The Real Slaves' Life and Religion in "Incidents in The Life of a Slave Girl"

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2392 |

Pages: 5|

12 min read

Published: Oct 2, 2020

Words: 2392|Pages: 5|12 min read

Published: Oct 2, 2020


Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Linda's Early Life and the Flint Household
  3. Dr. Flint's Malevolence and Mrs. Flint's Complicity
  4. The Universal Human Desire for Freedom and Happiness
  5. Liberation and Linda's Journey to Freedom
  6. Conclusion


The literary work "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," authored by Harriet Jacobs, holds a paramount position in American literature for its illuminating portrayal of the harrowing experiences endured by enslaved individuals. The narrative provides a poignant account of the sufferings faced by a slave named Linda. Additionally, the book exposes the glaring hypocrisy exhibited by numerous slaveholders who professed Christianity while flouting the very principles they claimed to uphold, notably the Ten Commandments. These slave owners often utilized religion to safeguard their reputation and deflect scrutiny, thereby camouflaging their malevolent practices. Furthermore, the narrative underscores that the pernicious effects of slavery extended beyond the enslaved individuals themselves, profoundly impacting the lives of slaveholders' families, particularly their wives.

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A pivotal historical event depicted in the narrative is Nat Turner's rebellion, a seminal occurrence in the antebellum South. This revolt marked the first and only effective slave insurrection in the region, resulting in the tragic deaths of 51 white individuals and sowing fear among white settlers throughout the South. Concurrently, the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Acts during the narrative's period added another layer of significance. These laws stipulated that any enslaved individuals who managed to escape to the North could be captured and forcibly returned to their masters in the South, perpetuating the institution of slavery even in free states.

Linda's Early Life and the Flint Household

Linda's early life as an enslaved individual bore a semblance of relative comfort, shielded from the abject brutality that characterized the typical existence of enslaved individuals during that era. Born into slavery, Linda's family enjoyed a somewhat more benign treatment, living in a relatively comfortable home. Her early years were marked by the presence of her father, grandmother, and her brother, William. Linda's mother's mistress, who claimed ownership of Linda, did not subject her to grueling labor, but instead, took the unconventional step of teaching her how to read the Bible. It is noteworthy that the education of enslaved individuals was a rare occurrence, and Linda's acquisition of literacy was an exception rather than the rule. However, when Linda turned 12, her life took a dramatic turn for the worse as she and William were bequeathed to the mistress's niece, a five-year-old girl named Emily Flint.

Up until that point, Linda and William had experienced benevolent treatment from their masters, but their arrival at the Flint household marked a stark departure from the life they had known. Tragedy compounded their misfortune when, a year later, they received the devastating news of their father's passing. Linda's grandmother sought solace in the belief that God had spared Linda's parents from the grim prospects that awaited them. However, instead of allowing Linda to bid a final farewell to her father, Mrs. Flint, the mistress, callously compelled Linda to prepare flowers for a party. Mrs. Flint's cruelty extended beyond such callous acts; she even went so far as to contaminate the family's leftovers with her own saliva, depriving the slaves of sustenance. This would have been distressing enough if Mrs. Flint had provided an adequate food supply to sustain the enslaved individuals' health. As a result, Linda and William were forced to rely on their grandmother for food and clothing.

Dr. Flint, too, exhibited a malevolent disposition towards the enslaved individuals under his ownership. Linda recounted an incident where she witnessed Dr. Flint brutally whipping a male slave who had accused him of fathering the slave's wife's child. Paradoxically, the Flints, like many other slave-owning families, attended church regularly, ostensibly upholding Christian values while their actions contradicted these professed beliefs. The stark contrast between their religiosity and their treatment of enslaved individuals exemplified the ironic duality that often characterized the lives of slave owners who claimed to be devout Christians.

Linda and William's grandmother had been fortunate to be purchased by a compassionate woman who eventually granted her freedom. Overjoyed and grateful, she credited God for her survival in the midst of slavery, urging her grandchildren to "pray for contentment." However, Linda found it increasingly difficult to reconcile her faith with the reality of slavery, resisting the notion that it could be "the will of God" for her and William to remain enslaved.

Dr. Flint's Malevolence and Mrs. Flint's Complicity

As Linda reached adolescence, Dr. Flint's advances became increasingly predatory. He would whisper inappropriate and lascivious remarks to Linda in an attempt to coerce her into submission. Yet, Linda's steadfast adherence to the "pure principles" instilled in her from her early religious education enabled her to muster the strength to resist Dr. Flint's advances. Mrs. Flint, fully aware of her husband's misconduct, astonishingly chose to blame the enslaved individuals for her husband's actions, monitoring them closely. Driven by an obsessive desire to possess Linda, Dr. Flint even resorted to sending her letters laden with foul language, mirroring the indecent whispers that had plagued Linda previously.

