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

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

1. What seem Jacobs' chief preoccupations in her preface? Toward whom does she direct her appeal?

2. What does Child try to reassure her readers about in her own preface? What does she see as the controversial and important topics to be addressed?

3. How are her life and experiences of slavery, as she describes them, different from those of Frederick Douglass? What were some disadvantages which made it harder for her to escape? Which of the two was more isolated?

4. What were the different outcomes of their respective escapes?

5. Are there ways in which her account seems to corroborate and enforce his?

6. What may have been some reasons it took Jacobs several years to publish her narrative? What would have been its controversial elements for the mid-nineteenth century reader?

7. For what audiences do you think this book was written? How can you tell?

8. What is added by the appendix? By the supplementary documents provided by the editor?

9. How would you describe the style and tone of the narrative? Would it have seemed appropriate at the time? How does her account differ from that of a conventional autobiography?

10. How does she blend her personal account with an account of slavery in general?

11. Are her anecdotes about slavery convincing, and if so, what makes them so? What account does she give of slave auctions, the mustering, the treatment of escaped slaves, the fate of mothers and fathers of children with white parents?

12. What is the chief form of oppression which blights the narrator's life?

13. What were salient features of Jacobs's early life? What seem to have been important features of her character?

14. What role did her grandmother play in her life? What was the grandmother's life story? What were her own values, and how did they affect her children's lives?

15. What do we learn from the stories of her relatives such as Uncles Benjamin and Phillip, and her brother William? Was the fate of black men preferable to that of their women folk?

16. What forms of support were provided by her Uncles Phillip and Benjamin, brother William, Peter, Betty, the neighbor who first conceals her, and others?

17. What seems to have been the grandmother's social role in the neighborhood? To what extent did the family's many social connections with white families work to their advantage? Why wasn't that enough to effect her escape?

18. What were features of Harriet Jacobs's relationship with Mr. Sands? How does she explain her action to her audience?

19. What was his profession, then and later? What motivated her affair? What did he finally do for their children, and what remained undone?

20. In a book addressed to women readers, Jacobs has occasion to comment on Southern slaveowners' wives and other white women. Are all of the examples she presents negative? Why might she have included the instance of women who tried to help slaves, though in vain?

21. What factors prevented Mr. Flint from raping Harriet?

22. Are there any significant omissions from this account?

23. What are notable features of the advertisement for her capture reproduced on page 97? Why was a larger reward offered for capturing her out of state than in?

24. What were some of the major stages and incidents of her escape? What helpful services enabled her to leave the Flints? What reprisals and threats were directed against her family?

25. What specific details of her escape are omitted, and why may they have been left out?

26. What were some of the more painful circumstances of her seven year hiding?

27. Why was her trip north so long postponed? What factors enabled Harriet Jacobs to escape north at the end? What forms of bravery and connection were necessary?

28. How many others were engaged in the effort to help her escape? Who were some of her helpers and antagonists?

29. What actions did Linda take to help herself and her family? What is your opinion of her character, as here represented?

30. What are some ways in which the narrative creates suspense?

31. How is the narrative affected by the presence of Ellen and Benjamin? What is added to the tale by their reactions to their situation?

32. What is Mr. Sands' ultimate behavior? That of his wife? What do you make of the inconsistencies of his reaction? Of his sister-in-law's offer to adopt Ellen?

33. What does Jacobs seem to regret as she looks back on her life? What seem to have been her traits of mind and chief emotional ties? Are there any aspects of her tale which may have been heightened for her potential audience?

34. What does she find in her trip north that seems pleasant or satisfying? How does she react to life in England?

35. What does she fail to achieve in the north? What attitudes does she find that shock or anger her? Does she respond aggressively?

36. What is known of the final fates of the major characters in the book?

37. Is she successful in giving you a sense for the personalities of her two children? For her struggle to maintain herself in the north?

38. Which aspects of slavery do you believe were ultimately most painful to Jacobs?

39. Is this a well-organized, unified book? What features make it dramatic?

40. What is added to the narrative by the use of interpolated letters and documents? Do these add to its sense of authenticity?

41. What do you think may have motivated the Flint family's persistence in attempting to lure Linda and her family back to the south, and to entrap her? Do you think their attitudes would have been common at the time?

42. Does it progress to a climax? How would this have been a different account if it had ended directly after her escape north?

43. What is added to her narrative by the account of her life after reaching the north? What points are added by her tale of later experiences?

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