In the history of literature, authors have chosen to use a pseudonym for many reasons. A pseudonym is a fake name used by an author in order to conceal his or her real identity, often for the author’s protection or to avoid prejudices that might otherwise prevent many individuals from reading the author’s work. In the case of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs chose to write under the pseudonym Linda Brent. Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as a slave narrative, which diverged greatly from the typical style and structure of slave narratives of the time, which were typically written by men in the hope of gaining white sympathy and support for abolition. Her narrative discussed many subjects- such as sexual abuse of female slaves- that, in general, would not be well received. She chose to use a pseudonym as a way of protecting herself and her relatives, namely her grandmother and children. Jacobs used Linda Brent to tell her story. Through Linda, Jacobs gives herself a voice and the power to voice the truth about the hardships she and many other slaves faced. Once can imagine that it cannot be easy to write one’s own life story, especially one that is filled with so much trauma, abuse, and oppression. Linda Brent, it would seem, allows Harriet Jacobs to discuss the truth of her life- the cruelty she faced at the hands of her master’s, the relationship that developed between her and her grandmother, the losses she endured, her struggle to free her own children- without revealing their identities and endangering their lives. Through the use of Linda, she creates a protective layer of pseudonyms between herself and her family and the telling of her story. Emotionally, Linda helps Jacobs cope with telling her tragic story; allowing herself to tell “Linda’s story” when describing her own painful experiences. Harriet uses Linda to create a connection with her reader. She connects with women, no matter their race, as she frequently refers to the reader and attempts to justify her actions.
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A metaphor, used in literature, is a way to create a comparison between a situation or experience of a character and something familiar to the reader. It allows an author to emphasize the relevance of a situation within the literature by creating a parallel with something that is more easily relatable or familiar to the audience. Metaphors often establish imagery and allow a deeper connection to form with the reader’s emotions. In chapter 5 of Harriet Jacobs Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Linda Brent describes the advances made on her, starting at the age of 15, by her master and the relationship that develops between her and Ms. Flint. She goes on to give an allegory, a tale of two young sisters who once played together. One was white, the other her black slave. No matter how happy the two young girls appeared, Linda knows that their paths would inevitably diverge. The white girl would grow into a gracefully easy life, her “pathway blooming with flowers”, while for the young slave, who was “also, was very beautiful”, “ the flowers and sunshine of love were not for her. She drank the cup of sin, and shame, and misery, whereof her persecuted race are compelled to drink” (Jacobs, 36). The metaphor perfectly contrasts the lives the two young girls will face. The flowers and sunshine clearly showing the reader the comparative ease and happiness with which the beautiful white child will liver her life. While her sister, a slave to her skin color will be forced into a life of sin and shame. She will lose her innocence and outgrow her childhood years before her white sister. She will be forced to “drink the cup of sin”, she will be degraded, abused, and humiliated because she is viewed as nothing more than the property of another human being. She is not a person, she will not be loved as her white sister, but rather used and humiliated by the system that forces this shame upon her. Harriet knows all too well the fate of this still innocent child, as she herself finds her innocence being brutally ripped from her grasp. At only 15, she has already lost any hope of protection from this cruel life; she has been forced to drink from the cup, and will never again be the happy child who knows nothing of the way she is viewed, the way she will always be treated. Harriet, as every slave child before her, has had to face the cruelty of the system, an experience from which she will never recover, never regain her innocence. She will never be able to cast away the sin and shame and misery that were forced upon her. She will she never forget this cruelty that destroyed her childhood, for no other reason than she was born a black slave.
An allusion is a reference in literature that usually requires the reader to have some familiarity with the source that is being referenced. Allusion can be a very powerful tool if the reader grasps it’s intended significance. Allusions are typically quite passive or casual and require the reader to be familiar with the person, place, thing, or work, which is referenced in order to recognize that there was indeed an allusion and understand the subtleties and oftentimes thematic importance stated within that allusion. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs alludes to the Bible in several instances. In Chapter 1, Jacobs utilizes a biblical allusion that seems to carry a special significance. Her master taught her of the Gospels and the commandments. She was taught “the precepts of God’s Word: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them’ ”(Jacobs 9). The very person who taught her how people are supposed to be treated owned her as a slave. This juxtaposition holds a special significance when understanding the life of a slave. She was taught ethics, taught to treat others as she would want to be treated, taught that she is a human and thus deserves to be treated well, by a master who owned her as though she were nothing more than property. While her master, before she died, was kind, she nonetheless owned her and treated her as property to be owned and cared for. Because of her skin tone, she would never be considered “a neighbor”, worthy of the treatment the bible claimed to be right. The bible itself depicts harshly the life of a slave, violence and brutality obvious, despite the supposed belief that all of God’s creations should be treated with kindness and respect. Harriet must come to terms with this reality as she reconciles her religion with the life she must live.
