Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Summary and Analysis of Chapters VII-XII


Chapter VII - The Lover

As detailed in this chapter, Harriet made the mistake of falling in love with a free black carpenter in the neighborhood. She had forgotten that "in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate." Her lover wanted to buy her but Dr. Flint would not consent. Even Mrs. Flint did not want to get rid of her in that way. In addition, the husband of a slave has no power to protect his wife. It seemed that slaves were not allowed any family ties of their own.

Harriet talked to her grandmother about her fears. She then tried to appeal to a white woman friend of Dr. Flint's who had been kind to her, but she could not change the evil man's mind. He called Harriet into his study and asked if she wanted to be married. She said yes and he grew angry, saying if she wanted to be married she could marry one of his slaves. When she said it was "right and honorable" for her and her lover to feel affection for each other, Dr. Flint struck her for the first time. Dr. Flint said he had the power to do what he wanted to punish her disrespect, but said all he would do is ask that her lover's name never be spoken again. At this moment Harriet wrote that she truly hated him, and hatred felt like "the atmosphere of hell."

Dr. Flint ignored Harriet for a while after this encounter, but this grew too difficult for him and he slipped her a note. He said he wanted to go to Louisiana and planned to take her with him. Harriet figured this would not happen, and eventually the scheme was dropped.

One day in the street Harriet stopped to speak with her lover, and unfortunately Dr. Flint saw them. He cursed her viciously. Harriet knew that there was no hope for her and her lover, for their marriage could not protect her from Dr. Flint. She encouraged him to go north where he could see about some property from an uncle and actually use his natural intelligence. He sadly agreed. Harriet wrote, "The dream of my girlhood is over. I felt lonely and desolate."

Chapter VIII - What Slaves Are Taught To Think Of The North

Slaves were often misled about the conditions in the north. Slaveowners would venture there and then return with tales of how terrible it was for freed men and women. Slaves believed these stories, but Harriet would learn that they were not true. Similarly, some northerners who came south were swayed by what they saw and walked away thinking "God created the Africans to be slaves."

She ruminates on the fact that slaves are inferior to white men only because they have been so brutalized; "it is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live" that creates this situation.

Chapter IX - Sketches Of Neighboring Slaveholders

In chapter nine, Harriet writes of an uneducated and mercilessly cruel slaveholder named Mr. Litch. He had many slaves and devised the most obscene ways to punish them. She catalogued many of his tortures, which led to the situation where "murder was so common on his plantation that [one] feared to be alone after nightfall."

She notes "Cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities." Most of the whites who lived in the south became inured to violence and depravity. Harriet writes of many instances of terrible treatment to slaves. She also notes that women were treated as nearly completely devoid of value, "put on par with animals." She does include one anecdote about a kind white woman, but notes that this was a rarity.

One of the horrors of slavery was how corruption was all-pervading. The slave girl is reared "in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear". Slaveholders' sons become privy to immoral desires; slaveholders' daughters learn things they should not know about at such a young age. They become aware of their fathers' predilections. Some of these women even take up with slave men and then must face the sad consequences if they have a child. It is clear that "slavery is a curse to the whites as well as the blacks."

Chapter X - A Perilous Passage In The Slave Girl's Life

Dr. Flint concocts a plan to build Harriet a small house in a secluded place outside of town so he could continue to pursue her. Harriet was determined that this should not happen. She alludes to moral failing, and explains that the memory of this experience made her ashamed and sorrowful. But she tells the reader that she had promised to tell the truth. She laments that there were happy women who never had to deal with these offensive things, and were sheltered and could choose their own lovers.

After this disclaimer, she writes of a white man in town who was kind to her. He was unmarried and expressed a desire to help her. She soon grew to have feelings for him. His name was Mr. Sands. Harriet knew that Dr. Flint would be irate if he learned that she favored another, and, learning that the Dr. was actually building the house in the woods, decided to take the "headlong plunge" by sleeping with Mr. Sands. This is hard for her to relate to the reader, but she comments "I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others."

One day Dr. Flint told her that the house was almost ready, and she responded by saying she would never go there because she would be a mother in a few months' time. He was filled with "dumb amazement."

Harriet went to Aunt Marthy's house for solace, but her grandmother could barely look at her in her disgrace. She ordered Harriet out and told her she never wanted to see her again. Harriet had nowhere else to go and wandered around for some time in the woods. She prayed for death but it did not come. She finally went to the home of a woman who had been a friend of her mother's. The woman sheltered her, but Harriet longed only for her grandmother. The latter finally came; Harriet told her everything about Dr. Flint's persecutions and her plan, and her grandmother forgave her.

Chapter XI - The New Tie To Life

Dr. Flint visited Harriet in her grandmother's house and showered her with curses and the vilest abuse. He said her mistress had forbidden her to come back. He said she was lucky he did not kill her, and told her that he would take care of her and her child if she would henceforth have no communication with the father (whose identity he did not know). She refused, but he had the parting shot as he left, saying he would never sell her. She had been hoping he would do so and that Mr. Sands could buy her.

