Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Summary and Analysis of Chapters XIII-XVIII


Chapter XIII - The Church And Slavery

Following Nat Turner's rebellion, the slaveholders thought that exposing their slaves to religion would make them less likely to want to kill their masters. The Rev. Mr. Pike held an Episcopal service at a free colored man's house. Harriet was allowed to go because she could read. The topic of the reverend's sermons were largely about slaves respecting and obeying their masters.

The slaves seemed to be nearer to heaven than their masters, who were sanctimonious and hypocritical. The slaves sang in church, which might have made some people think they were happy, but this of course was not the case.

A new clergyman took the reverend's place. He was very kind to the slaves and turned his attention to the neediest of them. He and his wife took care of them and taught some to read. His sermons were the first times some of them had been treated as human beings. Soon his white parishioners were dissatisfied and there were conflicts and disputes among them. The minister's wife died and freed her slaves, and the minister departed the town not long after.

Harriet mentions Uncle Fred, an old man "whose piety and childlike trust in God were beautiful to witness." He asked her to teach him to read and she complied. He made tremendous progress. Harriet remarks that there were so many like Fred who were thirsty to learn and read the Bible and become better Christians, but "the law forbids it, and the churches withhold it." It would be better if missionaries did not "overlook the dark corners at home."

Clergymen who ventured south for the first time usually had feelings that slavery was wrong, but the slaveholders were keen and clever, and showed them wonderful things about southern life and soon convinced them that slavery was a beautiful thing. They did not see "the half-starved wretches toiling from dawn till dark on the plantations" and hear mothers screaming for their children.

Dr. Flint joined the Episcopal Church, which was surprising to Harriet. He treated her even worse after he became a Christian.

Chapter XIV - Another Link To Life

Harriet explains that she had not returned to Dr. Flint's house since the birth of her child. He still visited her and labored to convince her of how she had lowered herself. She knew that she had no chance of having a better life. What made her the most despairing was when he threatened to sell her child.

Harriet learned she was to be a mother again, and Dr. Flint became crazed. He cut her hair extremely short and once pushed her down a flight of stairs. He was like a "restless spirit from the pits" and visited her daily.

Harriet had her baby (Ellen) and was disconsolate when she learned it was a girl, since slave girls have "wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own." One day when Dr. Flint was out of town Harriet had her children christened. They could not take their father's name so they took the name of Harriet's father. Harriet felt ashamed that her lot was so different than that of her own mother, who had been married and could give her children their father's name.

Chapter XV - Continued Persecutions

Harriet realized she would rather see her children killed than fall into the hands of Dr. Flint. Her children grew to fear him. One day he came to say that her lover had asked to buy her but that he had refused. Harriet said she did not know the man he was speaking of, and Dr. Flint grew so enraged that he pushed her son Benny across the room, knocking him out.

Following this the Dr. became even more intense in his persecutions. This treatment of Harriet even began to wear her grandmother down, who had spent a life witnessing "incessant strife." The Dr. finally told Harriet that he planned on setting her and her children up on his plantation in a cottage of their own with only minimal work to do. If she refused that offer, he would send them all to his son's plantation where they would be treated as all slaves were.

After thinking about it, and realizing she needed to foil her master and save her children, she told him she would go to his son's plantation. This information devastated her grandmother, who begged her to reconsider, but Harriet had "secret hopes" and "woman's pride" and felt that she could figure out a way to save her children without resorting to following the whims of Dr. Flint.

Chapter XVI - Scenes At The Plantation

Harriet took her daughter Ellen to the plantation (Benny was sick and she left him behind). Harriet worked diligently, but the hard work was too much for her daughter, who "broke down under the trials of her new life." Harriet sent her back to her grandmother's house.

After three weeks on the plantation, Harriet planned to sneak out at night to visit her family. She made a successful trip and then returned. In her new position she had much authority since Mr. Flint knew little of housework.

Miss Fanny, the woman who paid money to free Harriet's grandmother and who was the great aunt of Mr. Flint, came to visit. She was kind and thoughtful, and Harriet rejoiced to see her. Miss Fanny told Harriet that her principal object in coming was to see how she was being treated.

Harriet continued to think of ways to escape the plantation, but Dr. Flint and his son were vigilant in watching her. As the time grew near for Mr. Flint's bride to arrive, Harriet fixed to finally make her escape. She "knew the doom that awaited my fair baby in slavery, and I determined to save her from it, or perish in the attempt." She decided to hide herself at a friend's house for a few weeks until the search for her was over. However, her grandmother was able to talk her out of this plan. She writes "my courage failed me, in view of the sorrow I should bring on that faithful, loving old heart."

