Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Summary and Analysis of Chapters XXXVII-XLI


Chapter XXXVII - A Visit To England

Harriet learned that her beloved Mrs. Bruce was dead. Her husband desired that Harriet accompany Mary, her little charge, to visit relatives in England. Harriet agreed, and putting Benny in a trade and leaving Ellen with her friend, traveled to England. She was amazed at how "for the first time in my life I was in a place where I was treated according to my deportment, without reference to my complexion." There she felt a sense of "pure, unadulterated freedom." England seemed in strong contrast to the "stagnation in our Southern towns" and she delighted in how busy and contented people seemed.

She did not want to romanticize the situation of the poor people of England however, because they truly did lack money and were subject to oppression, but "the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the condition of the most favored slaves in America." They were protected by law, the bonds of parent and child and husband and wife were sacred, and they could receive education without fear of retribution.

In England Harriet also embraced religion, for it was much different from the religion she experienced in the south. It was truly inspiring that while in England she "never saw the slightest symptom of prejudice against color."

Chapter XXXVIII - Renewed Invitations To Go South

The time came to return to America, and Harriet lamented how it was a sad thing to be afraid of one's native country. When she returned she found Ellen well, but, after being discriminated against for his color while taking up a trade, Benny had decided to ship out on a whaling voyage.

Harriet received a letter from Miss Emily Flint, now Mrs. Dodge, that expressed in flowery terms her desire that Harriet come live with her and her husband in Virginia. Harriet did not fall for this trap, as she discerned Dr. Flint's influence in this suggestion. Even though Harriet knew she was technically his property, she "regarded such laws as the regulations of robbers, who had no rights that I was bound to respect." The Fugitive Slave Law had not yet been passed, and Harriet felt safe remaining in Massachusetts.

Chapter XXXIX - The Confession

William put up the funds to send Ellen away to a boarding school to improve her education. Harriet knew this was the right thing to do, but it did not make it easier for her to part with her daughter. Her conscience regarding Mr. Sands troubled her, and she gathered enough courage to tell Ellen about her father. Ellen stopped her and said she knew all and, furthermore, that she did not care for Mr. Sands; after spending time with him in Washington, she saw how dismissive he was of her and how kind he was to his white daughter. All of her love was for her mother. Harriet was mightily relieved that her daughter did not think less of her for her past.

Ellen departed. William and Harriet tried to start an anti-slavery reading room in Rochester, but it did not succeed. Harriet worked in the employ of Isaac and Amy Post, Christians who "measured a man's worth by his character, not by his complexion."

Chapter XL - The Fugitive Slave Law

William, thwarted in his project, decided to take Benny to California with him. Ellen remained and prospered in boarding school. Harriet returned to the Bruce household in New York City. Mr. Bruce had remarried and there was a new baby for Harriet to nurse. Mrs. Bruce (the second) was not English, but she was a benevolent and warm woman who never evinced any prejudice. She possessed "excellent principles and a noble heart".

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed and terror struck the heart of every colored person in the northern states. The city was frantic, and many households were torn apart with fear and the admission of secrets. Harriet was of course subject to the law, as well as many around her. The colored people of the north worked together to set up vigilance committees to try and inform each other of the presence of southerners in town. Harriet tried to stay indoors for fear of being caught.

Harriet relates the story of a man named Luke, whom she knew from her days in the south. He was monstrously abused by his master and had escaped to New York. She was pleased to see him but was dismayed that his years of captivity had warped his moral sense.

Throughout the winter Harriet lived in "a state of anxiety" and wondered at the "strange incongruity in a State called free!" She learned that Dr. Flint knew she was back in New York and was making plans to bring her back. She informed Mrs. Bruce of the danger. That noble woman decided to aid Harriet in any way possible, and gave her her own baby to take with her. This meant that if Harriet was caught, the captors would be obliged to bring the baby back and Harriet as well, giving Mrs. Bruce the opportunity to intervene on her behalf. Mrs. Bruce had Harriet sent to New England to stay with a senator. She was there for a short time and then went to the country, remaining a month with the baby. After Dr. Flint's men lost track of her, she returned to New York.

Chapter XLI - Free At Last

In the final chapter, Harriet wrote of her grandmother, who occasionally dictated letters that were sent to Harriet in New York. One day a letter came which said that Dr. Flint had died, leaving his family in an unhappy financial situation. Harriet was relieved he was dead, but knew that she was not out of danger yet. Mrs. Flint was open in that her daughter could not lose such a valuable slave.

Harriet chanced to see the newspaper announcement of the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Dodge in the city one evening, and became frightened. She hurried to tell Mrs. Bruce, who gave her the child again and bade her escape to a friend's house. Several people came to Mrs. Bruce's home to inquire after her, but of course they were told nothing.

Mr. Dodge had been a Yankee peddler and was now, through his social-climbing marriage, a slaveholder. He had not gotten along well with Emily Flint's brother, however, and was left no property by Dr. Flint. It was thus important that he procure Harriet.

Harriet had a friend, a black man, who agreed to go to Mr. Dodge and pretend to ask about his own family back in town. Mr. Dodge knew what he was up to and threatened him. Mrs. Bruce became nervous and told Harriet she had to leave town, and that her house was being watched. Harriet was frustrated and depressed that she had to keep running; she had been chased for half of her life. However, she and the baby were sent to New England again to keep safe.

Mrs. Bruce wrote to Harriet and asked her if she might ask Mr. Dodge if she could buy Harriet. Harriet wrote back that she did not even want to be sold as a piece of property at all anymore; she would rather escape to California to join her brother and son. Mrs. Bruce employed someone to negotiate with Mr. Dodge anyway, however, and he agreed once he realized how much he needed the money.