Dr. Flint's determination to be near Linda escalated to the point where he moved their youngest daughter's crib into their room, compelling Linda to share the same sleeping quarters. When Mrs. Flint discovered this arrangement, she reacted with fury, demanding that Linda swear on a Bible to reveal the truth about Dr. Flint's transgressions against the enslaved individuals and Mrs. Flint herself. Linda complied, disclosing the unsettling truth, including Dr. Flint's scandalous fathering of eleven illegitimate children with enslaved individuals. Mrs. Flint's anger and frustration were palpable, leading her to rearrange the sleeping arrangements, forcing Linda to share a room with her. This disintegration of trust and the breakdown of marital relations within slave-owning households is emblematic of the corrosive impact of slavery on Southern family life, revealing the stark irony of Christian principles in the homes of slave owners, who flagrantly violated the commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

The Universal Human Desire for Freedom and Happiness

The overarching theme that pervades Harriet Jacobs' narrative throughout "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" is the universal human desire for freedom, love, and happiness, irrespective of race or bondage. Linda's story poignantly illustrates that enslaved individuals possessed the same yearnings as their white counterparts, although these fundamental human aspirations were systematically denied to them. An illustrative case in point is Linda's love affair with a free-born carpenter, a rare and precious connection in her life. Despite the mutual affection between them, Linda's owner, Dr. Flint, adamantly refused to sell her, and Mrs. Flint displayed indifference to Linda's fate, believing that slaves were not entitled to the same pursuit of happiness as free individuals. In an attempt to secure her release, Linda sought assistance from a friend of her grandmother, hoping to persuade Dr. Flint to sell her to the carpenter. Regrettably, Dr. Flint remained resolute in his refusal, leaving Linda's tenuous connection with William as the only source of security in her life. Yet, even this bond was fraught with the constant fear of separation, a harsh reality endured by many enslaved families, where the abrupt sale of loved ones shattered any semblance of stability or permanence.

Slaveholders in the South often employed manipulation and deceit as tools to deter enslaved individuals from seeking freedom. They fabricated stories of escaped slaves in the North enduring starvation and suffering, falsely portraying them as longing to return to the purportedly superior conditions of slavery. Due to the enforced illiteracy and suppression of independent thought among the enslaved, masters found it relatively easy to deceive their charges, undermining their desire for emancipation. Furthermore, slaveholders frequently denigrated Northerners, portraying them as malevolent and untrustworthy, all to discourage slaves from fleeing. These actions further exemplify how many Southerners deviated from Christian principles, specifically the commandment "thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor," in their efforts to maintain control over their human property.

Dr. Flint's relentless pursuit of Linda's submission continued unabated. Fearing the ignominy of a scandal, he proposed the construction of a cabin outside of town where Linda would be sequestered. It was during this period that Linda initiated contact with a white man named Mr. Sands, hoping to incite Dr. Flint's jealousy and potentially secure her freedom. She recognized that this course of action might lead to censure from her grandmother, who had instilled in her the value of saving oneself for marriage. Nevertheless, Linda perceived this as her sole opportunity to escape Dr. Flint's grasp definitively. When Dr. Flint announced the completion of the cabin, Linda shocked him by revealing that Mr. Sands was the father of her unborn child. Subsequently, Linda sought solace and shared the news with her grandmother, only to be met with the vehement and false accusation from Mrs. Flint that the child was Dr. Flint's. In a tumultuous encounter, Linda's grandmother, brimming with anger and disappointment, expelled Linda from her home. She embarked on a journey, walking several miles to the residence of a family friend. It was only after Linda disclosed the abuse she had endured and the agonizing choices she had made that her grandmother forgave her and showed understanding, recognizing the profound compromises many enslaved individuals were compelled to make, including relinquishing their religious and moral convictions, in their struggle for survival.

Liberation and Linda's Journey to Freedom

Subsequently, the momentous Nat Turner's rebellion unfolded, leaving an indelible mark on the course of slavery. This uprising, the first of its kind in the South, sent shockwaves through the region, prompting slave owners to adopt measures aimed at quelling potential unrest. Masters, fearing further revolts, began compelling their slaves to attend church services, ostensibly to deter them from contemplating acts of violence. However, these services were orchestrated by white men who espoused messages of obedience and propagated the idea that slavery was in accordance with God's will. Linda discerned the manipulation inherent in these religious gatherings, recognizing that many Southerners employed religion as a veneer for their reputation, while their true intentions were far from Christian. The incongruity between professed faith and actions continued to underscore the pervasive hypocrisy within the institution of slavery.

