A Question of Ethics in 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl'

In the autobiographical work entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the protagonist, Linda Brent (which is actually a mere pseudonym for author Harriet Jacobs, faces an ethical dilemma that is highly emblematic of one of the core problems of slavery, especially for female slaves. Essentially, the dilemma involves allowing herself to be raped by her slave master, Dr. Sands, or to lose her feminine virtue to another Caucasian pursuer, Mr. Sands. Jacobs solves the dilemma by opting for the latter choice, which she does in order to avoid the lesser of two evils rape at the hands of her master.

In this respect, Jacobs is able to act as a person with agency although the course of action she chooses demonstrates that she is still a victim of slavery. To that end, her problematic choice does represent a limited degree of liberation that is not truly liberating, since she is still forced to make a decision. True liberation implies that Jacobs would not be forced to do anything, and could make choices as she pleases. When faced with this ethical dilemma that is representative of a common plight for most slave women, Jacobs must still forsake her virtues as a woman.

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In order to truly understand the ethics at work in Jacobs' decision to choose to sleep with Mr. Sands, who she eventually spawns a pair of children with, one must look into the particulars of Jacobs' situation as a slave girl. Dr. Flint is her legal owner, and as such, could choose to do with her whatsoever he pleases including force her to engage in sexual activities with him. Mr. Sands, however, is someone who does not have any financial or ownership interest in Jacobs, and whose only interest is in her feminine wiles. The following quotation from the autobiography further elucidates these differences and their ramifications to the ethics of this situation.

"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 oneself, 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 64).

This quotation is fairly significant since it demonstrates the reasons that ethically, Jacobs prefers to sleep with Sands rather than with Dr. Flint. First of all, it allows her to exercise some degree of control in having a choice, since doing is an act of "giving" herself, rather than being taken by rape. Also, this quote shows that Jacobs did not explicitly want to have sex with Sands, and that doing so was merely "less degrading" than submitting to the displeasure of rape. Also, this quotation references the degree of liberty that is inherent in sleeping with Sands since doing so does reflect a choice on the part of a slave that is "akin" to freedom. It is significant to note, however, that although sleeping with Sands is ethically preferable to doing so with Dr. Flint, this choice is not synonymous with an exercise of true freedom, which is why the author describes this decision as being mere similar to freedom. Although Jacobs is able to exercise some degree of free will in having sex with Sands, her choice is not truly liberating.

Jacobs' fate after choosing Sands over Dr. Flint and its circumscribing effect on her freedom is demonstrated quite dramatically by the events that follow. Dr. Flint has still chosen to pursue her, and she is still his property, and her sexual decision has not changed either of these facets of her life. If anything, it has given Jacobs even less freedom than she previously had. Whereas before she was contemplating fleeing North to effect her freedom, she feels powerless to do so while her children are still in the throes of slavery in the South. The author is forced to hide in a small shack that is physically debilitating as she can neither sit nor stand in order to avoid the clutches of Dr. Flint and watch over her children.

The self-imprisonment Jacobs finds herself in as a result of her choice of sleeping with Sands is far from true liberation, as the following quotation demonstrates. "My friends feared I should become a cripple for life; and I was so weary of my long imprisonment that, had it not been for the hope of serving my children I should have been thankful to die; but for their sakes, I was willing to bear on" (Jacobs 140). This quotation illustrates just how limiting the form of liberty Jacobs exercises in engaging in sexual acts with Sands truly is.

Doing so allows her to exercise some degree of free will that she legally is not supposed to have as a slave to Dr. Flint. Yet the outcome of doing so keeps her in a self-imposed "imprisonment" for seven long years in which she is nearly crippled from the discomfort of her hiding spot. So although Jacobs is able to choose a lover, the results of that choice are indicative of the fact that such a choice is far from commensurate to that of true liberty which would have enabled her to live with her children happily ever after the sexual act. 

Despite the circumscriptions on her freedom that sexual intercourse with Sands produces, it is significant to note that this situation again presents Jacobs with another choice. That choice, of course, is to either run away to the northern section of the country to escape the advances of Dr. Flint, or to remain in hiding in what has been termed the "Loophole of Retreat". Since Jacobs obviously chooses this latter option, the fact that she has an option in itself is another form of liberty, albeit one that is somewhat removed from a full-fledged freedom in which one comes and goes as one chooses.

Still, this decision to remain in hiding with her children is something Jacobs could not have decided to do were she working in Dr. Flint's plantation, which is where he resigned her to work after she accepts the sexual advances of Mr. Sands. It is the fact that Jacobs' "Loophole of Retreat' represents a small tinge of freedom, of her exercise of her own volition, that she retrospectively states within Incidents of the Life of Slave Girl that "Yet I would have chosen this rather than my lot as a slave". This quotation is important because it shows that as long as Jacobs is in hiding in this cramped attic, she is not living her life day to day and working as a slave. This fact, and the fact that she has forged bonds with her children that she refuses to surrender, explain why the author decides to choose any autonomous fate over one which is dictated by her master slavery.

The most convincing piece of evidence that demonstrates how limited the form of liberty is that Jacobs is able to exercise by choosing among various Caucasian suitors for her female virtues is the fact that her first preference is for neither Dr. Flint nor Mr. Sanders. In this sense, the ethical dilemma that the author faces, of having to choose between a married man who owns her and another man whom she does not have true feelings for, is highly representative of a dilemma faced by slaves in general, because they were not permitted to love. The following quotation expounds on this fact, and demonstrates that whatever choices Jacobs was actually able to make in her life, they compared very little to one of the principle ones she wishes she could have made.

"There was in the neighborhood a young colored carpenter; a free born man. We had been well acquainted in childhood, and frequently met together afterwards. We became mutually attached, and he proposed to marry me. I loved him with all the ardor of a young girl's first love. But when I reflected that I was a slave, and that the laws gave no sanction to the marriage of such, my heart sank within me" (Jacobs 58).

This quotation reveals the true vileness of the nature of slavery. All too often, this institution was responsible for the splintering of families of those of African descent who were enslaved. Moreover, this quotation underscores the fact that it is due to her social status as a slave that Jacobs can not lawfully marry. So, although her sexual encounters with Mr. Sanders may have been preferable to those with her master, these actions are extremely limiting when compared to the life of respectable virtue of a wife of a man of African descent who exchanges mutual feelings of love and affection for Jacobs.

The fact that Jacobs is not able to pursue this opportunity, one which may have led to true happiness without having to cripple herself in an attic for seven years, shows just how shallow an alternative either Dr. Flint or Sands presented to her. Jacobs' inability to be with and pursue the one she loves is certainly germane to that of the vast majority of females who were enslaved in the United States, and proves that the exercise of will that Jacobs has in choosing Sands over Dr. Flint is far, far, from an exercise of real freedom.

The history of women having to compromise their values and their virtues because of the perversity of slavery was all too common throughout this epoch in American history. Jacobs, unfortunately, was no difference than the rest of the women in this unfortunate state. The liberty she exercises about her ethical dilemma in this book is merely a decision as to who would rape her her master or another Caucasian, a married or an unmarried man. This perverseness of a woman's virtue was all too common during chattel slavery, and is one of the many reasons this institution needed to be dissolved. 

Works Cited

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. Web. HYPERLINK "http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html" http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html

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