The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman's Narrative (c. 1858-60)

  1. When was this book first published?
  2. What is known about the background of this book, and about its author and her environment? What are some reasons to suppose that its author was African-American? That she was an escaped slave?
  3. If the editor, Henry Louis Gates, is correct about her identity, what was unusual about the master from whom she escaped? Where did she live after her escape?
  4. What may be some reasons why this book was never published in its time? Who discovered and republished it?
  5. Why is this work considered a novel rather than an autobiography? Do you think it is possible to make this distinction here? Can you see evidence that it may be an autobiography after all?
  6. What is the author concerned to tell us in her preface? Are there parallels with the preface of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?
  7. What are some ways in which this work differs in tone or structure from Jacobs' Incidents? Are there resemblances? What similarities, if any, appear between the fates of the ''bondswoman" and Harriet Jacobs?
  8. According to the opening chapter, what were the circumstances of the author's early life? What distinguished her childhood from that of many other black orphans?
  9. What fate was reserved for the old couple who befriended her?
  10. From the opening chapters, what can you tell about the author's character and sensibility?
  11. What are some striking features of the scene in which the child lingers near the ancestral portraits? What seems unusual about her response to the old paintings?
  12. What is added by the narration of the history of the linden tree? What story and prophecy are associated with it? (25)
  13. What does the narrator first notice about her mistress' behavior?
  14. What ominous events occur at the wedding dance? What seems to be the role of Mr. Trapp?
  15. What motives are presented for Mr. Trapp's threats? In real life, what might have been motives for exposing a slave's legal identity?
  16. What is added to the story by the account of the relationship between the mistress and slave? How does this change with time?
  17. What does the mistress know of her past? How had her parentage been obscured? Why had her father not freed her? How was she separated from her mother?
  18. Why does the mistress not confide her secret to her husband? What does the narrator advise is the path of wisdom? (49)
  19. What purpose is served by including the account of the white-seeming mistress who learns she is a slave and is then hounded to her death? How realistic do you think this plot element is?
  20. What common plot devices occur in the novel? (i. e. the use of overheard conversations, legends, hidden secrets)
  21. Are the epigraphs which precede each chapter effective?
  22. What seem to be the author's religious views?
  23. What dangers do the women encounter in their attempted flight? Why can't they reach the boat? How are they finally apprehended?
  24. How does the master die? How is his death portrayed?
  25. What psychological effect does their plight have on the mistress? What is the immediate cause of her death?
  26. What are some features of the book's style? What places and situations are described in most detail?
  27. What are features of the jail in which they are imprisoned in chapter 6? What comforts the narrator during her first night in prison?
  28. Whom do they meet in prison? What is Mrs. Wright's history, and what purpose is served by including her tale?
  29. Under what circumstances are they removed from prison? How are they treated en route to their new owner? What are their circumstances in the new abode, and who, does it seem, is now their legal possessor?
  30. Under what circumstances is the mistress released from her sorrows? What is Hannah's response to her death?
  31. In chapter 8, what motives are given for Mr. Trappe's behavior? To whom is Hannah sold, and what evidence do we have of his intentions and past behavior?
  32. At this point in the novel, what do you think will be Hannah's destiny? What makes you think this?
  33. Who do you think was the intended audience for this book? Is it intended as an abolitionist novel to the same degree that Jacobs' Incidents or Frederick Douglass's Narrative were designed to serve a cause?

Chapters 9-17:

  1. After her mistresses' death, what cause of regret remains? How is the slave trader who takes her into custody portrayed? What violent event grants her at least temporary release?
  2. What role does Mrs. Henry play in her life? What do you make of the fact that this good woman is a slaveowner?
  3. Who was Mrs. Henry's father? Why won't she purchase and liberate the latter, as the latter begs her to do? Do you find this plot element credible? What is her role in the narrator's final escape?
  4. What are the narrator's views on slave marriage in general?
  5. What are the narrator's responses to Charlotte's wedding? What turns out to be the fate of Charlotte and her husband?
  6. Why does she attempt to understand the "ghost," do you think? Why won't she attempt escape with Charlotte and William? How are the latter chased, what role do the Henrys play in this search, and are the couple able to escape?
  7. Which features of the second half of the book do you find most likely to be autobiographical?
  8. What may be the factual basis for the Wheeler/Washington D. C. segments of the book? (chapter 13) What is gained by opening with the description of the president's view of muddy streets?
  9. Can you comment on some features of the book's style? Are there passages which remind you of other novels you have read? (mud scene similar to one in Dickens' Bleak House).
  10. What do you make of allusions to the escaped slave Jane Johnson? What factual basis may these have? What undesired encounter does she have in Washington D. C.
  11. In chapter 13, what are the characters of the Wheelers, and features of their life in Washington? Why do you think the episode of the white powder which turned the mistress's face black is included?
  12. What does she learn from her friend Lily about what has happened at Lindendale? What has been the fate of Mr. Cosgrove, his slave mistresses and their children, and Mrs. Cosgrove?
  13. What is added by the tale of the concealment of Evelyn and her children in a secret room, and Mrs. Cosgrove's jealousy? What aspects of her reaction are emphasized?
  14. What is the means of Mrs. Cosgrove's hideous death? Is this presented as a kind of retribution? What happens to the linden tree and family portraits?
  15. When Hannah is forced to join the Wheelers in their return to North Carolina, what is her reaction to the life of the field slaves depicted there? What are her observations on the wide gulf between rich and poor? (200)
  16. What incident causes Mrs. Wheeler to determine that Hannah must become a field slave and marry Bill? Why is she unwilling to do so?
  17. How does she contrive her escape? How had she planned ahead for this journey?
  18. How does she fare going northwards? Under what circumstances is she almost captured, and how does she escape?
  19. Whom does she meet in the woods? What does the dying slave recall of the religion she has experienced? Why do you think she doesn't reveal her disguise to her travelling companion? How does she lose him?
  20. What benefactor of her past rescues her after her boat collapses? How does this coincidence affect the tone of the story?
  21. What does she learn of "Aunt Hetty"'s past life? How does Hannah's stay with the latter affect her travel plans?
  22. How does she finally leave slave country for the north? What event does she hear of as she stands on the boat deck?
  23. What is appropriate about the way in which Mr. Trappe died? Why do you think this incident occurs at this point in the book?
  24. With whom does Hannah reunite in the book's final chapter? Are there gaps or incompletenesses in her tale of what has happened since she reached New Jersey?
  25. What do you think of the ending? Is it generally plausible? Does it provide a fitting closure for the book?
  26. Which of the incidents of the second half of the book do you think may be autobiographical, or at least closely based on fact?
  27. Is this a well-written book? What contributes to its appeal?
  28. What would you describe as the book's general tone and effect? (e. g., does the author's escape make this generally a happy book?)
  29. Can this novel be described as an anti-slavery narrative, and if so, why?


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  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56