Harriet Jacob


Harriet Jacob’s The Life Of A Slave Girl Essay, Research Paper

Biography and History: Harriet Jacob’s The Life of a Slave Girl

To be a good writer, you must posess a careful balance between detachment

and association, a delicate waltz where you are not so wrapped up in the events

of a story that it alienates the reader, and yet not so far separated from the

subject matter that the readers cannot get into it. This is espectially the

case in an autobiographical narrative. In this case, it is very difficult to

detach yourself from the main subject matter, that is, yourself. Yet it must

remain a story, and the story at its heart is a reconstruction of facts from the

memory of the author. In the case of Harriet Jacobs, it was also important that

she make sure the readers understood slavery from a woman’s perspective. The

hardships she had to endure not only entailed the work and the punishments, but

also the sexual aspect of being a slave-girl. Her task is difficult, because in

order for the reader to really understand her position as a woman and a slave,

she must make the story extremely personal. If it is too personal, however, the

reader looses sight of the bigger picture, and does not relate all these

hardships to the condition of the general female slave. She accomplishes this

in two ways, through her writing style, and the writing content.

The style that the novel is written varies from a dialogue to a narrative,

depending on the subject matter being written about. For example, the dialogue

where Mrs. Flint confronts Linda (Jocobs) and asks her what has been going on

with her husband is handled very effectively, because as a conversation between

two people, we are able to pick up on the nuances of meaning. Also, it makes the

situation seem to the reader as very exhilarating, because we don’t know what’s

going to happen next. Two paragraphs later, though, the story has turned back

into narrative, because Jacobs is trying to examine the entire situation in her

present day, as a free woman. She has to be detached from the conversation in

order for her to draw any conclusions. The conclusion she draws is that even

though they are in different circumstances, (Linda is a slave and Mrs. Flint is

her mistress), they both have a shared problem as women — that is, the problems

of infedelity. This general topic cannot be dealt with effectively unless it is

done at a distance, looking back with the experience she has gained.

Jacobs does this a lot — she takes her own present-day experiences and

places them in the framework of her past. When she gives us an account of the

Slaves’ New Year’s Day, she addresses the readers personally, whom are all free

men and women. First she gives us the facts of the matter: the auction block,

the anxious waiting before families are separated. Then she compares it to the

present. In order to shock her readers and make this story hit closer to home,

she asks us to compare our New Year’s Day with the slaves’. While we are

partying and enjoying ourselves, the slaves await the day when they will be sold.

Mothers fear that their children will be taken from them, rebellious slaves

fear they will be beaten. We just don’t understand what slavery is unless we

are given a direct contrast like this.

Another method to get the readers to truly understand her problems is to

try to compare feelings with situations. For example, at one point her style

changes to rhetorical questions, aimed to catch the reader off-guard and make

them think, not just read and comprehend. After she tells Mr. Flint about her

intentions to marry a free black man, he tells her that she will never marry him,

nor will she ever be free. This is written in a dialogue-style. Then, it

quickly turns personal: she asks the readers, “Did you ever hate? I hope not.

I never did but once…” She later accuses the readers of an almost blissful

ignorance to this point: “But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been

sheltered from shildhood, 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 severley!” In this manner, she asks the readers to forgive her

for her sexual actions. Naturally, this is not really necessary, but it is an

affective writing tool to get us to look on our own lives as easy in comparison

to hers.

As a writer, Jacobs has to make herself look more human and real to the

readers, because they come into the book with pre-conceieved notions about

slavery. She does this by writing occasional sarcastic comments, the kind that

we all make in our lives. When her grandmother lends her mistress the money she

has saved, she can only hope to get it back based on the word of the woman.

“The honor of a slaveholder to a slave!” she remarks sarcastically. What is

important to Jacobs is that the people reading the story really understand

what’s going on. It isn’t enough that they be sorry for her, they must be

enraged at the injustices. She chooses these small sections out of her life

because she feels they will be the most influential over the reader. It is

supposed to be a persuasive story, not some self-pitying account of her poor’

life. “I draw no imaginary pictures of southern homes. I am telling you the

plain truth,” she explains. There is no intentional deceit in the chapters that

she writes, because that would work against her. Her message is simple, she

explains it in a dialogue with her brother:

“He grew vexed, and asked if poverty and hardships with freedom, were not

preferable to our treatment in slavery. Linda,’ he continued, we are

dogs here;

foot-balls, cattle, every thing that’s mean. No, I will not stay. Let

them bring

me back. We don’t die but once.’”

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