Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – Historical, Theory and Genre

Below is the material from the presentation on Incidents. I also added a couple of quotes from Maruice Halbwachs (for the collective memory theory) and Michel Foucault (for the bit on the panopticon). Additionally, I’ve linked below, a scan of the criticism for the historical context from the Norton Critical Edition that I used in the presentation. At the end it mentions the base for the ways you can also engage with this text from a gender study or feminist angle.



Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (**Norton Critical Edition**)


Social aspects of collective memory and their influences on identity (Compare TBG)

“Memory depends on the social environment.” (Halbwachs 37) – On Collective Memory

“Yet it is in society that people normally acquire their memories” ( Halbwachs 38) – On Collective Memory

“I learned by the talk around me, that I was a slave” (Jacobs 10).

“They seem to satisfy their consciences with the doctrine that God created the Africans to be slaves” (Jacobs 39).


Panopticon (Compare with Tell Tale Heart, Yellow Wallpaper)

Slavery as a Panopticon

“the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault) – Discipline & PunishThe Birth of the Prison

“This alarmed Benjamin, who was aware that he would be advertised in every port near his own town” (Jacobs 21).

“A slaveholder once told me that he had seen a runaway friend of mine in New York, and that she besought him to take her back to her master…” (38).

Both instances of hiding in someone else’s house/attic/loft, ashe constantly fears being discovered by those searching for her. (81, 92)

Religion exploited as a Panopticon for Slavery

“Tis the devil who tempts you. God is angry with you, and will surely punish you, if you don’t forsake your wicked ways…” (58).


Historical Context

Nat Turner insurrection (53)

Hysteria: “you’s got de highsterics.” – Response to Linda’s (legitimate) concern for her children. (87)

Jean Fagan Yellin (203-209) Jean Fagan Yellin – “Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’ Slave Narrative”

  1. Authority as an autobiography
  2. History of her life
  • Her interactions and responses to other writers through letters to Amy Post etc (205)
    1. Harriet Beecher Stowe (206)
    2. Nathaniel P. Willis (205)
    3. William C. Nell (206)
    4. Maria Child (207)
  1. Incidents as an autobiography with authorship – not only challenges historical institution and ideas, but traditional ideas and institutions involving gender

Gender Studies

“When they told me my new-born babe was a girl; my heart was heavier than it ever had been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women” (64).

Jean Fagan Yellin (203-209)

Incidents as an account of women discussing sexuality and exploitation (209)(Compare Fun Home)

“it also challenges traditional patriarchal institutions and ideas” (209).


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