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River Runs Through Her: River Imagery and Symbolism in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl"
Water symbolism, and especially that of the river, is integral to Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Rivers, with their winding waters, are not just part of the geographic landscape or the natural world. For Jacobs, rivers and all bodies of water have both practical and symbolic functions. The river forms a physical barrier between places; it divides states and physical locations. Rivers divide cites like Philadelphia and they provide natural borders between cities and states. Rivers also help delineate the North and the South, which in Jacobs' time was eminently significant. Therefore, the river is a metaphorical barrier between slavery and freedom. The oppressive plantations of the south are separated from the Free States in the north by these flowing bodies of water. In Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, rivers extend into larger bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay, which provide access to the various modes of transportation available at the time like rowboats and larger transport vessels. For the slave, and Jacobs in particular, the river implies a literal journey from one place to the next, and this physical journey parallels the journey from slavery to freedom. The river also symbolizes the lifetime journey between birth and death. The river is described frequently in the text as a place of death. The raging waters can drown a man like James or the woman described in Chapter XXII, killing their pain. However, more than anything, the river is a means to escape in Jacobs' narrative; it is the place of freedom. As such, the river can provide safe passage from the south to the Free states in the north. As Jacobs notes on page 237, the river was "safe method for escape." Because the river offers a safe passage to freedom, it also functions as a symbol of spiritual liberation throughout Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Harriet Jacobs, writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent, illustrates her twenty-seven years spent as a slave and her numerous journeys along the way. Her friends and family members frequently had to take risks in order to escape their tyrannical masters. Because of the geography of the states Jacobs lived in during the course of her life, rivers serve an integral purpose to the narrative. Moreover, water is an overarching motif in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. For example, Jacobs describes her grandmother as "sinking under her burdens," (228). The imagery of "sinking" parallels the other instances of river and water symbolism in the text. The horrors of slavery are like weights dragging the soul down into the depths of water. Here, water is a means to die. The narrator describes two key incidents in which slaves willingly used the river to commit suicide, to willingly drown their burdens. The first occurs on page 36, in Chapter IV. Benjamin longed for his freedom and tried to arrange for safe passage on the waterways. He was about to jump into the river to end his woes, for he was imprisoned. But, "He told her that when he was captured, he broke away, and was about casting himself into the river, when thoughts of her came over him, and he desisted," (36). Benjamin tried to escape alive using the means of the river, and he also tried to escape the burdens of life through the symbolic implications of the river. Thus, the river is a place of escape, release, relief, and freedom in Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
The river is the safest means to freedom throughout the text, but the river and all bodies of water still carry the potential of death. However, physical death is no worse than the physical bondage the slaves must endure. The river, whether it takes life or offers a new life, is a definite means of salvation. Either the slave is brought to freedom via the transport vessels, or the slave attains freedom through death. In Chapter XXIII, the narrator describes a woman who, because she is being pursued by two cruel men, decides to end her life in the river. "To escape the degredation and torture, she rushed to the river, jumped in,…[continue]
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Works Cited Baumgarten, Linda. (2002). What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Bilhartz, Terry D., and Elliott, Alan C. (2007). Currents in American History: A Brief History of the United States, Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. Crunden, Robert Morse. (1996). A Brief History of American Culture. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. Fisher, John Hurt. (2001). "British and American, Continuity and Divergence"