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Cult Of Domesticity Slave Narratives English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2158 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Slave narratives give an account of the physical brutality and deprivation that many slaves were forced to endure; slave narrators ultimately write his or her self into an existence recognized by dominant American society. The author illustrates the way he/she overcomes the slaveholding society’s continuing attempts to destroy his/her identity; concurrently, the narrator also rewrites that identity to fit the dominant culture’s norms, despite the fact that these norms tend to conflict with his/her own experiences during slavery. Male slave narratives have ultimately highlighted on heroic male slaves, not on their wives, daughters or sisters; for a female her relationships as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend would ultimately demonstrate her womanliness and her shared roles with white women readers (who do not need to contest their womanliness). The many different choices Linda has made throughout her life including her attempt to free herself from her master’s moral degradation, her relationship with Mr. Sands, her strategy for saving her children, and her concealment is how she illustrates to her reader the ways in which she has strived to live up to their standards. Ultimately, Linda Brent is caught between the vile, abusive practices of slavery and the idealized “cult of domesticity.”

By focusing almost entirely on the narratives of male slaves, critics have left out half the picture. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is representative of African American

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women’s literary tradition, or of a feminine model of identity formation. It is safe to say that both male and female slave narratives strove to counter racial stereotypes; it is also safe to say that black men and women however faced very different stereotypes. Black slave men fought against the stereotype that were “boys” (transition to manhood as in Douglass) while black women struggled to defend the idea that they were either helpless victims or whores. For a male fugitive, public discourse was a way in which he would declare his place and identity among men. The form in which Jacob’s narrative is written is a direct result of gender differences among men and women. Because women slave narrators were held hostages to the nineteenth-century ideal of the” cult of domesticity” which demanded a standard of feminine “purity” that slavery denied them, they were excluded from the public discourse of their stories in the dominant culture that publicly insisted on the cult of pure womanhood. Her primarily white readership at the time insisted that women should choose “death before dishonor”; they would not recognize so-called mothers of children who were bastards. Harriet Jacobs could not demonstrate to her primarily white female readership how she had been the “perfect wife or mother” that the cult of domesticity demanded but she emphasizes the ways in which she strove to meet those same demands given her peculiar position.

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl present the author’s confession of what her readers might consider a sin-ridden past and a justification of her motives to a potentially disapproving readership. Northern white women could have possibly identified with the female slave in times of hardship and may have even made allowances for her behavior under duress, however, Jacobs appears to take for granted that her readers will apply to Linda Brent the moral standards that were imposed upon them. She emphasizes, “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible

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for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.”(119) She calls attention to that of female slaves’ who suffered horrible mental tortures and humiliation such as sexual harassment and the loss of their children.

Jacobs mentions numerous examples of Dr. Flint’s behavior as proof of the corrupting power of slavery and its negative effects especially on the female slaves’ maternal and womanly experiences. Dr. Flint batter’s Brent’s purity of mind with constant insinuations and harassment; he built a cottage in the field for her to live in but she refused him. If she had accepted his offer, her life would have been spent undergoing more of his foul insults and sexual abuse. Her decision to become a mother was a direct result of Dr. Flint’s constant sexual advances. Linda admits that she accepted Mr. Sand’s advances toward her as, “deliberate calculation”. She states:

But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also could have married the man of my choice…I wanted to keep myself pure; and under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grasp of the demon slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me. (83-84)

Since, Flint denied Brent marriage to a free black man and refused to sell her to anyone, Brent knew that she would never be allowed a traditional home and family therefore not achieving the “proper” standards of white women. If Linda had the choice to love and marry whom she pleased then, she would gladly take it. But the fact remains she does not. Through her relationship with Mr. Sands she gains some control over her body; if she cannot marry whom she pleases then at least she can choose with whom she will reproduce. By choosing Sands as a lover and father to

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her children, Brent went against the ideal image of womanhood and instead dealt with the position she was in. Jacobs writes about Mr. Sands:

I felt grateful for his sympathy, and encouraged by his kind words.  It seemed to me a great thing to have such a friend.  By degrees, a more tender feeling crept into my heart.  Of course I saw whither all this was tending, I knew the impassable gulf between us; but to be an object of interest to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation has left her any pride or sentiment. It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion.  There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment. (Jacobs 84)