Following the birth of Benjamin, Mr. Sands's son, Linda found herself pregnant with his child once again, this time with a daughter she named Ellen. She understood all too well that as her children grew older, they would face the same cruel treatment inflicted upon her by Dr. Flint. Linda recognized the urgent need for her, Benjamin, and Ellen to escape to the North. Aware of the near impossibility of successfully fleeing with two children in tow, Linda hatched a plan to hide in the crawlspace of her grandmother's house. This ruse led Dr. Flint to believe that Linda had escaped to the North, prompting him to sell Benjamin, Ellen, and William to a slave trader employed by Mr. Sands. Linda's heart swelled with joy, knowing that Benjamin and Ellen would finally taste freedom. Mr. Sands, in a noble gesture, agreed to send Ellen to a relative residing in New York. William, too, had successfully escaped from Mr. Sands and made his way to the North. Linda managed to reach New York, where Ellen resided, and was graciously received by the Bruce family. Their kindness and respect towards Linda provided her with a newfound sense of belonging and dignity. Tragically, Mrs. Bruce's passing marked a somber moment in Linda's life, but her unwavering care and support continued to guide Linda's path. During this period, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts raised the specter of recapture, as Mr. Flint became aware of Linda's whereabouts. Nevertheless, Mr. Bruce's deep affection for Linda compelled him to send her into hiding in the countryside for a month before safely returning to New York.

Soon thereafter, Linda received the news of Dr. Flint's demise, but the shadow of her past still loomed. Mrs. Flint, now Mrs. Dodge, sought to reclaim her "property." Linda's decision to leave the city was fervently encouraged by both Mrs. Bruce and Ellen. Upon their departure, Mrs. Bruce negotiated with Mr. Dodge for Linda's release and the relinquishment of any claims on her children. When Linda's freedom was secured, Mrs. Bruce joyously relayed the news, ushering in a moment of tearful elation as Linda finally embraced her long-awaited status as a free woman.


Harriet Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," serves as a powerful exposé of the abject subjugation and harrowing experiences faced by enslaved individuals, both women and men, in the antebellum South. The narrative also underscores the oppressive circumstances endured by women in the region, particularly white women, whose rights were severely restricted and who often had to turn a blind eye to their husbands' unfaithfulness with enslaved individuals, as divorce remained a taboo and unattainable option. In contrast, enslaved women suffered the grotesque exploitation and sexual abuse inflicted by their masters, often leading to unwanted pregnancies. These relationships, characterized by cruelty and exploitation, were open secrets within the plantations, borne out of necessity to protect the interests of the masters, their wives, the enslaved women, and the illegitimate offspring.

Dr. Hancock's choice of this book for study is grounded in its depth and comprehensive exploration of the institution of slavery, a topic previously covered in the course. Moreover, the narrative is intrinsically tied to significant historical events like Nat Turner's Rebellion and the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Acts, both of which were discussed in the classroom. By delving into the lives of individuals during these tumultuous times, the book offers students a deeper understanding of the historical context and the multifaceted ramifications of such events.

"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" provides an invaluable firsthand perspective on the brutal reality of slavery, illuminating the grim aspects of sexual and physical abuse routinely inflicted upon enslaved individuals, often by masters who paradoxically professed Christian faith. Harriet Jacobs' narrative does not shy away from addressing these taboo subjects of her time. Her storytelling, though forthright in addressing such uncomfortable truths, is presented with a poignant and lyrical prose that captivates the reader's empathy. This work should be regarded as essential reading for all, serving as a stark reminder of the progress made by society since that era, underscoring the importance of empathy and justice in the face of historical injustice.

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Harriet Jacobs' primary motive in penning this narrative was to cast a searing light on the deplorable conditions and injustices she and her fellow enslaved individuals endured. Her narrative lays bare the incongruity between the professed Christian faith of many in the South and the inhumanity of owning slaves. By sharing her personal experiences and the horrors she witnessed, Jacobs aimed to challenge the pervasive belief that enslaving and degrading fellow human beings could be reconciled with Christian values. Her work stands as a testament to her resilience, courage, and unwavering commitment to exposing the iniquities of slavery, paving the way for critical dialogue and social change.


  1. Jacobs, H. (1861). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Self-published. (Original work published in 1861)
  2. Blassingame, J. W. (1979). Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies. Louisiana State University Press.
  3. Franklin, J. H., & Schweninger, L. (1999). Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. Oxford University Press.
  4. Finkelman, P. (Ed.). (1998). Slavery and the Law. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  5. Turner, N. (1979). The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. Vintage.
  6. Oakes, J., & McGerr, M. E. (2010). The United States: Conquering a Continent. W. W. Norton & Company.
  7. Genovese, E. D. (1976). Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Vintage.
  8. Berlin, I., & Rowland, L. S. (2007). Slaves No More: Three Essays on Emancipation and the Civil War. Cambridge University Press.
  9. McFeely, W. S. (1992). Frederick Douglass. W. W. Norton & Company.
  10. White, D. G. (1999). Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. W. W. Norton & Company.
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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

The Real Slaves’ Life and Religion in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from
“The Real Slaves’ Life and Religion in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”.” GradesFixer, 10 Oct. 2020,
The Real Slaves’ Life and Religion in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 17 Apr. 2024].
The Real Slaves’ Life and Religion in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Oct 10 [cited 2024 Apr 17]. Available from:
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