Sexual attentions from a master to a slave were, unfortunately, quite common. A girl born into slavery likely had to deal with unwanted sexual attentions from a young age. Harriet, harrowed by her master for sexual favors like many young women in slavery, had to decide her reaction. Should she fight and risk humiliation and jealousy or retaliation from her master’s wife, or should she submit. Harriet choses to father the children of Mr. Sands. Her children’s names are Benny and Ellen. She makes this choice in order to escape the sexual attentions of Dr. Flint, who has pursued her since she was 15. Harriet was also wary of Ms. Flint, who was clearly jealous of Dr. Flint’s advancements. Harriet is desperate to escape the sexual interests of Dr. Flint because she considers him a horrid man, who “peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred” (Jacobs 34). Harriet was determined not to stray from her morals, she was strongly committed to maintaining herself as her grandmother had taught her. However, Dr. Flint was very persistent, and she eventually had to no choice but to turn to Mr. Sands, a kinder man than Dr. Flint for help. Mr. Sanders is eventually able to buy Harriet from Dr. Flint. Her choice was made with her future children in mind, as she was well aware that whomever she became sexually involved with would likely father her children. She states that “Of a man who was not my master I could ask to have my children well supported; and in this case, I felt confident I should obtain the boon” (Jacobs 71). Above anything else, she wishes to never allow Dr. Flint to father her children, and as such makes the agreement with Mr. Sands. For a slave, such sexual situations re-enforce the ownership of a master over his slaves, his ability to control his property and the sexual manipulation that was rampant, with a slave making impossible decisions with the hope of one day earning their freedom, and the freedom of their children.
Chapter 10 of Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, discusses the aftermath of the Nat Turner insurrection, a rebellion in which uprising slaves killed over 50 people. She discusses the race relations that exist between African American slaves and the impoverished (non slave owning) white population. In discussing the uprising, she states that the chaos and fear in the aftermath of the slave rebellion “was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no negroes of their own to scourge. They exulted in such a chance to exercise a little brief authority, and show their subserviency to the slaveholders; not reflecting that the power which trampled on the colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation” (Jacobs, 82). In the aftermath of the insurrection, white men, even those who owned no slaves, terrorized black men, women, and children out of fear of a potential threat. This went far beyond the normal fear and degradation experienced by the slaves, escalating to terrifying levels of violence. Soldiers tore the homes of slaves apart, searching every nook and cranny, not caring what they damaged along the way, all with the approval of the slave owners.
Black slaves, with no other choice, relied on their masters for protection. Even impoverished whites, who suffered poverty and degradation, who lived lives not so different from those of the slaves, held themselves as superior. Instead of having compassion for those who suffered similarly, and often so much worse than they did, they jumped at the opportunity to assert their superiority. They were proud to be treated better than the black slaves, and felt even prouder when they were the one’s to subject the slaves such terrible treatment. They did not own slaves, and thus held no status or power. Yet, though they lived lives similar to those of slaves, and in some cases lived in worse conditions, they still felt superior simply because of the color of their skin allowed them to be free. They used the brutal attacks on blacks to make themselves feel more important and justify their feelings of superiority.
In Chapter 15, Jacobs states that “My Master had power and law on his side, I had determined will. There is might in each” (Incidents 110). Through this, Linda (Harriet) is showing that despite all she has been told and despite the hardships she has faced, she still considers herself human being. She is not a piece of property only to be bought and sold, but rather is a human being with will and the power to chose. Through her actions, and in the chapter, she tells the reader that slaves are not objects. They are human beings who deserve love and kindness and the basic rights that have, for so long, been denied them. In this chapter, the reader really begins to grasp the strength that Linda (Harriet) possesses. Her master, Dr. Flint, has tried more than once to force Linda into a sexual relationship. In this chapter, he goes so far as to offer freedom for her children in exchange for her to submit to him as his mistress. He promises her that if she submits, she will not only free her children from this life, but will be allowed to live with them. Through Linda’s insistence that she still has a “determined will” that matches her master’s power, and her continued resistance to submit herself to him, we see both fight her abuse and establish her humanity. After everything she has experienced, she still has the strength to resist; fighting for a better life, she choses not to believe the lies she knows Dr. Flint is telling. By maintaining her will and outsmarting her master, Linda has demonstrated her incredible strength and asserted her own humanity. She has shown that slaves are not simply property to be bought, but human beings who have strong wills and deserve to be treated as such.
In both Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and A True Tale of Slavery, we see a first hand account of life as a slave, written after they have found some sense of freedom. We see a dichotomy in the experiences of Harriet and John that is largely dependent on gender, yet there are also great similarities between the two. Thematically, the two share a striking resemblance. Both John and Harriet find themselves on a quest for freedom, navigating their fear and suffering, finding support in their families, and battling their master’s for their right to exert free will, for their right to be considered human. Unlike Harriet, John does not have to suffer through the sexual harassment Harriet has dealt with most of her life and in his narrative, John seems to focus more on the larger institution of slavery while Harriet, to some extent, focuses more on the treatment of women within the system. In chapter 7, John states that “Since I cannot forget that I was a slave, I will not forget those that are slaves. What I would have done for my liberty I am willing to do for theirs, whenever I can see them ready to fill a freeman’s grave, rather than wear a tyrant’s chain” (Incidents 291). Both John and Harriet seek, and eventually find freedom, yet they are not content to hide away and only be free themselves. John states that he will fight just as hard for another man’s freedom as he did his own, and we see the incredible efforts Harriet expends to try and free her children from slavery. Both Harriet and John express a desire to gain their freedom completely, not to be on the run for the rest of their lives. With the Fugitive Slave Act, they both recognized how futile it would likely be to spend their entire lives running from their masters. While perhaps not living the life of a slave, so long as they must run, they can never truly be free. John and Harriet seek total freedom from their masters, from the fear, degradation, and cruelty that they had known for most of their lives.
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