Thispaper undertakes a critical analysis of the Incidentsin the Life of a Slave Girlby Harriet Jacobs focusing on the four cardinal tenets of the‘typical womanhood’ in the social and historical setting of thebook namely, piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness: albeit inthe context of the selected perilous passage [provided in Appendix1]. The selected excerpt from the book is centrally positioned at theheart of the book’s thematic presentation and is complete with allthe important patriarchal constructs that form the essence of thebook in its entirety. Essentially, the book is a revelation ofsocietal paradox where individuals are expected to conform tosocietal imperatives (piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity)without due regard to the tenets of what structures an individual’sperception of conformity. This holds true as far as the selectedpassage is concerned and the following sections of this essay arededicated to justifying this assertion. It is important to note atthis very early point in the essay that the perilous passage isextracted from the book in a context following the confessions of aslave woman to the reader about her sexual history going against thenorms that required her to be pure, piety and more so, submissive (toMr. Flint).
Inthe passage, Linda Brent begins by asking for forgiveness stating,“Pityme and pardon me…”The strength of these words cannot be overestimated they represent aclear effort made by Linda Brent, the antagonist character in HarrietJacob’s book to ask the reader for forgiveness. The reason she doesthis is that she has fallen short of the ideals of womanhood in thesociety as disguised by her admiration for and sexual escapades withMr. Sands yet she has a deport husband, Mr. Flint. The essence ofthis phrase for the endeavor of the essay is to elaborate thecardinal tenets of the book, and their conception from theperspective provided by Linda Brent in the book as manifest in theselected passage (See Appendix 1). This phrase is best understood inits extrapolation, thus, “Pityme and pardon me, Oh virtuous reader, I know I did wrong…”(Jacobs 2349). Taken together, this statement is a comprehensiveapology in the sense that the subject actually accepts that shetrespassed. One cannot fail to note that she refers to the reader as“virtuous,” ostensibly to appeal to the reader’sself-righteousness. This statement makes for the confessions of afallen angel since women were supposed to be submissive, piety, pureand domestic-based members of the male-dominated society, conventionsthat Linda Brent failed to observe. Intuitively, the author uses herto elaborate how effective the male-oriented conventions in thesociety of the book’s setting were to women. More aptly, if womendid not observe the very rules, then as far as they (women) areconcerned, they had grossly trespassed.
However,there is no statement that better espouses the atrocities of slaveryin the disguise of being a woman in the 19thCentury American society than that made by Linda Brent: “Younever knew what it is to be a slave to be entirely unprotected bylaw or custom”(Jacobs p. 2349). Attaching this statement to her apology, Lindaachieves the effect of appealing to the emotions of the reader byproviding the sad situation that characterizes slavery. Through thischaracter, the reader is effective in showing that as much as therewas no state of anarchy in the society, the laws were repressive andskewed in favor of the male gender. This statement from the excerptrepresents the epitome of the gender politics that characterized themid-19th-centuryAmerican society in which being female subjected one to subordinationas a matter of necessity and as a way of life. That the writer adoptsto use narration from a victim’s perspective and self is not byaccident: he intends to let the magnitude of the situation weighheavily on the reader, a literary artisanship perfected by HarrietJacobs. To prevent any ambiguity, Linda Brent proceeds to explainthat the law does not only fail to protect women, but suppresses themfurther. She observes that the system works “tohave the laws reduce you to the condition of chattel, entirely thesubject to the will of another”(Jacobs p. 2349). This is an apt description of the instrumentalnature of what the law conceived women to be. The significance of thestatement to this essay is to show how difficult it is to observe thelaw when the individual is denied intrinsic dignity and freedom. Tobe systematic in this analysis involves evaluating the conditionsunder which Linda Brent was expected to conform to the laws and hersincerity in the apology provided in the preceding paragraph thusrevealing some conceptual inconsistencies. For this section, herapology is valid and logical because she accepts her mistake, but itis not sound because of the conditions that justify her mistakes.
