Chapter I - Childhood
In the first chapter, Jacobs (she calls herself Linda Brent in the text, but this study guide will refer to her as Harriet Jacobs) begins her narrative by explaining that she did not know she was a slave until she was six years old. Her father was a carpenter and she had a brother named William. She was very fond of her maternal grandmother, known as Aunt Marthy, who was a remarkable woman. She was indispensible in the household and became a well-loved personage in the community. Aunt Marthy had five children. Her youngest, Benjamin, was close in age to Harriet, so he was more like a brother than an uncle.
When Harriet was six, her mother died. The mistress she worked for was a kind woman and Harriet went to stay with her. This was a pleasant time and Harriet was taught to read and write. Unfortunately, this woman died when Harriet was twelve. After a week the will was read, and it was determined that Harriet would go to the mistress's sister's daughter Emily Flint, who was five.
Chapter II - The New Master and Mistress
Harriet introduces the master of her new house, Dr. Flint, her previous mistress's sister's husband. William also came to live at this house, which brought Harriet much joy. But, the brother and sister received "cold looks, cold words, and cold treatment." This situation was made worse when Harriet learned her father died and she was not able to go see his body. This she bitterly lamented. William chafed under these conditions, and Harriet's only solace was her strong and comforting grandmother.
Aunt Marthy had been told she would be set free by her previous mistress but Dr. Flint, a callous man, decided to put her up on the auction block. Fortunately the whole town knew and loved the elderly woman, and no one would bid on her. Finally an old white woman bought her and then promptly gave her her freedom.
Harriet writes of Mrs. Flint, who was a weak woman in body but certainly not in the spirit that compelled her to command and watch acts of violence perpetrated on her slaves. She relished withholding food from the slaves as well.
Chapter III - The Slaves' New Year's Day
Harriet explains that Dr. Flint was wealthy, with a house in town, many farms, and about fifty slaves. Slaves in the south were hired on January 1st and work until Christmas Eve. After a few holidays, auctions were held. Slaves that were unwilling to go with their new masters were whipped. Harriet contrasts the happy time freed women enjoyed on New Year's Eve with the apprehension and fear that slave women felt.
Chapter IV - The Slave Who Dared To Feel Like A Man
Harriet's grandmother was now the mistress of her own "snug little home" and wished her grandchildren could share it with her. Benjamin and Harriet longed to join her. William was now twelve. The three of them hated Dr. Flint with a passion. Harriet writes "When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave whose will must and should surrender to him, ever before had my puny arm felt half so strong."
William and Harriet lamented their fate together. Harriet urged him to be "good and forgiving" but knew that she was being hypocritical because she felt similarly ill-disposed toward her lot. She inwardly resolved to never be conquered.
Sadly, this resolution did not help her. The first time she was punished was when she received new shoes from her grandmother. The mistress disliked the noise they made, so she commanded Harriet remove them and never put them back on again. Later, Harriet was made to run errands in the snow, barefoot.
Dr. Flint refused to sell Harriet even though he received high offers for her. Harriet was glad that her little mistress loved her but was wary when Dr. Flint said his daughter was faking her affection.
One day William came to Harriet and told her that Benjamin and the master had a row. Benjamin resisted being whipped and threw Dr. Flint. Benjamin came to say goodbye and Harriet begged him not to go, but Benjamin was full of righteous anger. They exchanged farewells and Benjamin departed. He made it onto a ship but was recognized and sent back to his master. He was then put in jail. The jailer knew Harriet's grandmother and allowed her and Harriet and William to sneak in and visit him. Benjamin was angry and said he could not trust in God anymore.
Three months passed and Benjamin was not released or sold. He was filthy and morose, and any token of comfort sent by Harriet's grandmother did not make it to him. Harriet's grandmother was distraught. Harriet wrote of her despair: "Could you have seen the mother clinging to her child, when they fastened the irons upon his wrists; could you have heard her heart-rending groans, and seen her bloodshot eyes wander wildly from face to face, vainly pleading for mercy; could you have witnessed that damnable scene as I saw it, you would exclaim, Slavery is damnable!"
Harriet's grandmother devoted her time to trying to free Benjamin. She wrote to a white gentleman friend of hers who worked to help free Benjamin. Benjamin finally made it to New York. There he encountered his brother Phillip, who was there on business for his master. Benjamin begged Phillip not to return, but the latter said he had to stay with their mother. The two shared an emotional parting and no one ever heard from Benjamin again. However, when Phillip came home he announced to the family that Benjamin was free and they rejoiced heartily. Later Harriet's grandmother was able to buy Phillip.
Chapter V - The Trials Of Girlhood
In chapter five, Harriet narrates how she had entered a dangerous time period for a slave girl. Her master began to whisper lecherous things into her ears. He was more than forty years older than her and she found him thoroughly repulsive. She had no help from her mistress, who was viciously jealous of slave women.
It was a terrible thing to be a slave girl. She grew up prematurely knowing evil things and was subject to the grossest violations of her mind and body. Harriet's master stalked her and made her wary, frightened, and hunted. She wanted to confide in someone, but she felt ashamed to tell her grandmother of these impure things. Her presence was some protection, however, because Dr. Flint was afraid of her and "dreaded her scorching rebukes".
Harriet suffered greatly from this man. She writes "Reader, it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered in slavery. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for all my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered." She called out to the free men and women in the north, wondering why "do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right?"
