“My soul revolted against the mean tyranny” (Jacobs 45). Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass express their feelings of and escapes from slavery in their Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, respectfully. These accounts, despite dealing with similar subject matter, hold very different stories. This is most readily and logically explained by the incommensurable genders of the works’ authors. This imparity, once taken note of, can be used as an explanation for the differences in tone and struggles conveyed throughout Jacobs’ and Douglass’ narratives.
Douglass’ rhetoric is delivered in a way much more heavy-handed than Jacobs’. He himself, after dealing with his issue of literacy, describes himself as having “a bold denunciation of slavery… and a powerful vindication of human rights” (Douglass 42). Jacobs, however, after denying Dr. Flint seems content “to triumph over [her] tyrant even in that small way” (Jacobs 85). While not directly found in the text of either work, it is no surprise that Douglass went on to become a powerful orator and Jacobs influential to the abolition of slavery only in publishing her narrative.
The resistance displayed in each novel varies drastically on one occasion, thus exemplifying the undeniably dissimilar ways in which Douglass and Jacobs choose to rebel. In Douglass’ case, he “determined to try to hire [his] time, with a view of getting money with which to make [his] escape” (Douglass 101) and makes “enough to meet [his] expenses, and lay up a little money every week” (Douglass 103). Jacobs, far from being proactive, takes refuge in her grandmother’s attic for seven years. While both of these feats are admirable, they are both distinguished in the nature of the motivation that enabled them, and the enabler itself.
The reason for this is very likely at cause of each author’s gender. Jacobs’ ultimate impetus throughout most of her narrative is her family. She was nerved to immediately begin formulating her escape from Dr. Flint’s plantation when she learned that her children “were to be brought to the plantation to be ‘broke in'” (Jacobs 144), for example. What is more, Jacobs’ main apparatus of her eventual complete escape is her grandmother’s attic, which was an effective “place of concealment” (Jacobs 172). Had she been without this instrument, her fate’s journey would have been much riskier.
Douglass, on the other hand, relies mainly on himself, using others merely in order to conquer his obstacles. While learning to read, for instance, he employed both Mrs. Auld and numerous white boys for this cause. After Mrs. Auld was told by her husband “that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read” (Douglass 37), she ceased to instruct him and did all she could to prevent him from gaining any further erudition. He then adopted a plan in which he converted “little white boys whom he met in the street (Douglass 40) into teachers.
This effort greatly defies opposition, much like Jacobs’ does. Douglass’, however, has encountered a very different motive. Far from having family ties, Douglass sets off on his path of resistance solely for himself. After Mrs. Auld’s teachings come to an end, he expresses gladness over the “invaluable instruction” (Douglass 36) gained by way of Mr. Auld’s urgings. What is more, he speaks of the “valuable bread of knowledge” (Douglass 41) given to him by the white street urchins. Douglass’ quest for literacy is an admittedly selfish goal, ignoring its repercussions on later events in his life, and is in that respect very unlike Jacobs’ struggle for her and her children’s freedom.
However, this is not to say that gender was the only determinate of each author’s motivation. Had Douglass been female and Jacobs male, this distinction would still be applicable, albeit less conventional. The role gender plays in the reading of both narratives simply leads to a greater depth of character study. Although gender could or could not arguably have much of an effect on a person, the stereotypes commonly associated with each can lead to greater understanding. However, after considering this, it is important to remember that a great deal of those new perceptions may be superficial. A reader should be careful to ignore any apocryphal judgments he or she may have made, and use the corresponding genders merely as a differentiation of Douglass’ and Jacobs’ respective personalities.