Theauthor, as manifest in the excerpt, is more determined to elucidatethat extent of the atrocities that confronted the slaves in thecustody of their masters. The book is replete with tales of physicaland psychological torture that such slaves went through and so is theselected perilous passage. In the statement, Linda Brent does notexpect the reader to appreciate her circumstance so accurately bynoting, “Younever exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eludingthe power of a hated tyrant you never shuddered at the sound of hisfootsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice”(Jacobs p. 2349). This statement has a creative approach in swayingthe reader to accept Linda’s apology but most importantly, toprovide the reader with an insight into the significance of physicaland psychological wellbeing in helping individuals conform to social,legal, political and economic imperatives. To undertake a robustcritique of the book in the context of the passage, it is importantthat this essay provides a two-fold conception of the subjectstatement of this paragraph. Firstly, the literary style used worksmuch more effectively if the book is to be conceived as anargumentative essay, part of which it actually is. This reason isthat by not expecting the reader to understand the conditions underwhich she lives, the slave is actually pursuing the reader to “puther/himself into her shoes” and therefore understand her situationin its entirety. Secondly, the statement presents a perplexingcontradiction of how the society expects individuals to be pure,submissive and piety when they are treated so inhumanly by the verysociety.
Abook that is as much about socio-political dimensions as it is aboutlegal imperatives, Incidentsin the Life of a Slave Girl providesinvaluable insights into what goes on in the mind of individuals inthe society after performing acts that can be construed as trespass.Questions as to whether people accept their mistakes and takeresponsibility for their actions are aptly addressed by the book andin the selected passage. In the passage, Linda Brent posits, “Iknow I did wrong. No one can feel it more sensibly than I do. Thepainful and humiliating memory will haunt me to my dying day”(Jacobs p. 2349). In this statement, the character reinforces heracknowledgment of the mistake she did by failing to be pure andsubmissive to one Mr. Flint (much as he was as despot) only that thistime she does it with recognition of the magnitude of what sheconceives as her shortcoming. It is important to note that bycontending that nobody else can feel the weight of her mistakes,Linda seeks to achieve two objectives that this essay brieflyexamines as constructs of the entire book that are manifest in thepassage. First is the style of writing and the intended aim of thestatement by the writer in which he ostensibly seeks to show howeffective the gender politics in the society were to the extent thatthe oppressed parties felt obliged to respect them to the letter.This is evident when the oppressed individual (represented by Linda)makes a self-confession of how strongly he/ she uphold the law to theextent that nobody else can conceive other than himself or herself.Secondly, the author makes a general appeal to the contemporarysociety that even if the law and the society do not identify andpunish wrongdoers, their conscious will never let them free.
Thefinal part of the selected passage reveals the key objective of thewriter in the book in which he makes a convincing case thatmarginalized people in the society should not be subjected to equalstandards as other members of the society as far as evaluation ofconformity to the social, economic, political, religious and culturalideals are concerned. In the statement, “still,looking back, calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slavewoman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others”(Jacobs p. 2350) Linda Brent expresses her dissatisfaction with therigidity of mechanics used to discern trespass in the society.Intuitively, she expects the society to take into account thesocio-economic, psychological and emotional predispositions ofindividuals while judging them. This essay recognizes theeffectiveness of the writer in using narrations of a victim of genderpolitics in a male-dominated society. More aptly, Harriet Jacobs usesLinda Brent to narrate the challenges that confront marginalizedindividuals in the society and he is particularly effective in thisendeavor by providing Linda’s opinions and moral dilemmas. Thisbook (as manifested in the last statement of the passage) has theeffect of withholding moral judgment on conformity subject toevaluation of the socio-economic factors that impinge on individuals.
Inconclusion, the book reviewed in this essay in the context of theselected passage provides insights into the life of a slave girl(representing marginalized individuals in the society) from anindividual victim’s perspective as well as the societalperspective. The book is a revelation of the perennial paradox in thesociety where a society expects individuals to conform tosocio-cultural and political imperatives (purity, piety,submissiveness and domesticity) without considering the fundamentalconstructs of wellness that structure an individual’s perception ofconformity.
Jacobs,Harriet.Incidentsin the Life of a Slave Girl. Heath Anthology of American Literature,Vol. B, 7thed Eds. Paul Lauter, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2014, 2340-2366.
Appendix1: The Selected Passage