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PCA/ACA Abstract 2010

The Sexual Politics of  Narrating Harriet Jacob's Woman/Child Virtue: The Achievement of Autobiography

Although Harriet Jacobs describes most of her life as an adult, experiencing “adult” feelings, temptations, and sexual situations she labels her incidences as those of a slave “girl.”  Advantageous to the cause of abolition, female slaves refer to themselves as unformed, under-developed women: a very different self-identification than slave men.  Slave narratives by men like Frederick Douglass command power from their moments of super-human masculinity, moments when they seem overdeveloped in brutish manhood.  These gendered self-representations within American slavery utilize nineteenth-century ideology of sexuality, succumbing to normalized beliefs about gender differences.  Jacob’s descriptions of sexual, mental, and physical torment follow literary patterns with which the educated white American woman would be familiar.  My paper suggests Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as a retelling of Richardson’s Pamela.  The implications of this linkage help illustrate the narratological art that is an American slave narrative.  Jacobs, through education and observation, would derive a sense of white women’s social inequalities to white men and since, as Margaret Fuller describes in Woman in the Nineteenth-Century, white American women fancied themselves similar to African slaves, Jacobs secures her narrative by smartly playing the Darker Pamela.  By reading Richardson’s and Jacob’s texts as reflective narratives of manipulation, I show how Pamela’s and Linda’s sexual confusion, violation, and imprisonment help consciously construct a girl/woman binary; a device that (as Richardson and Jacobs know) provides foundation for their similar presentations of female virtue.  The example for virtuous women, as dictated by James Fordyce in the seventeenth-century, has undergone very little change in antebellum America.  Pamela refers to herself in  slave terminology as a cry for sympathy: a nice transition into Jacob’s narrative where she, flipping the symbolism, refers to herself in terms of white virtue.  Upholding white virtue, where a woman must remain sexually underdeveloped, serves a purpose for both female characters: it earns them a respect especially reserved for women who remain girlish.  Following popular literary tradition, Jacobs purposefully constructs her narrative to mimic these Anglo-American tropes.