Haunting In American Slave Narratives

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Haunting in American Slave Narratives

Both Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl depict enslaved women hidden in attics or garrets in pursuit of freedom. These gothic allusions of people haunting or watching over either the town or the plantation are meant to suggest, among other things, a secret minority witness to the life of the slave society. Both stories portray their quests for autonomy in similar and also very different ways. Using their stories of haunting, literal and figurative, Stowe and Jacobs are able to interrogate the ideals of domesticity, virtue, and the slave society as a whole.
Not many people in those days of slavery knew the truth of what was really going on. And if they did, just pretended like they didn’t, spreading the false ideas that slaves were happy and well treated. The “peephole” or “loophole”, through which the women of Stowe and Jacobs’ narratives are able to look out onto the town or the plantation, becomes their links to the outside world. Although they have been completely cut off and isolated from society and almost everyone they love, they still find a way to stay connected. Stowe imagines this link as a haunting, where they literally are able to control and manipulate the situation. Jacobs on the other hand uses the peephole as a means of exposing the truth. She “haunts” the town of Edenton, North Carolina in a very different way. Linda Brent is able to look down upon the town and reveal all its secrets. Jacobs and Stowe use their stories of the oppressed women, and their haunting link between confinement and truth, as another link to the public. Using it as means of getting their messages out there for the public to see. Attempting to expose the truths, the truths about slavery that the public are so quick to shove under the rug and forget about.
The supernatural and gothic allusions throughout Stowe’s text play a big part in the resistance of slavery and fight for freedom. As Legree pursues his oppression of Tom, he has an upsetting vision of his dead mother and becomes temporarily paralyzed with fear by an apparition of a ghost in the fog. The fear caused by this apparition weakens Legree to the point that Cassy and Emmeline can trick him into believing that ghosts haunt the garret. This ploy enables them to escape.
Legree is a Godless man. In place of religion and spirituality, he has substituted it with superstition. He is an extremely superstitious person. Cassy and Emmeline use their knowledge of this to their advantage and trick him into believing that ghosts haunt the garret. They see their master’s weakness and they use it as a way to manipulate him, just as he has manipulated and oppressed them all those years. They are able to turn the table on their “master” and finally find a way to control him and the situation in their favor. Thus proving that modes of control aren’t always physical force but can be ideological as well. By getting under Legree’s skin and tapping into his fears, the women are able to control him more than if they had used force. They use Legree’s superstitious and sentimental tendencies both to punish him and to achieve freedom.
In both Incidents and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the masters are under false impressions. Impressions intentionally and strategically placed there by the women, either by themselves or with the help of family. Dr. Flint thinks Linda has gone to the north, somewhere in New York or Massachusetts and Legree believes Cassie and Eliza to be long gone, when in reality all three women actually still stay dangerously close to their masters without being detected. Being able to deceive their oppressors while hiding right underneath their noses represents the control and power they have won over their former tyrants.
In Harriet Jacob’s Incidents you can see Linda Brent’s confinement as a different kind of haunting than the one described in Stowe, a haunting of domesticity. As Linda finally finds a way to escape, she is still being held back. Linda’s triumph comes at an extremely high price. Linda is torn between a desire for personal freedom and a feeling of responsibility to her family, particularly her children. The longer she stays in her tiny garret, where she can neither sit nor stand, the more physically debilitated she becomes. She is supposed to be free and yet she is physically trapped and enslaved. Her only pleasure is to watch her children through the tiny peephole, as she cannot risk letting them know where she is. This kind of love and devotion on behalf of her children is exposing and calling into question the other mother daughter relationship in Stowe’s text, the relationship between Marie St. Clare and Eva. Marie St. Clare sees her daughter as a burden and often is jealous of her daughter’s relationship with her father. She is a poor mother to Eva and has handed of the responsibilities of raising the child to slaves and her father. These are not the characteristics of a good mother figure. Unlike Marie, Linda would do anything to love, protect, and provide futures for her children.
Linda Brent also is part of another kind of haunting, a haunting of the ideals of “virtue” and morality advanced by Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jacobs’ Incidents explores morality particularly from the female perspective. Throughout Stowe’s text, the reader sees many examples of idealized womanhood, of perfect mothers and wives who attempt to find salvation for their morally inferior husbands or sons. They show these women as morally virtuous. Examples include Mrs. Bird, St. Clare’s mother, Legree’s mother, and, to a lesser extent, Mrs. Shelby. The text also portrays certain black women in a very virtuous, positive light. These black women generally prove to be strong, brave, and capable, as seen especially in the character of Eliza. There are cases where women do not act morally, such as Cassy with her killing her newborn baby, the women’s sins are presented as illustrating slavery’s evil influence and the women’s own immorality. Cassy, in contrast to the virtuous women of the text, serves as an example of a good mother turned bad. Under slavery, the very power of maternal love can become violent, and its usual sense of protection can become distorted to the point that a mother will kill her own child. Cassy being able to kill her child only illustrates more slavery’s destructive influence on women’s morality or anyone’s morality for that matter. The book seems to argue the reality of a natural female sense of good and evil, pointing to a natural moral intelligence in the female gender as a whole. It is encouraging the use of this moral knowledge or wisdom as a force for social change.
Harriet Jacob’s Incidents is both a social and a literary critique of slavery. It has become a social critique of slavery because it was used to advance the antislavery cause and to respond to the pro-slavery ideas that slaves were happy and well treated. Like most slave narratives, these texts feature graphic descriptions of the violent sufferings and inflictions brought on slaves, attempting to appeal to the emotions and conscience of white readers. Some other famous narratives we have learned about, such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, also tell the inspiring story of an abused slave’s journey toward self-definition and freedom. Like these other slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl records the abuses of slavery, the slave’s struggle for independence and self-respect, and the traumatic details of trying to escape. Jacob’s text though was more directed towards women of the society. She wanted to talk about the sexual violence in slavery and women were not supposed to talk about sex; it was a social taboo. But Jacobs persisted and in doing so called attention to the situation instead of the details. She wanted it to be more about slavery than about her. This story was a literary critique, as well as a political one, in the idea that writing back in those days was seen as a means of social control. It was a way recreating yourself and having control over your own story even if not everything from your life is included. Jacobs was able to create a ‘self’ that had otherwise been controlled by others.
Jacobs’s story along with Stowe’s emphasizes the distinctive problems faced by female slaves, particularly sexual abuse and the suffering of slave mothers who are separated from their children. In spite of her suffering and possible criticism from the public, Jacobs was determined to make white Americans aware of the sexual victimization that slave women frequently faced and to stress the fact that they often had no choice but to give up their “virtue.”

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