Harriet Jacob's autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, is a traditionally fashioned slave narrative printed around 1861. In it, one sees a fascinating and tragic personal view into the American past that both parallels traditional histories and also highlights elements of those histories that might otherwise escape notice. If it were not for such slave narratives, the dominant literary discourse of the era might have remained in the hands of those who were responsible for slavery or supported it economically in other ways. While one can see in this story a definite sense of bowing to overwhelming white preconceptions and moralities, particularly in terms of the expected behavior of a "virtuous" unmarried girl, there is also a large amount of what must have then been controversial condemnation of many of the aspects of American culture. Through providing this alternate perspective to the dominant narratives of her day, Jacobs contributes to our modern sense of American history a very personal and intimate encounter with the nightmarish truths of slavery. Incidents... is a work in which the setting, plot, morality, and characters in their own time worked together to create a polemic against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law, and in this modern era serve to give insight into the very real human face of the suffering and the triumphs in our history books.
The setting for this tale begins in the more Northernly of the slave-owning states, and at the end is transferred to the actual Northern Free States. These setting allow the author not only criticize the "peculiar institution" of slavery in the South, but also to make cutting and vital observations about problems in the North such as prejudice and laws which returned slaves to their masters. One of Jacobs main points regarding slavery is a refutation of the idea that slavery is in any way beneficial for society at large. She refutes this idea by trying to expose the corruption that exists across Southern culture as a result of slavery. One gets a sense of rot and complicity from her description of the Southern setting which is obviously designed to act against the idea of slavery. She presents Southern marriages as less stable and devoted, and the Southern environment itself as somehow unfriendly. At some points her seeming contention that all Southerners are tainted is countered by the action of the whites in her tale. For whatever reason, and one might just blame this on Harriet's own good luck or good looks, a surprisingly large percentage of the white people she encounters seem willing to lend her aid even when to do so puts their own self in risk. However, this does not entirely counter the atmosphere of hatred and oppression that she portrays. Indeed, in many ways the life Jacob leads is not so bad in the particulars (she is not a plantation slave, and is in fact never beaten by any of her owners), but is made bad by this poisonous atmosphere which the setting of slavery lends it.
The later Northern setting is less poisonous early on, but she becomes increasingly unhappy with it as she discovers the pervasive prejudice that place blacks as second class citizens. For example, blacks are forced to ride in substandard transportation, are not allowed to take their meals in the same dining facilities as whites, and may be disallowed from having certain lodging options. What really makes the North oppressive, however, is the moment when the Fugitive Slave Laws are passed, and runaways such as herself find themselves hunted across the North and put in danger of going back to their masters. This makes the North a de-facto set of slave states, for escaped slaves within it remain chattel. So it is that towards the end of the novel, the character's new white friends end up buying her from the Southern slave owners who had come North to hunt her down. She records this as evidence that even the supposedly enlightened North becomes barbaric once any degree of influence of slave culture is admitted. Jacobs description of these settings, particularly her portrayal of the differences between the climes and the way in which slavery infects the morality of those who practice it, are extremely evocative of the moral and emotional side of history that might otherwise be lost amid the more academic details of the North/South divide, the Fugitive laws, and other macroscopic elements of history before the Civil War.
The plot of the story is relatively simple, though there are many layers of complexity. Essentially it is the tale of a slave girl who seeks to escape from a master who wishes to sexually abuse her, and attempts many ways of doing so -- once she finally succeeds, he continues to seek to recapture her and return her to slavery in the South. However, the actual story is more complicated than that. The tale begins with Linda (the author's pseudonym) as an innocent child in a home where her mother and grandmother are both treasured family slaves with some measure of freedom. When her mother and then her mistress die in rapid succession, the family is split up and she is forced to go live with the lecherous Dr. Flint and his wife. Her grandmother, however, is eventually freed through the generous intervention of an elderly white woman. Dr. Flint's wife is cruel to Linda, because she knows her husband wishes to sleep with the girl. Meanwhile, Linda must also fend off his advances. He refuses to let her get married, and also refuses to sell her to her grandmother. Eventually she hits upon the idea of sleeping with another white man -- a man of her choice -- in hopes that his power will help her somehow. At that point Mrs. Flint thinks Linda is pregnant with her husband's child and sends her out of the house to live with her grandmother. Linda gives birth to two children a few years apart, Benny and Ellen. Still her master tries to force himself on her. Eventually he sends her to live with his son on a plantation. She knows that plantation slaves suffer much more than others, and resolves never to let her two children feel the lash of slavery. To prevent their being sent out to where she is, she runs away. For the next eight years she remains in hiding in the same town where she was born, and seven of that is spent in a small corner above a closet in which she has barely enough room to turn around and can never come down. Her children are sent to jail with her brother, to lure her out of hiding, but their father convinces Dr. Flint to sell them and gives their ownership to their great-grandmother.
Eventually Linda manages to get away to the North, where she is reunited with her children. However, Dr. Flint is still searching for her. She gets a job as a nursemaid, and spends long months away from her children. Her daughter goes to school, and her son lives with his uncle. When the Fugitive Slave Law is passed, Dr. Flint is luckily deceased. However, his daughter comes to the North again to try to reclaim Linda as her possession. Linda goes into hiding, but her employers decide to buy her freedom from the Flints. They pay $300 for the rights to her and her children, and even though slavery is illegal in the North this does give Linda the right to be free from fear of recapture.
The plot revolves not even so much around the action, which is exciting and compelling, as it does around the moral lessons to be learned. The position of powerlessness in which Linda finds herself compels her to lose her "virtue" (e.g. her sexual innocence), and devalues her choices as a woman. Not only does slavery thus "ruin" her, but she graphically describes the way in which it ruins the lives of black and white women alike throughout the south. The moral and very Christian message of the story is undisguised, as the best and purest characters in the story (such as her grandmother) are always characterized by Christian piety, while the worst characters in the story who happen to also be religious are roundly condemned as hypocrites and false guides. This book is certainly noteworthy in the way in which it presents the need for the abolition of slavery not just as something required for the slaves, but also as an issue of women's liberation. The problem throughout the South of masters (and occasionally mistresses) begetting mulatto children with their slaves is more openly addressed than one might expect from a book of this era, and the discussion of how nearly-white children are consistently sold into slavery was no doubt outrageous to many. Jacobs speaks of mulatto women giving birth to their master's daughters who are in turn molested by their own…