Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Summary and Analysis of Chapters XXXI-XXXVI


Chapter XXXI - Incidents In Philadelphia

When the boat reached Philadelphia, Harriet earnestly thanked the captain for his kindness. He introduced her to the Rev. Jeremiah Durham, who said that Harriet could stay with him for a few days before she was able to get to New York. Fanny was placed with another family. Mrs. Durham was an extremely pleasant and solicitous woman and made Harriet feel very welcome.

Harriet was awed by the bustle and diversity of Philadelphia. It was very different from her home in the south; that evening when the bells signaling a fire were heard, Harriet assumed the whole town had to get up and respond. She considered herself "an ignorant child, just beginning to learn how things went on in great cities."

After five days one of Mrs. Durham's friends decided to accompany Harriet and Fanny to New York. In their travels Harriet observed that the North was in some ways no better than the south, for colored people were treated quite differently.

Chapter XXXII - The Meeting Of Mother And Daughter

After navigating a maze of coachmen, Harriet and Fanny made it to a boarding-house on Sullivan Street. They separated, and Fanny was provided a comfortable home by the Anti-Slavery Society. Harriet sent for an old friend who told her that there was a colored woman in Brooklyn who came from the same southern town and whose home would be a convenient place for Harriet to meet up with her daughter.

Harriet traveled to the house in question with her friend, who, as they neared the house, pointed out two girls in the street. One was the daughter of a woman who used to live with her grandmother, and the other was Ellen, her own daughter. Mother and daughter embraced, and Harriet could tell Ellen was not happy, although she said nothing to imply that outright.

Harriet decided to send a note to Mrs. Hobbs, the woman with whom Ellen resided, to have her daughter come and see her. She could not be completely honest that she had just arrived from the south as a runaway, so she explained that she had been in Canada for a while. Ellen came to visit and Harriet was saddened that it would take her so long to raise the money to have Ellen come live with her on her own. When Harriet accompanied her home, Mrs. Hobbs made it clear that Ellen had been given to her eldest daughter and would be a waiting-maid when she was older.

Harriet was distressed that Mr. Sands had clearly not emancipated her children. Any thought that she was free upon coming to the north dissipated; she knew she was still a slave and wrote to Dr. Flint asking at what price he might sell her. His reply suggested she come back to the south.

Chapter XXXIII - A Home Found

Harriet fretted about finding a job because she could obviously not use recommendations from her former "employer", the Flints. Finally she heard of an English woman who needed a nurse for her child. This woman, Mrs. Bruce, liked Harriet and agreed to employ her. She was a "kind and gentle lady, and proved a true and sympathizing friend." Harriet was skeptical about being open and honest with white people, as they had deceived her before, but she thawed her icy heart before this woman.

She continued to worry about the power the Hobbs family had over Ellen. They did not have much money and Harriet had to furnish articles of clothing for her daughter. She also worried they would sell Ellen.

One silver lining was her feelings of love toward Mary, Mrs. Bruce's baby; another was that William finally returned and the brother and sister were joyfully reunited after years of separation.

Chapter XXXIV - The Old Enemy Again

Harriet received a letter of reply from Miss Flint, purportedly written by her younger brother. It expressed the family's joy that she had written them and begged her to come home. It promised they would be kind and take care of her, reminding her of how well she was treated when she was there. It was full of forgiveness and warmth, but Harriet saw right through it – it was written by Dr. Flint and was nothing more than a collection of lies.

She soon learned that Dr. Flint planned to come north again, so she wrote to her grandmother that Benny should be sent to Boston, not New York, so he would be safer. When Harriet and her son were reunited, her joy knew no bounds. Benny was loquacious and lively, and was thrilled to see his mother.

Dr. Flint's visit was unsuccessful and he returned south. Benny was placed in the care of his uncle William and Harriet returned to Mrs. Bruce. She was happy, but worried about summer's influx of southerners, some of whom might recognize her.

Chapter XXXV - Prejudice Against Color

Mrs. Bruce and Harriet ventured north to Albany, then to Saratoga. Harriet marveled at how poorly blacks were treated in the north. Between the two visits Harriet had been back in the city, and Ellen warned her not to come over because Mrs. Hobbs's brother Mr. Thorne was in town, and he was suspicious.

Chapter XXXVI - The Hairbreadth Escape

While visiting Ellen, Mrs. Hobbs told Harriet that her brother wanted to see her. Harriet felt she had no choice but to comply, and went to see Mr. Thorne. He was very friendly, but Harriet was still wary. Ellen told her that Mr. Hobbs and Mr. Thorne drank excessively, and years later Harriet found out that the latter whispered lascivious things in Ellen's ear.