Benjamin, or Benny, Harriet's baby, was born prematurely but survived. Throughout his first year he improved in health and Harriet marveled at how she loved him so dearly. She had initially prayed for him to die to spare him this life, but while he was sick she prayed for his recovery. She felt a dark cloud over her enjoyment of her baby, and believed that death was preferable to slavery.

Chapter XII - Fear Of Insurrection

Harriet details how Nat Turner's rebellion filled the white population in the south with fear and paranoia. One day the whites called together a muster (an official search), which the slaves thought would be another holiday. Everyone gathered out of doors and soldiers marched about while martial music played.

Suddenly, orders were given and the soldiers and "low whites", who relished their slim allowance of power, rushed about. Slaves were beaten and robbed, houses were searched and possessions were stolen. Harriet felt that her grandmother's house would be safe since they were in the high esteem of many white families. The house was searched by insolent soldiers who rifled through their belongings, but they finally left. The captain cursed the house as they departed.

That evening greater cruelties raged in the town. Harriet marveled at this "spectacle for a civilized country! A rabble, staggering under intoxication, assuming to be the administrators of justice!" Patrols continued for weeks. Slaves were beaten and jailed to try and get information from them. Finally the slaveholders were appeased by the capture of Nat Turner. Following this, the slaves' church was demolished and they were forced to attend with the whites.


In these chapters Harriet continues to experience the lustful attention of Dr. Flint, her master. This was one of the most terrible things about slavery: a slaveowner's sexual desire for his slaves caused his own wife emotional duress, made him a rival to his son, forced his daughter to confront the ways of the world far too early, and, of course, destroyed the slave girl. Slave girls could often not live the virtuous lives they wished or participate in a functional familial state (i.e., have a husband and reproduce with him only). Their bodies were viewed as sexual objects that belonged to their master, spaces on which he could enact his most libidinal and primitive sexual desires.

Thankfully, Dr. Flint never actually rapes Harriet; his persecution of her is limited to vile whispering, haunting her steps, and making threats. In order to prevent him from raping her, she decides to engage in sexual relations with a white man who treats her well – Mr. Sands. Harriet is very careful in how she explains this to her readers. Because her intended audience was white women, she had to proceed cautiously in explaining her choice to enter into sexual relations before she was married. While white, middle class women were also limited in their sexuality by the gender norms of the 19th century, black women faced even more censure and criticism of their sexual behavior.

In order to reassure her readers that she was not a harlot, Jacobs first steps outside of the narrative, explaining how "the remembrance fills me with sorrow and shame" (59). It was not a choice she made out of ignorance or recklessness, but she does feel that it was a decision that these women should try to understand. Going even further and making one of the central points of Incidents, she writes "O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, 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 severely!" (60) Even more succinctly, she writes "I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard of others" (62). This is a very important assertion to make; Harriet's tale is controversial in its frank discussion of sex, but she does not want her readers to think that she was condoning premarital sex. She needs to make the case that white women and black women faced unequivocally different situations and should not be privy to the same judgment.

Along with the molestation and harassment of slave women at the hands of their masters, Incidents also demonstrates some of the other horrors of slavery. Slaves were pervasively lied to about the north in order to keep them quiet and hopeless. They were prohibited from reading and writing and exercising their minds in order to render them ignorant and docile. Harriet attacks the common assumption that blacks were naturally inferior in intellect, writing that she does indeed agree that the black man was inferior but only because whites have made him so through their denial of education: "It is the ignorance in which white men compel him to live; it is the torturing whip that lashes manhood out of him; it is the fierce bloodhounds of the South, and the scarcely less cruel human bloodhounds of the north, who enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. They do the work" of making him backward. Along with this invective, Harriet also narrates the many cruel punishments suffered by slaves. She makes the same claim as Frederick Douglass does in his autobiography: "Cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities", and slavery is just as bad for the whites as it is for the blacks.

Jacobs's work is not only a personal tale of struggle and suffering and an exposition on black women's sexual oppression, but also a record of historical events. In Chapter XII she discusses the ramifications of Nat Turner's Rebellion of 1831 on her North Carolina town of Edenton (unnamed in the text). This rebellion, which took place in Southampton, Virginia, took the lives of 55-65 white persons and resulted in the execution of 56 blacks and the death of over 100 who were killed in the subsequent backlash and militia uprisings. This rebellion, as with other slave rebellions in the antebellum south, struck fear into the hearts of slaveowners and caused them to implement even harsher laws and restrictions on the education and movements of slaves. Jacobs offers insight into one of the south's most interesting social classes – "the low whites". These men, who often owned merely a few or even no slaves, might not be assumed to fall on the side of wealthy planters, but that line of reasoning does not prove to be true. These coarse and uneducated men "exulted in such a chance to exercise a little brief authority, and show their subserviency to the slaveholders; not reflecting that the power which trampled on the colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and moral degradation" (71). These men conducted many of the raids on slave homes as well as the rapes and murders of slaves. Jacobs is justly disgusted with the hypocrisy of this southern society, which boldly touted its commitment to "justice".