Biography and History: Harriet Jacob's The Life of a Slave Girl

To be a good writer, you must posess a careful balance between detachment
and association, a delicate waltz where you are not so wrapped up in the events
of a story that it alienates the reader, and yet not so far separated from the
subject matter that the readers cannot get into it. This is espectially the
case in an autobiographical narrative. In this case, it is very difficult to
detach yourself from the main subject matter, that is, yourself. Yet it must
remain a story, and the story at its heart is a reconstruction of facts from the
memory of the author. In the case of Harriet Jacobs, it was also important that
she make sure the readers understood slavery from a woman's perspective. The
hardships she had to endure not only entailed the work and the punishments, but
also the sexual aspect of being a slave-girl. Her task is difficult, because in
order for the reader to really understand her position as a woman and a slave,
she must make the story extremely personal. If it is too personal, however, the
reader looses sight of the bigger picture, and does not relate all these
hardships to the condition of the general female slave. She accomplishes this
in two ways, through her writing style, and the writing content.
The style that the novel is written varies from a dialogue to a narrative,
depending on the subject matter being written about. For example, the dialogue
where Mrs. Flint confronts Linda (Jocobs) and asks her what has been going on
with her husband is handled very effectively, because as a conversation between
two people, we are able to pick up on the nuances of meaning. Also, it makes the
situation seem to the reader as very exhilarating, because we don't know what's
going to happen next. Two paragraphs later, though, the story has turned back
into narrative, because Jacobs is trying to examine the entire situation in her
present day, as a free woman. She has to be detached from the conversation in
order for her to draw any conclusions. The conclusion she draws is that even
though they are in different circumstances, (Linda is a slave and Mrs. Flint is
her mistress), they both have a shared problem as women -- that is, the problems
of infedelity. This general topic cannot be dealt with effectively unless it is
done at a distance, looking back with the experience she has gained.
Jacobs does this a lot -- she takes her own present-day experiences and
places them in the framework of her past. When she gives us an account of the
Slaves' New Year's Day, she addresses the readers personally, whom are all free
men and women. First she gives us the facts of the matter: the auction block,
the anxious waiting before families are separated. Then she compares it to the
present. In order to shock her readers and make this story hit closer to home,
she asks us to compare our New Year's Day with the slaves'. While we are
partying and enjoying ourselves, the slaves await the day when they will be sold.
Mothers fear that their children will be taken from them, rebellious slaves
fear they will be beaten. We just don't understand what slavery is unless we
are given a direct contrast like this.
Another method to get the readers to truly understand her problems is to
try to compare feelings with situations. For example, at one point her style
changes to rhetorical questions, aimed to catch the reader off-guard and make
them think, not just read and comprehend. After she tells Mr. Flint about her
intentions to marry a free black man, he tells her that she will never marry him,
nor will she ever be free. This is written in a dialogue-style. Then, it
quickly turns personal: she asks the readers, "Did you ever hate? I hope not.
I never did but once..." She later accuses the readers of an almost blissful
ignorance to this point: "But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been
sheltered from shildhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your
affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate
slave girl too severley!" In this manner, she asks the readers to forgive her
for her sexual actions. Naturally, this is not really necessary, but it is an
affective writing tool to get us to look on our