|No Storybook Ending
In her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs narrates her trials of slavery and her sacrifices made for herself and her family to reflect the values of domesticity that would have been familiar to her white female audience in the northern states of America. Though the contrasts between slavery and privileges of whiteness are made vibrant throughout her autobiography, Jacobs is able to evoke her reader’s awareness of their relegation to the domestic sphere through her experience of living among white culture and thus, make her yearning for freedom and a home for her children understandable to her readers. The ending of her autobiography allows her readers to see that freedom is not inclusive to happiness; and that through all her pain and sacrifice she was able to become free, but remains unfulfilled as she is left unmarried and without a home for herself and her family.
Jacobs’s autobiography was directed towards attracting the northern middle-class white female audience of America. She shaped her work to align the subjection due to her race, with a similar kind of detention that men forced on women regardless of their color. In Incidents, slavery leads to all violations of freedom throughout Linda Brent’s life, including that of her decision to choose whom she can marry. Jacobs presents the reader with the rhetorical question, “Why does the slave ever love?” (Jacobs, 924), focusing her reader on romantic love and how African American romance was shaped by slavery, “If you must have a husband, you may take up with one of my slaves” (Jacobs, 925) Flint exclaims, forcing Linda to submit herself to only his slaves if she wished to be married. The white woman who pleaded Jacobs’s case for marriage to Dr. Flint symbolizes the degree of autonomy at the time, as her good deeds represent white women’s knowledge of the system of oppressive structures and thus, her willingness to help Linda plea her case. Jacobs’s audience at the time would have been familiar with this willingness to help plea a case for another woman’s freedom, not because they were abolitionists but more so because they would have shared similar experiences with autonomy and suppression in their own lives through living in Nineteenth century America.
Jacobs was able to further associate her experiences with her audiences who would have, based on their experiences in patriarchal society America, understood her decisions to disrupt the cultural taboos of expected female chastity for her safety against the aggressive demands of another man. Through aligning these similarities Jacobs also shows the visibilities between the two races; for instance a white woman would never be beaten, raped or threatened to be killed over the question of marriage like Linda had by Dr. Flint. Jacobs uses the circumstances of Linda Brent’s situation to foregrounded her pseudonym’s decisions to sleep with Mr. Sands in order to protect her from the aggressive sexual demands of Mr. Flint. She signals her awareness of female sexual understanding, “I knew what I did and I did it with deliberate calculation” (Jacobs, 929), stating her mindfulness that she defied the current bans of sexual desire and interracial race for women in the nineteenth century. She later tells the reader, “Pity me… you never knew what it was like to be a slave.” (Jacobs, 930), pleading to her audience that they have no idea what it was like experience the horrors of sexual abuse and rape like she had. Her plea informs her white readers that slaves should not be judged with the same moral values as the whites: slaves had no control over their bodies or their freedoms and had to pay extreme physical and mental consequences as a result of their subjectivity.
Jacobs uses her knowledge of the current condition of white women during her time and how they were relegated to the caring of their children, in attempt to forefront her maternal sacrifices. Linda knew she would be unable to escape to the North with two children, nevertheless would she do anything but abandon her family, “Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my lot as a slave.” (Jacobs, 934) exclaiming her desires to be locked up in a free State to ensure her children’s freedom over her own. Linda’s seven-year concealment in her Aunt Martha’s attic further symbolizes the consequences of motherhood for slaves; as Linda remains captive in concealment, she continues to place her children’s freedom above her own. Jacobs constructs Linda’s sacrifice as an opportunity to free her children from the oppressions of slavery in hopes for a positive future, “no thoughts could occupy my mind, except the dreary past and the uncertain future!” (Jacobs, 936), where the hopes of preserving a positive future for her family outweighs her own freedom and thus, symbolizes the arbitration of motherhood defeated by racial oppression during her time. Through her understanding women’s conditions during ninetieth century America, Linda is able to direct her reader’s considerations to her circumstances through justifying them as the only way to ensure her children’s safety and protection from slavery.
Upon gaining freedom, Jacobs boldly discloses her reader with the fact that her freedom does not conclude with the inevitable happy ending, “Reader my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way with marriage.” (Jacobs, 941), alluding marriage as the “usual way” to the story book ending one would expect after reading upon her long trials of hardships and sacrifice. Jacobs makes this point to remind her readers that her story is not of the norm; it challenges literary conventions of the time dealing with the injustices of slavery and with that, her story cannot be expected to have a happy ending. As Jacobs notes, she is unmarried and is still waiting to have her biggest dream fulfilled, “The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own.” (Jacobs, 941). Linda’s desire for a home for her children would reflect the values of true womanhood, something her readers would be familiar with as it was the prevailing value system among women during Nineteenth century America. In ending Incidents, Jacob’s makes the strong point of telling her readers that even after all her sacrifice, her family is still unable to live happily in freedom, “I still long for a hearthstone of my own…I wish it for my children’s sake far more than my own.” (Jacobs, 941), noting freedom as something that does not come with fulfillment as she remains without a home for herself and her children. Jacobs notes that though her story may be over, black women cannot simply resurrect their goal to fulfill their families or their own happiness in a nation that remains under the oppressions of slavery.
Harriet Jacob’s autobiography Incidents is a direct representation of the evils for slavery held for women in nineteenth century United States. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl deliberately shows how slavery leads to all sorts of violation of a woman’s body, mind, children, and all together, freedom. In writing her story, Jacobs focused on not just the subjection due to her race imposed by men, but how it gave voice to the same captivity they imposed on women regardless of their race in her era. In showing the similarities between how men dominated women of all color, Jacobs effectively familiarized her northern white audience with her experiences of oppression from the patriarchal society of America during her time. Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography is not only a powerful depiction of her life in slavery; but also a powerful statement revealing the unfeasibility of achieving happiness within freedom put forth by the autonomic and racial society of Nineteenth century America.
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2008. Print.