Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
In her essay, “Loopholes of Resistance,” Michelle Burnham argues that “Aunt Marthy’s garret does not offer a retreat from the oppressive conditions of slavery – as, one might argue, the communal life in Aunt Marthy’s house does – so much as it enacts a repetition of them… Harriet Jacobs escapes reigning discourses in structures only in the very process of affirming them” (289). In order to support this, one must first agree that Aunt Marthy’s house provides a retreat from slavery. I do not. Burnham seems to view the life inside Aunt Marthy’s house as one outside of and apart from slavery where family structure can exist, the mind can find some rest, comfort can be given, and a sense of peace and humanity can be achieved. In contrast, Burnham views the garret as a physical embodiment of the horrors of slavery, a place where family can only dream about being together, the mind is subjected to psychological warfare, comfort is non-existent, and only the fear and apprehension of inhumanity can be found. It is true that Aunt Marthy’s house paints and entirely different, much less severe, picture of slavery than that of the garret, but still, it is a picture of slavery differing only in that it temporarily masks the harsh realities of slavery whereas the garret openly portrays them. The garret’s close proximity to the house is symbolic of the ever-lurking presence of slavery and its power to break down and destroy families and lives until there is nothing left. Throughout her novel, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs presents these and several other structures that suggest a possible retreat from slavery, may appear from the outside to provide such a retreat, but ideally never can. Among these structures are religion, literacy, family, self, and freedom.
Because it offers them the possibility of community and identity, many slaves find themselves strongly attached to religion. They cannot build a family structure and they cannot be identified by family name, but through the church, they can build a community and identify themselves as Christians. This comfort becomes virtually non-existent for it too is controlled by the slaveowners who “came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters” (57). The fact that one person could have the ability to control the amount of religion another person has and his purpose for having it diminishes any sense of community or identity that it may have initially provided.
Many slaves felt that the answers to their problems lied in a place that was unattainable by most of them, the Bible, and that to read and interpret it would afford them “access to and participation in the discursive formations of bourgeois society” (Mullen, 256), thus allowing them to finally taste “the water of life” (61). However, for Linda, possession of such a gift did not prove this assertion. Rather than a deserved sense of pride, Linda’s literacy served only as a means by which Dr. Flint could abuse her. For years, she was subjected to his lascivious writings and psychological torment, due in part to his knowledge of her ability to read. Even her elaborate scheme, which drove Dr. Flint to and from New York, provided only the temporary satisfaction of watching him vainly and falsely pursue her because, like slavery, Dr. Flint would always return more forcefully than before. His returning presence affirmed that her freedom from him was as fictional as her letters and that she was as likely to find freedom in her present situation as he was to find her in New York
The refuge that one often finds within the confines of family and self are unattainable in the life of a slave because, in essence, he is entitled to nether. To have a child is only to provide the slaveowner with “an addition to his stock of slaves” (52) that could be torn away and sold at his leisure and to have a family is to live in fear of this day. Linda’s father’s “strongest wish was to purchase his children; but though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded” (9). He was denied the right to have his family and refused the possibility to purchase that on which decency could never put a price tag. Identification with family ties is a luxury that is just not afforded to the slave community. Even within Aunt Marthy’s house, the home of a free woman, family structure was not allowed to flourish. Since Dr. Flint “had the power of law on his side” (70), there was nothing to stop him from ravaging this so-called retreat and continuing his persecutions within. Therefore, how could one find refuge in a family or in a self that is not clearly defined by identity, but governed by uncertainty? Any chance for such an opportunity was embraced with an even more telling illustration of slavery’s “poisonous grasp” (64). This is most evident in Dr. Flint’s offer to build Linda her own private cottage away from the main house, a place where she and her children can live together. This offer cannot be benign as Dr. Flint is working from a reality that does not see Linda as a person who has the right to a family or a self. The notions of sexual and psychological abuse that would undoubtedly go on in this cottage serve to affirm the lascivious desires and powers of the slaveholder to dominate, break down, and eventually destroy all aspects of the family and self.
Having explored the inevitable fate of a slave, there is but one assumption left – that the only outlet to freedom for a slave is freedom itself. However, like the previous false retreats I discussed, freedom is in the eye of the beholder and no matter which way you look at it, in Linda’s society, the beholder will always be the slaveholder. Let us explore the only ways in which a slave can achieve freedom – escape, sale, and death. If one escapes, then is he truly free? He may seem to be, but lurking behind will always be the slaveholder waiting and sneering. How can one be sold and still claim to be free? A price has been put on his life. Someone somewhere is lurking behind enjoying the benefits of this sale and let us not forget that there is no guarantee that a contract entered into by a slave will be binding. Finally, we encounter death. Yes, for the deceased the life of slavery has ended, but it is the life of slavery has ended his life. The slaveowner may have financially lost, but to his own ethics, he has won. No home, even Aunt Marthy’s, no matter how much love it holds, can offer retreat from the horrors of slavery until those horrors cease to exist.