Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig

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The Cambridge Introduction to the 19th-Century American Novel, the traditional sentimental novel’s storyline focuses around a young woman finding her way through life, usually without the support of a conventional family. The women overcome life’s hardships, and “the key to these women’s triumphs lies in their achievement of self-mastery” (Cane 113). According to Gregg Cane, these didactic novels are targeted at young women to instill the idea that a domestic home, marriage, and family are what construct a morally good woman. The plot is used to extract an emotional reaction from the audience. Nina Baym describes all sentimental novels as having the same plot,

In essence, [they are] the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world. This young girl is fittingly called a heroine because her role is precisely analogous to the unrecognized or undervalued youths of fairy tales who perform dazzling exploits and win a place for themselves in the land of happy endings. (11-12)

These novels were extremely popular with white females during the 19th century. The heroine is a virginal (if not actually a virgin at least maintaining the idea she is still untouched and innocent) young girl who has to stand on her own two feet and protect her virginity from villainous men. She is often portrayed as a damsel in distress, and in the end a courageous man saves her. They get married and have a perfect happily-ever-after. In Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical novel, Our Nig, both African-American authors incorporate the idea of t...

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...Cambridge University Press, 2007. eBook.

Foster, Frances Smith. Written By Herself: Literary Production by African-American

Women, 1746-1892. United States of America, 1993. Print.

Johnson, Yvonne. The Voices of African American Women: The Use of Narrative and Authorial Voice in the Works of Harriet Jacobs, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Company, Inc., 1998. Print.

Mullen, Harryette. “Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved.” The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America Ed. Shirley Samuels. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. eBook.

Santamarina, Xiomara. Belabored Professions: Narratives African American Working Womanhood. United States of America: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005. eBook.
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