She made the choice to willingly give up her virginity outside of marriage; an action that is completely against traditional moral codes. Brent recognizes that it is through her right to choose that a woman gains moral integrity, not through the physical virginity with which the choice is associated. She chooses Sands to upset Dr. Flint in hopes of being free from his sexual advances and to also possibly secure her freedom and that of future children; “Of a man who was not my master I could ask to have my children well supported; and in this case, I felt confident I should obtain the boon. I also felt quite sure that they would be made free.” (85-86)

While attempting to embrace the ideals of womanhood, Brent is able to recognize and disregard the standards that cannot be applied and established for her. She says:

Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within hearing of his voice. I know I did wrong….Still, in looking back calmly, on the events of my life, I feel that the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others. (Jacobs 86)

This statement declares that other women have no right to criticize Brent for revealing her sexual history unless they have walked in her shoes and been witness to all she has endured.

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Furthermore, Jacobs argues, that the audience cannot possibly understand what she has been through. The quote is directed to the white female audience and suggests that particularly female slaves should not be judged according to the moral standards of everyone else.

Nevertheless, Brent is constantly trying to live up to the cult of true womanhood by attempting to find ways to secure the freedom of her two children. Jacobs emphasizes her narrator’s maternal emotions towards her children; motherhood depicted in the narrative is significant because it is a strong connection between herself and her readers and, most importantly, one that goes above race and social status. In presenting the life of the slave mother as one of constant misery and pain, Jacobs earn the sympathy of her readers and motivates them to focus on her maternal experience as the reason behind her desire to be free. Linda’s actions are mostly determined by the effect they will have on her children and their future liberation. Many female slaves were incapable of keeping their families together but Brent converted her body from a position of exploitation to a vehicle of resistance when she challenged the authority of the slave master and worked to liberate her children. Jacobs writes, “My thoughts wandered through the dark past, and over the uncertain future. Alone in my cell, where no eye but God’s could see me, I wept bitter tears. How earnestly I prayed to him to restore me to my children, and enable me to be a useful woman and a good mother!” (202). Linda’s calculated advantage of being with Mr. Sands was not enough to secure the liberation of her children and her escape from Flint’s pursuit. Significantly, Linda takes actions that promote the well-being of her children constantly throughout the narrative. She devises a plan to hide in the garret to protect the love she has for her children; she removes her physical body in order to safeguard them. Most importantly, Linda never seriously takes into consideration running away to the North without her children. Her

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flight is always understood as a necessary precaution for the betterment of their lives and sacrificing her physical and emotional intimacy with them is crucial in order to achieve her ultimate goal: their emancipation.

The ending of the narrative was startling. Freedom was gained from none other than Mrs. Bruce who bought the freedom of the children and Linda. Mrs. Bruce is a very significant character in the narrative and stands as a role model of courage and political activism for the audience. She is also an example of a white woman who uses her own motherhood to help that of a slave. The narrative ends with the quote:

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Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. I and my children are now free! We are as free from the power of slave holders as are the white people of the north; and though that, according to my ideas, is not saying a great deal, it is a vast improvement in my condition. (Jacobs 302)

By stating this, she is explicitly referring to the ideal of the “cult of true womanhood.” Even though Brent succumbs to the values of her readers she, however, resists their authority to judge her by those values. She makes a significant point about values and life situations; that is, not everyone can be judged by the same standards and points out the ways in which womanhood and motherhood are corrupted by slavery itself. Brent’s story does not end in the conventional feminine way; the narrative ends, not with a solitary speaker, but with a woman gratefully acknowledging her bonds to her children and friends, bonds that were freely chosen.

Jacobs primarily female white readership may have been sympathetic to her pseudonym Linda’s struggles to secure the unity of her family, to show extensive sexual encounters between slave and master, and to display the inhumane institution of slavery itself but instead the narrative was written in a trial by jury format (white women being the jury, and Brent’s life

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being the trial). By calling upon her fellow women and mothers to be witnesses to her life as a, “poor desolate slave girl” she challenges them to understand that she could not emulate the standards that were imposed upon white women at the time; in her own way she proved herself to be a worthy woman and mother even if it did not end with marriage.


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