Biography and History: Harriet Jacob’s The Life of a slave girl To be a good writer, you must poses s a careful balance between detachment and association, a delicate waltz where you are not so wrapped up in the events of a story that it alienates the reader, and yet not so far separated from the subject matter that the readers cannot get into it. This is especially the case in an autobiographical narrative. In this case, it is very difficult to detach yourself from the main subject matter, that is, yourself. Yet it must remain a story, and the story at its heart is a reconstruction of facts from the memory of the author.
In the case of Harriet Jacobs, it was also important that she make sure the readers understood slavery from a woman’s perspective. The hardships she had to endure not only entailed the work and the punishments, but also the sexual aspect of being a slave-girl. Her task is difficult, because in order for the reader to really understand her position as a woman and a slave, she must make the story extremely personal. If it is too personal, however, the reader looses sight of the bigger picture, and does not relate all these hardships to the condition of the general female slave. She accomplishes this in two ways, through her writing style, and the writing content. The style that the novel is written varies from a dialogue to a narrative, depending on the subject matter being written about.
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For example, the dialogue where Mrs. Flint confronts Linda (Jacobs) and asks her what has been going on with her husband is handled very effectively, because as a conversation between two people, we are able to pick up on the nuances of meaning. Also, it makes the situation seem to the reader as very exhilarating, because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Two paragraphs later, though, the story has turned back into narrative, because Jacobs is trying to examine the entire situation in her present day, as a free woman. She has to be detached from the conversation in order for her to draw any conclusions. The conclusion she draws is that even though they are in different circumstances, (Linda is a slave and Mrs.
Flint is her mistress), they both have a shared problem as women — that is, the problems of infidelity. This general topic cannot be dealt with effectively unless it is done at a distance, looking back with the experience she has gained. Jacobs does this a lot — she takes her own present-day experiences and places them in the framework of her past. When she gives us an account of the Slaves’ New Year’s Day, she addresses the readers personally, whom are all freemen and women. First she gives us the facts of the matter: the auction block, the anxious waiting before families are separated.
Then she compares it to the present. In order to shock her readers and make this story hit closer to home, she asks us to compare our New Year’s Day with the slaves’. While we are partying and enjoying ourselves, the slaves await the day when they will be sold. Mothers fear that their children will be taken from them, rebellious slaves fear they will be beaten.
We just don’t understand what slavery is unless were given a direct contrast like this. Another method to get the readers to truly understand her problems is to try to compare feelings with situations. For example, at one point her style changes to rhetorical questions, aimed to catch the reader off-guard and make them think, not just read and comprehend. After she tells Mr. Flint about her intentions to marry a free black man, he tells her that she will never marry him, nor will she ever be free.
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This is written in a dialogue-style. Then, it quickly turns personal: she asks the readers, ‘Did you ever hate? I hope not. I never did but once… .’ She later accuses the readers of an almost blissful ignorance to this point: ‘But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from, 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 sever ley!’ In this manner, she asks the readers to forgive her for her sexual actions. Naturally, this is not really necessary, but it is an affective writing tool to get us to look on our own lives as easy in comparison to hers.
As a writer, Jacobs has to make herself look more human and real to the readers, because they come into the book with pre-conceived notions about slavery. She does this by writing occasional sarcastic comments, the kind that we all make in our lives. When her grandmother lends her mistress the money she has saved, she can only hope to get it back based on the word of the woman.’ The honor of a slaveholder to a slave!’ she remarks sarcastically. What is important to Jacobs is that the people reading the story really understand what’s going on. It isn’t enough that they be sorry for her, they must be enraged at the injustices. She chooses these small sections out of her life because she feels they will be the most influential over the reader.
It is supposed to be a persuasive story, not some self-pitying account of her poor ” life. ‘I draw no imaginary pictures of southern homes. I am telling you the plain truth,’ she explains. There is no intentional deceit in the chapters that she writes, because that would work against her. Her message is simple, she explains it in a dialogue with her brother:’ He grew vexed, and asked if poverty and hardships with freedom, were not preferable to our treatment in slavery. Linda,’ he continued, we are dogs here; foot-balls, cattle, every thing that’s mean.
No, I will not stay. Let them bring me back. We don’t die but once.’ ‘.