Mr. Flint's bride arrived. She was pretty and youthful, but Harriet knew that young wives of slaveholders often solidified their power by cruelty. Harriet and Mrs. Flint did get along well for some time, but one night she overheard Mrs. Flint the elder say to her daughter-in-law to send for "them" as soon as possible. This was repeated by the Dr. the next day, and confirmed by another gentleman. Harriet knew what was happening – they were sending for her children to break them in on the plantation. She was determined to foil their plan: "It nerved me to immediate action."

Chapter XVII - The Flight

Harriet was prepared to put her plan into action. Even her grandmother's sorrow was no match for her fear for her children. Harriet snuck out of the house and ran to her grandmother's house. She knocked on the window of the room where Sally, a woman who resided with Aunt Marthy, stayed. She told Sally what was happening and asked her to get her things for her from her room.

The next day Mr. Flint went to Harriet's grandmother's house inquiring for her. The Dr. was raving mad, and a watch was set over the town. Harriet's grandmother took control of the children, but he continued to threaten her.

Chapter XVIII - Months Of Peril

Harriet marvels at how long and diligently the search for her went on. She sent messages to her relatives who told her they despaired that she would ever succeed at her escape. Nevertheless, Harriet's motto was "Give me liberty, or give me death".

Harriet moved to the house of a kind white woman who was friends with her grandmother. One of her slaves, Betty, led Harriet to a small room above the woman's own apartment and told her that was where she could hide. Harriet was overwhelmed with this woman's benevolence and care.

Harriet learned that Dr. Flint had put her brother William and her two children in jail. In a letter, William told her to remain steadfast and not come after them. Betty went to see them sometimes and reported back to Harriet.

One day Dr. Flint visited her grandmother and told her that he knew where Harriet was and that he was about to go get her. News traveled to Harriet in her hiding place. She was terrified, but they soon learned that the Dr. was lying. Some time later, Harriet heard his voice at Betty's house, but it turned out that he was so sure she was in New York he came to borrow money to go after her.


In these chapters Harriet experiences the torturous and malevolent persecutions of Dr. Flint. Her master can barely keep a lid on his emotions as he rages over the birth of her first and then second child, and then her escape from the plantation. Harriet's escape, as with all slave escapes, represents a disruption in the traditional master-slave dynamic of the paternalistic southern society. All of southern economics, politics, society, and culture revolved around slavery, and dissension or threats to the system were vigilantly ferreted out and eradicated (see the reaction to Nat Turner's Rebellion for further evidence). Harriet's Incidents is a remarkable work in that it shows how mad the system of slavery actually was. The scholar Geneva Cobb Moore writes that Jacobs's narrative "enabled her to record for her generation and posterity the sexualization of slavery as a severe form of its neuroses". Her Freudian reading of the text illuminates the pathological problem of this entire society.

The focus of Incidents is Jacobs's sexed body as legally defined property. Dr. Flint often tells her he can do with her what he wants, and this is sadly true. Slave girls' bodies were not their own, and the children certainly were not either. Jacobs's body "emerges as a trope for the ascribed identity of female slaves and the institutionalization of slavery's erotic and neurotic character." Slavery presents a war between the slave, who tries to assert ownership over their body, and the master, who claims that the slave's body belongs to them. Because he adheres to the view that he owns Jacobs's body, Dr. Flint pursues her aggressively and neurotically until his own death years later. Although Freud did not articulate his theories until several years after the publication of Incidents, Jacobs's narrative anticipates the theories of hysteria, neurotic disorders, and libidinal sexual drives.

Dr. Flint has obsessive and aggressive thoughts as well as actions towards Harriet. He is arrogant and attached to the romantic notion of his absolute power that being part of the planter aristocracy instilled in him. His behavior is clearly disturbing: he cannot help himself blurting out certain vile things to her; he strikes her occasionally, pushes her down the stairs, and violently cuts her hair; and he engages in secrecy and slyness in writing her notes and trying to seduce her. Moore notes that Dr. Flint's "aggressive neurotic actions increase as his sexual anxieties mount and his sexual ambitions are rivaled." Harriet was right in her assumption that her involvement with Mr. Sands would disturb her master, but she most likely did not anticipate this reaction.

Moore posits that, for her part, Harriet actually demonstrates a disturbing but understandable narcissism in response to his attention. She is clearly proud of her family lineage as well as her physical beauty. Freud "described a compensatory relationship between women's beauty and their developing self-preservative narcissism." Harriet's beauty is able to raise her up slightly from her low social status and provides her with some leverage. When Dr. Flint proposes to set her up in a little house of her own, she even feels flattered.

Overall, Incidents reveals the deeply pathological underpinnings of southern slave society, and through Dr. Flint in particular exemplifies the neuroses that result. Harriet's claim that slavery was not only bad for the slaves but for the whites as well certainly rings true.