Chapter VI - The Jealous Mistress
Harriet continued to suffer from Dr. Flint's dogging of her steps. Her mistress could have helped these young slaves, but it was apparently a crime to want to be virtuous. Dr. Flint used exceedingly clever means to try and find Harriet and speak to her of vile things, and she would respond to him in anger. He grew enraged and her situation worsened daily.
When Harriet turned sixteen, it was obvious that Mrs. Flint despised her very presence. She was incensed when she found out that Dr. Flint had selected Harriet to sleep with their daughter in his apartment. She called Harriet in and asked her to answer her questions honestly. Harriet promised to do so, and Mrs. Flint asked her to tell her everything that has happened between her husband and Harriet. Harriet complied. Mrs. Flint's face showed rage, grief, and hopelessness. She often wept. As she was not a refined woman, Harriet bore the brunt of her jealousy and anger.
Harriet was made to sleep in a room adjoining her mistress's own. Mrs. Flint behaved so strangely that Harriet feared for her own life. She tried to trick her husband into confessing but he was too wily. Thankfully they never whipped her because the whole town knew her and this would have exposed Dr. Flint's conduct.
Harriet's grandmother began to notice things and tried to find ways to buy her, but Dr. Flint always protested that she belonged to his daughter. Harriet ruminated on the evils of slavery, mentioning that northerners were also complicit in sending fugitives back to the south and delighting in marrying their daughters to slaveholders. She believed that this "peculiar institution" deadened morality, but she gives a few examples of white people in which virtue was not wholly extinct.
Harriet's Jacobs's narrative, the first published narrative by a female former slave, is a remarkable adventure story, a poignant personal memoir that addresses the formation of identity, and a testament to the evils of slavery. In these early chapters Harriet introduces herself – a young slave girl who did not even know she was enslaved until she was six – and the immoral and cruel master and mistress she worked for. Some of the major themes of the text are presented early on; these include the terrible severing of familial ties in slave families, the hypocrisy and impiety of white southerners, and the particular trials of slave women through their lustful persecution by their white masters.
Jacobs's story is of such significance because for so long the voices of black women were, as scholar Johnnie M. Stover writes, "ignored, sentimentalized, or reduced in scope as addenda to the abolitionist-inspired texts." 19th century autobiographies by black women used their unique voices to interpret life experiences in the context of an America that sought to deny the identity of African Americans. Within the format of an autobiography, which Jacobs chooses to tell her tale, black women can attack the literary, sociological, and political systems that seek to marginalize them. Their narratives both blatantly and subtly demonstrate their capacity to use their voices instead of remaining silent.
One literary strategy Harriet Jacobs employs in her autobiography is that of the sentimental novel. This genre, immensely popular with white women in the 19th century, usually pitted a virtuous female heroine against a predatory man; the heroine either died or triumphed and became a paragon of morality and femininity. In these chapters, Jacobs appeals to the sympathies of these white women – her primary audience – by presenting herself as virtuous and humble, showcasing the evil of Dr. Flint, and focusing on the relationships between mothers and children. She is trying to "equalize the relationship between herself and her readership."
These readers will also note that Harriet Jacobs, like other black women writers, does not separate herself from her community. Oftentimes the female narrator's voice is not just one voice but many; Jacobs will often step outside of her narration and encourage the reader to some realization or sentiment. This is different from slave narratives written by men, such as Frederick Douglass or Olaudah Equiano. In these narratives the male figure is independent, authoritative, strong, and heroic. There is not as much of a focus on familial or communal ties.
One of the ways in which Harriet Jacobs resists oppression in her autobiography is through language. An African-American vernacular has been long recognized as created and developed by slaves; this was a way of speaking that was not a new language but a way of reshaping the language of the dominant society to use with people who sought to demean, dehumanize, or suppress them. This mother tongue "misled, confused, tricked, or made a fool of the oppressor" and tried to keep the oppressor off balance.
The first strategy was using tools of subtle resistance; Stover writes that this meant using "concealment, guile, hesitations, mumbling, secrecy, shifts in point of view, silence, and whispering." Jacobs often steps away from the narrative to offer her critique or her interpretation of events. She also uses rhetorical questions in order to provoke a feeling or emotion in her readership without directly criticizing them. She demonstrates how whispering was a way for slaves to communicate with each other, since much direct contact was limited. This mother tongue of silence allowed slaves to withhold information and conceal their true feelings or what they have seen or heard.
The second strategy is masking – a tool that says one thing but means another; this includes "biblical allusion/allegory, dissembling, innuendo, ironic humor, laughter, misdirection, physical antics, sarcasm, signals, song, and understatement." In regards to biblical allusions, Harriet often invokes the snake as a symbol for slavery or slaveholders, an allusion to the Garden of Eden as well as the abolitionist symbol of its cause. She also uses misdirection later in the text, trying to fool Dr. Flint about her true whereabouts, and uses disguise to conceal her escape.
The third is tools of flagrant resistance, such as "back talk, impertinence, impudence, insolence, invective, irony, lying, rage, and sass." Harriet is often very bold with Dr. Flint; her grandmother is as well. She also does not shy away from exhorting northern women to heed her situation. Within the text, the character of Betty exemplifies black woman's sass and Benjamin and William embody rage.
Overall, the autobiography was a way for African American women to preserve their personal and cultural memory "while at the same time challenging the sociopolitical, economic, and literary structures that minimized the contributions of that culture."