Linda Brent:  "Bad Woman," and Harriet Jacobs

 

Linda Brent:  "Bad Woman"

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was written as an autobiography of Harriet Jacobs.  Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs), the main character, would be the primary candidate for the title of "bad woman" for this novel.

Too justify calling Linda Brent the "bad woman," you must first satisfy the question of how does she work against the norm?  What social values, both current and traditional, does she reject?

Brent lived in a white slavocracy existing in the United States during much of her life.  Her struggle was against this slavocracy and all the evils that were born of it.  Naturally, in the day in which we live, this would make Brent a heroine.

 However, in the eyes of the plantation owners, their wives, and the lower class small farmers of the South, Brent was a disobedient nigress.  Her kind were supposed to be thankful for the white folk taking care of them by giving them clothes and shelter.  Not only that, but the slaves were being given a chance at "piety" when they attended the church of their masters.  So why would a slave want to be ungrateful and disobedient?  The existing double standard for white women and black women might have something to do with it.

If you consider "purity" to mean sex only within marriage, then slaves were denied purity, for they were denied the right of legal marriage.  Not only that, but because slave women could not be married to a property owning man, and could not have their own home, they were denied the right to live true domestic lives.  By having children "impurely," they were to be producers of more slaves, or property.  The constant work they did prevented them from being fragile like the frail white women of the plantations.  In other words, the slave women were definitely not a part of the "cult of true womanhood."  In this sense, Brent could be called a "bad woman."  But do not call her a "bad woman" yet, because slave women were held to a set of standards contrary to the "cult of true womanhood."  It did not matter that they had children impurely because they were supposed to produce property.  They were to be completely obedient to the master and no one else.  For Linda Brent, sex was an important issue.  Despite the constant abuse, she would not succumb to the sexual advances of Dr. Flint.  She was acting contrary to the sexual practices that the slavocracy insisted that she conform to.

Linda Brent neither conformed to the "cult of true womanhood," nor did she conform to the standards set for slave women.  So far that makes her a "bad woman" for denying two different norms.  Brent was successful in fighting off Flint's proposals, but she was not successful in staying sexually pure.  This is significant because Brent gave many indications that she wanted to remain innocent.  She had two illegitimate children with a white man named Mr. Sands.  Not only did she feel guilt for her actions ("The painful and humiliating memory will haunt me to my dying day (Jacobs 60)"), but also her loving grandmother rejected her for this action ("'You are a disgrace to your dead mother.'  She tore from my fingers my mother's wedding ring and her silver thimble. 'Go away!' she exclaimed, 'and never come to my house, again' (Jacobs 61).")

This is strike three for Linda Brent.  She was not even able to conform to her own standards.  Of course it can be argued that she was forced into this situation, but that is not the point.  Linda Brent succeeded in working against standards and norms set for women, including her own standards, thus making her a "bad woman."

Biography

 

Harriet Jacobs, born in North Carolina in the early 1800s (1813-1897).  Jacobs was a reformer, a relief worker during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and an anti-slavery activist.  She was born a slave to mulatto parents.  Jacobs had no clue that she was a slave until the death of her mother when she was six years old.  After her mother's death, she moved in with her grandmother and her white mistress.  The mistress passed away five years later, and Jacobs was moved to a different master.  This new master was Dr. James Norcom, who is the character Dr. Flint in Jacobs's novel, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Voices from the Gaps).  Dr. Norcom began his pursuit of Jacobs when she was fifteen years old.  She suffered from abuse, both sexual and physical, at the hands of Dr. Norcom.  The abuse and oppression caused Jacobs to take drastic measures to protect herself.  She began a relationship with Samuel Sawyer (Mr. Sands in her novel) in an attempt to avoid Dr. Norcom.  Jacobs and Sawyer had two children together.  Their names were Joseph and Louisa.

 

The Situation with Norcom became intolerable.  In 1835, Jacobs left her two children and escaped from Norcom.  She hid for seven years in a small garret of her grandmother's house.  Jacobs finally made it to the North in 1842 after her seven-year hiding.  Her children eventually followed.  Although she escaped, she still had to evade the hand of Dr. Norcom.  His desire for her was strong, and he relentlessly sought her out.  Jacobs and her daughter joined a group of abolitionists that worked for a newspaper called The North Star.

At the age of forty, Jacobs employer, who was a friend and an abolitionist, bought her from Norcom's family, thus emancipating her from slavery and freeing her from Norcom's attempts to find her.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was privately printed early in 1861 on the eve of the Civil War.  This novel is one of the few full-length slave narratives written by a woman. After the Civil War broke out, Jacobs left New York to do relief work among the slaves who escaped to the Union Army, raising funds for them and working in Washington, D.C.; Arlington, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia. After 1868 she returned north, spending her last years with her daughter in Boston and Washington, D.C. Jacobs died in March 1897 at the age of 84 (NCWN).

Criticism of this Novel

Jacobs wrote her novel as an autobiography.  It was written to spark sympathy in the Northerners.  It "can be read as a journey or progress from her initial state of innocence through the mires of her struggle against her social condition, to a prolonged period of ritual or mythic concealment, on to the flight itself, and finally, to the state of knowledge that accompanies her ultimate acquisition of freedom (Genovese 161)."

The novel was especially intended to get people to understand the horrors of slavery for women.  Jacobs achieved her goal by seeking "to touch the hearts of Northern white women and accordingly, wrote to the extent possible in their idiom (Genovese 161)."

Works Cited

Broxey, Brandon Harold, Jacob Matthew Elo, Amy Elizabeth Lambert, Douglas Thomas Moll, Abigail Kristine Simon,             and Melissa   Marie Sundem. "Harriet Jacobs."  Voices From the Gaps:  Women Writers of Color.  Online.              Internet.  27 Nov. 2000.

Genovese, Elizabeth.  "To Write My Self:  The Autobiographies of Afro-American Women."  Feminist Issues in Literary                          Scholarships.  Indiana University Press 1987:  161-80

"Harriet Ann Jacobs."  The North Carolina Writers Network (NCWN).  Online.  Internet.  27 Nov. 2000.

Jacobs, Harriet.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  New York:  Signet, 2000

 

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