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

Harriet Wilson, Our Nig

1. What is the author concerned to tell us in her introduction? Does this resemble the preface of other nineteenth century narratives we have examined?

2. Who do you think is her intended audience? Why does she make a special appeal to her black "brethren," rather than to all black people?

3. What may have been some reasons for the book's limited contemporary success on its appearance in 1859?

4. What do the opening chapters reveal about the status of free African-Americans in New England in the 1840s and 50s?

5. How is Meg Smith represented? Do you think the author presents the mother who had deserted her in an objective manner? How may racial attitudes have affected her parents' actions? How does Wilson portray her father?

6. What purpose is served by the novel's blunt title? Why does the title describe its subject as "a Free Black," and do you think this title is partly ironic? Do you think Our Nig is an appropriate title for this text?

7. What effect is created by the blending of fiction and autobiography? How is this double effect created? Can you discern a progression?

8. What practical or political considerations might have motivated Harriet Wilson to cast her autobiography as fiction? What were some advantages of the fictional form which she exploits?

9. What are features of the book's style? Do you find it readable?

10. Which aspects of the protagonist's experiences are given relatively full or limited treatment? Do you have any ideas about what the author may be referring to when she says in the preface that she has omitted "that which would most provoke shame in our anti-slavery friends"? Why does she ask for the reader's indulgence even though she has not been able to narrate the entire truth? (p. 130)

11. How is Frado treated by the various members of the family? Do you find Mrs. Bellmont's character unusual? Mary's? Mr. Bellmont's? Jane's? Aunt Abby's? James and Jack's? What effect does her presence have on the family as a whole?

12. What seem to have been the Bellmont's motives in keeping Frado? In a society in which held all legal power, why do you think Mr. Bellmont and his sons were unwilling/unable to protect Frado from repeated beatings?

13. What are traits of Frado's character and behavior as a girl? To what extent does she rebel? Why does she not run away during adolescence?

14. What are features of her relationship with James? How does this relationship affect her emotions and views?

15. What are some forms of physical neglect/abuse which Frado suffers? On what grounds is she beaten? What effect does this treatment have on her, physically and psychologically? What seems to have happened to her health?

16. How much formal education does she receive? How else is she able to educate herself?

17 What are some unusual features of the gender roles in the book, as exemplified by the Bellmont family? Does the author portray male characters more favorably than women?

18. Are aspects of her story surprising? What does it indicate about the treatment of poor orphans in the New England of the time? The treatment of free black persons?

19. How is religion presented in this book? Can you see parallels between its role here and in other accounts we have read, such as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl or The Bondwoman's Narrative?

20. How is Frado's religious conversion related to other aspects of her development and attachments? Why do you think after James' death she manifests such a sense of sin and guilt? (e. g. 99)

21. What attitudes do the members of the Bellmont family and others have toward her religious life?

22. What may have been unconventional aspects of Frado's character and attitudes, as the author presents them? On what occasions, for example, does she permit herself the expression of hostility? What violent act did she consider committing? How does she react to Mary's death?

23. What prompts her departure from the Bellmonts? Why is she not able to thrive as a free black person? What causes her breakdown?

24. What is added to our knowledge of the circumstances of publication by the appended letters and documents? Why may these have been needed for her contemporary audience?

25. How does the author convey Frado's beliefs about racism and its effects on her?

26. What is added to the novel by its final chapter? What form of closure does this add to the narrative? What happens to the several members of the Bellmont family?

27. Are there gaps in her account of her post-Bellmonts life? Why do you think the account of her life after escaping the Bellmonts may have been rushed? What are some of the sad features of her life after leaving the Bellmonts?

28. What seems the fate of her son? Why is she unable to care for him?

29. The plots and tone of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and The Bondwoman's Narrative have been compared to nineteenth-century sentimental fiction. Are there features of this story which seem fiction-like in their mode of narration? If so, what does this contribute or detract from her tale?

30. What do you make of the book's last sentence, "Frado has passed from their memories, . . . but she will never cease to track them till beyond mortal vision?

31. Other than the financial, what seem to have been some of its author's motivations for writing this book? What social message does it convey?

32. Is this a "freedom narrative" in the usual sense? What are some of your responses on finishing the book?

33. How would you compare Wilson's account with those of Jacobs, Douglass or Crafts? Did their authors have any common experiences? What depths of psychology do their accounts probe? How do nineteenth-century men's and women's accounts of oppression seem to differ?

34. Are any of the issues raised in this book of contemporary relevance?

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