Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Elizabeth Fenton


One of the 19th century’s most prominent slave narratives is Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This thesis will examine Jacobs’ invocation of the maternal identity in her autobiographical account of the slave system, specifically focusing on the intersection of various maternal identities and how they were impacted by the ubiquitous influence of slavery. In her writing, Jacobs presents deviating experiences of motherhood. Primarily, she discusses the accounts of the black mother through her protagonist and autobiographical narrator, Linda Brent. Linda depicts the dichotomies of the emotional experience for the slave mother: an experience both of hope and of fear, of defensiveness and of vulnerability. Linda also invokes the experience of the white slave mother, through her knowledge of the relationship between Dr. and Mrs. Flint. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the ideal text to consider the complex nature of the maternal with respect to slavery, for it represents the exploitation of motherhood and reproduction in support of regeneration, while also characterizing maternal figures in the book who represent the agency of the mother to subvert the system.

The current critical conversation surrounding Harriet Jacobs’ text seems to isolate the complications associated with motherhood in slavery. Where some authors focus on the slave household as a site of oppression for the mother who is unable to provide protection for her children, other authors argue that the mother is the most powerful figure of resistance to slavery. Few texts do the necessary work of merging these two maternal perspectives. Moreover, the figure of the white mother in slave narratives hasn’t been adequately addressed in order to truly contrast differing maternal motivations influenced by race. The role of racial identity significantly impacts the maternal in Jacobs’ text, demonstrating the profound connection between motherhood and the slave system in early America.

With Jacob’s writing as the forefront focus of consideration, this thesis paper will highlight textual analysis through close reading. It will also reflect and expand upon the current existing criticism

to enhance the effect of the literary analysis. Some comparison

may be invoked between Jacob’s text and others closely related, such as Harriet Beecher

Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but these invocations will only be for the purpose of

highlighting Jacobs’ use of the maternal. Ultimately, the methodology of this thesis will

be presenting the differing maternal perspectives through the combination of scholarship

and analysis with the purpose of proving the maternal identity is both a liability and a

power in the system of slavery.



Number of Pages

70 p.