A brief letter from Mrs. Bruce informed Harriet that she was now free, and another man standing near Harriet as she read confirmed that he had seen the bill of sale. Harriet wrote that "I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his." Although she had not wanted Mrs. Bruce to purchase her freedom, she felt as if a heavy load had been lifted from her shoulders.

Harriet writes that she heard of the death of Aunt Marthy not long after that woman rejoiced in her granddaughter's freedom. Uncle Phillip also passed away and was honored with an obituary. Harriet was free but wished she had a home of her own. Duty and love kept her working for Mrs. Bruce, the woman who had risked so much to help a poor bondwoman survive and attain her cherished freedom.


In these final chapters, Harriet is now thoroughly ensconced in the north, working for both Mrs. Bruces and trying to set up a home for herself and her children. The north, particularly New York, is not as friendly to African Americans as Harriet (and many other slaves) previously believed. As discussed in the previous analysis, northerners were afflicted by pervasive racism as well and had moved to segregate many areas of public life. While offering many opportunities for blacks, the north also offered its own challenges. Harriet is much struck by the differences between America and England, writing that for the first time in her life she was not treated differently because of her complexion. There, people seemed free of hypocrisy, which extended into their views on religion as well. Although Harriet was a religious woman before traveling to England, her faith deepened during her time abroad. Writing of a clergyman with whom she stayed, she observed "the beauty of his daily life inspired me with faith in the genuineness of Christian professions. Grace entered my heart, and I knelt at the communion table, I trust, in true humility of soul."

One particular area of interest in the newer scholarly work on Harriet Jacobs is her entrance into the capitalist world from the precapitalist economic system of the south. The north had industrialized and emphasized contract relations as the basis of economic freedom; the south was characterized by a paternalistic ethos that was corrupt and antiquated. This contributed to the ideological divide between the two regions and informs Harriet's experiences in both. In the society she left, as scholar Virginia Cope writes, "paternalism imagines an organic society of reciprocal relations in which some are born to rule, others to obey." This was categorically different from the north's emphasis on free labor. The paternalistic ideal was rarely achieved, however, for masters and mistresses were not benevolent or even wise, denying slaves promised freedom (like Mr. Sands and Harriet's first mistress) or by being corrupted and so obsessed with control that they ignored their own self interest (like Dr. Flint, who goes bankrupt in his malicious and neurotic lifelong search for Harriet). Harriet also links the sexual exploitation of slave women with the economics of the slave society, explaining that masters benefitted from producing offspring by their slaves. Harriet was keen on denouncing the slave system throughout her text.

When she reaches Philadelphia – the land of free labor and contracts – she immediately enters into capitalism by making a purchase of veils and gloves. Cope writes, "[Harriet] demonstrates her ability to compete in a vibrant, competitive market, skillfully deploying the anonymity resumed in the transaction to hide her ignorance as well as her legal status." She is officially a consumer, the ultimate product of capitalism. She finds employment and is able to support herself and her children. However, the journey into the northern world is also one of disillusionment; northern racism creates uncomfortable and oppressive conditions much like slavery did. Harriet is forced into a second-class carriage, insulted by northern whites, and cannot sell her labor for what it is actually worth. She is not able to attain her own home, which, as she ends Incidents with – "The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own, however humble" (225) – is a failing of the north's free market economy which is successful partly by marginalizing African American laborers.

Like the chapter on the Nat Turner Rebellion, Incidents gives a first-person perspective of one of the historical events that is ubiquitous in American history textbooks – the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A product of the Compromise of 1850, an attempt to keep the Union together orchestrated by Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, the Act was extremely controversial. Northern authorities were required to return any captured fugitive slaves to their masters in the south. Often financial incentives or promotions were granted to officials who complied. Likewise, heavy fines were incurred by officials for inaction and by civilians who aided or abetted runaway slaves. Abolitionists nicknamed the Act the "Bloodhound Law" because of the dogs that were used to find escaped runaway slaves. Harriet explains that the Act was a "reign of terror to the colored population" and threw everyone into consternation and anxiety. Many northerners, however, refused to enforce the provisions of the law, which led to greater tensions between the two regions.

In the final chapter Harriet's freedom is purchased by Mrs. Bruce against her wishes. Her response to Mrs. Bruce's proposal to buy her from Mr. Dodge is not the customary response that white readers might have expected. By the time this offer is suggested, Harriet has finally come to accept herself as free because she does not buy into the system that designated her as a slave; it is false, specious. She explains "the more my mind had become enlightened, the more difficult it was for me to consider myself an article of property" (222). After Mrs. Bruce purchases her freedom, Harriet experiences a feeling of gratitude and relief, but it is mingled with her disbelief that she, a human being, could be sold: "So I was sold at last! A human being sold in the free city of New York!" (223) No doubt the bill of sale would be a relic of a terrible past for contemporary readers to marvel at. Harriet's description of her reaction to being freed solidifies her reputation as a woman with a penchant for unswerving honesty and forthrightness; she does not sugarcoat her feelings or placate her readers.

The end of her story is happy, as she and her children are free, but it is also tinged with melancholy. She cannot yet afford the home that she wants - a dream modeled on her early experience with her parents. It is also sobering to look beyond the text and realize that Jacobs was writing Incidents in secret in the home of her employers the Willis family (fictionalized as the Bruces in the text) because of the assumption that Nathaniel Parker Willis would not approve of her endeavor. Her work is candidly forthright when she was not yet able to be.