One day Ellen was playing with the Hobbs children when Mr. Thorne came outside and tore up a letter into small fragments. Ellen was nervous about this, and with the children's help, they pieced the letter back together. Her suspicions were confirmed: Mr. Thorne had written to Dr. Flint telling him about Harriet.

Harriet was shocked and distressed to have to leave the place where she felt so comfortable. She decided to tell Mrs. Bruce everything, and "she listened with true womanly sympathy, and told me she would do all she could to protect me. How my heart blessed her!"

Two prominent men, Judge Vanderpool and Lawyer Hopper, were consulted. They suggested Harriet go to Boston. Harriet wanted to take Ellen with her, and to her surprise, Mrs. Hobbs in her regret over her brother's actions, agreed to let her go if she would return in ten days. Harriet avoided making that promise.

Mother and daughter made it to the steamboat Rhode Island and were taken aboard. The captain was very kind to them and they were accommodated pleasantly though it was not customary for blacks to sleep below deck. When they reached Boston Harriet was filled with elation; "for the first time in many years, I had both my children together with me." Harriet and a friend decided to live together and share expenses. Harriet undertook the task of teaching Ellen to read so she could enter an intermediate school.


Having reached the north, Harriet "verily believed myself to be a free woman" (181). However, after visiting her daughter and hearing from Mrs. Hobbs that Ellen was to be young Miss Hobbs's waiting maid, Harriet changed her mind, writing "I called myself free, and sometimes felt so; but I knew I was insecure" (187). This tenuous state of freedom would plague Harriet throughout her time in the north because, as discussed briefly in the analysis for Chapters XIX-XXIV, she vacillated between thinking she was free because she was in the northern states and knew that she was a human being and not a piece of property, and realizing that she was still a slave and someone "owned" her.

Harriet's experience in the north is very significant. She is shocked to observe that, although the slave system is not a reality there, northerners are not free of racial prejudice. Segregation by race was common, as Harriet discovers when she hears that "they don't allow colored people to go in the first-class cars" (183). Her travels to upstate New York with Mrs. Bruce yield more of the same revelations. Throughout the north "I found the same manifestations of that cruel prejudice, which so discourages the feelings, and represses the energies of the colored people" (196).

Harriet decides that the best way to combat this sort of treatment was have more self-respect and stand up for one's rights; by doing this, "we shall cease to be trampled under foot by our oppressors" (197). The inclusion of this rather damning illumination of the engrained racism of northerners was included to cause reflection and spur to action Harriet's white northern female readership. It is a testament to her strength of character that she did not shy away from condemning subtler forms of bondage.

These chapters also contrast "good" white people with "bad" white people. Of course, the Flints are the worst type of white people, but Mr. Thorne gives them a run for their money. Not only is he a dissolute drinker, he is lecherous and duplicitous, whispering sexual things into Ellen's ears while she stays with the Hobbs family. His most grievous offense, however, is his betrayal of Harriet to Dr. Flint. Like most southern whites, he hid his evilness behind a smiling mask of amiability and informality. When he meets with Harriet, she notes that "he met me in a very friendly manner, congratulated me on my escape from slavery, and hoped I had a good place, where I felt happy" (198). This is blatantly false and deceitful, and it is not long before he shows his true colors.

However, the "true and sympathizing" Mrs. Bruce (almost) redeems the white race in Harriet's eyes. An Englishwoman (this is significant, and expatiated further in Harriet's visit to the north), Mrs. Bruce embodies some of the best traits of humankind: she is accepting, solicitous, kind, and understanding. She is the first white person whom Harriet actually trusts, writing "I found that the gentle deportment of Mrs. Bruce and the smiles of her lovely babe were thawing my chilled heart" (189). She also benefits from Mrs. Bruce's intelligence: "My narrow mind began to expand under the influences of her intelligent conversation" (189). Finally, when Harriet confesses to Mrs. Bruce that she is a runaway slave and is in danger, Mrs. Bruce does not condemn her or shrink away from her; "she listened with true womanly sympathy and told me she would do all she could to protect me" (200). It is not a stretch that Jacobs hoped that northern women readers would read about Mrs. Bruce (and the second Mrs. Bruce later) and seek to emulate that paragon of virtue and charity.

The value of the black community is reinforced here, as Harriet reunites with her children in stirring and emotional scenes. She is also reunited with her brother William. For some time Harriet is able to have her greatest desire – to live with her children and be a real mother to them. At the end of Chapter XXXVI she writes that "the winter passed pleasantly, while I was busy with my needle, and my children with their books" (203). The bonds between these family members are impermeable; no matter how many times they are separated from each other, they embrace each other immediately and fall back into their comfortable, loving, and mutually supportive relations.