda believes that the act does not appear so wrong if she was able to have at least some choice in this decision. Her need for independence and the desire to make her own decisions is a strong theme throughout the memoir. Every decision she is able to make herself seems to be for a better cause, even if it puts her through suffering. This characteristic helps push her through the difficult years in slavery and motivates her to do all that she can to escape it.
Further, even when Linda was denied her basic human rights and legal protection, she continued to hold her head high. She remained disciplined in the aspect that she never lost hope for the future and never gave up on herself or her family. After she had children with Mr. Sands, Linda accepted her parental responsibilities and tried to provide for them as much as her lifestyle would permit. This seems to be a very productive quality in her life and in the life of her children. She embraces the value of a strong family bond and desires nothing more than freedom for her children and for herself.
In a letter written by Jacobs’ to Amy post in 1857, she discusses the difficulty in writing of her sexual oppression as well as noting that she does not ask for sympathy for it. She states,” the world might believe that a Slave woman was too willing to pour out—that she might *gain* their sympathies I ask nothing— I have placed myself before you to be judged as a woman *whether* I deserve your pity or contempt. ”(Jacobs). Her strong-will and determined nature is what drove her to pursue a life of freedom for her and her children.
On the other hand, one could argue that because of Linda’s disciplined responsibilities as a mother, she is somewhat trapped in the world of slavery. Unlike male slaves, Linda is bound by the emotional attachments that come with being a mother. She knows that she could easily run away from the plantation on her own, however, now that she has children the task is not so simple. Linda understands that by the rules of slavery her children are the property of Dr. Flint. She cannot bear to think about leaving them behind in his hands even though she longs for a free life in the North.
Linda comments that a slave woman, “may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies. ” (74). As readers can recognize, ensuring as much protection to her children as possible was a priority in Linda’s life regardless if the system allowed it or not. Further, another example of Linda’s self-control is her ability to conceal her education and progression of learning to read and write.
While, of course, she was not a proficient writer during the immediate years of her escape, she had the advantage of knowing the basic fundamentals of literacy. By hiding letters, books and a Bible in her grandmother’s house, Linda was able to teach herself the basic understandings of reading and writing. Due to the fact that so many slaves could not read, they were kept ignorant to the laws of slavery. Linda on the other hand was well aware of her human rights and knew that living a life in freedom is not something that needed to be granted.
By educating herself in secrecy, she was able to get her and her children ahead in life. In addition, Linda’s strong sense of self-worth eventually allows her to overcome major obstacles. She never loses hope that she will someday have a home and normal life and be allowed to marry the man of her choice. Her self-restraint allows her to endure any pain and suffering while maintaining self respect, all for the sake of her children. Linda’s independent nature also lets Dr. Flint know that she will never submit to him, in turn only making her desire for leading her own life even stronger.
However, after Linda has endured many years of slavery and becomes a mother, her rebellious and strong willed ways are somewhat subdued. She still has dreams of leading a better life in the North, but knowing that her children remained property of Dr. Flint, she knows that she can never abandon them until they are free as well. Accordingly, there seems to be countless ways in which Linda exemplified her inner strength and feelings of self-worth. While she showed readers her physical strength, what is more impressive was her ability maintain sanity nd psychological strength. Particularly, her inner strength is greatly shown when she was forced to live in her grandmother’s attic in hiding for seven months. Not only were the conditions in the attic appalling, but the consequences of her being caught were unimaginable as well. Also, Linda had to suffer not seeing or speaking to her children for the months she spent in the attic. This must have been extremely disheartening, especially when she could hear her children speaking when they were nearby.
In one instance she heard Benny say, “Dr. Flint, I don’t know where my mother is. I guess she’s in New York, and when you go there again, I wish you’d ask her to come home, for I want to see her; but if you put her in jail, or tell her you’ll cut her head off, I’ll tell her to go right back. ” (98). As one could imagine, Linda felt helpless inside knowing that she could not answer Benny, but she remained level-headed about these situations. Her self-control is unthinkable and shows just how much she is willing to sacrifice for freedom.
This, of course, is an extremely productive quality that she maintained all throughout her years in slavery. Through the insufferable events that occurred in her life and her ability to stay strong, Linda was able to succeed in making it to the North where she could begin living a life in freedom and support her children. Similarly, Linda illustrates her emotional strength and courage by sharing her story to the world. As it was a huge risk to take, she followed through with completing her memoir mainly in hopes of spreading her knowledge on the real institution of slavery.
In a statement made by Amy Post speaking of Linda’s bravery in writing this memoir, she remarks that, “I repeatedly urged to consent to the publication of her narrative; for I felt that it would arouse people to a more earnest work for the disinthralment of millions still remaining in that soul-crushing condition, which was so unendurable to her. ” (165). Amy recognized as well what inner strength Harriet possessed and how difficult it was for her to share her story. The encouragement that she gave to Jacobs’ helped her through the trying times of getting her story out to the world.
Post also discusses that at one point she felt Harriet’s story was, “too sacred to be drawn from her by inquisitive questions,” (166) however she still encouraged her to publish her astonishing story. Amy also explains that even in talking with Harriet, she cried frequently and seemed to, “suffer such mental agony. ” (166). Thankfully, Jacobs’ followed through with her writings and knew that publishing her memoir would be for the better good. She succeeded in opening the eyes of readers to the horrors of slavery and gained support in her efforts to end it.
To conclude, Harriet Jacobs’ memoir is a significant piece of literary work that cannot be forgotten. It gives readers the opportunity to understand the wretched realities of slavery, particularly towards women. Though at times her accounts are difficult to bear, the reader is left with a better understanding of the difficulties African Americans had to face and the sexual exploitations that slave women had to suffer through. Nothing but gratitude can be expressed for Jacobs’ brave choice to make this narrative public, allowing readers to truly grasp the horrors of slavery and what it meant to be enslaved.