We’re often told that fairy tales aren’t true, or that they’re idealistic. When we think of fairy tales we usually picture princesses, princes, wicked stepmothers or witches. We think of heros battling dragons, or damsels in distress.
So, my post is going to be a bit of a surprise for some people: The Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a fairytale. This is more than the novel just following Propp’s Functions. This is about the way that the way the characters are presented, and the way that the situations she describes mirror those of a fairy tale. “It has been said that fairy tales derive from the wishful thinking of poor people or those that have been unsuccessful or slighted.” (Luthi, 317) The very reason the slave narrative existed was to further the fight for freedom for those who were enslaved. The novels were sentimental and often were meant to appeal to the upper-middle class woman; who might be softened by the view of slavery presented in the narratives. “The fairy tale story isolates and unites: its hero is thus isolated and, for this very reason, capable of entering into universal relationships.” (Luthi, 323) When Dr. Flint then tells Harriet that “he was going to build a small house for me, in a secluded place four miles away from the town.” (Jacobs, 179) it is not only about keeping her under the control of Dr. Flint, but isolating her. “He talked of his intention to give me a home of my own, and to make a lady of me.” (Jacobs, 179) She does not wish to be a lady: in the sense of the fairy tale to be a lady would be to “trade her independent selfhood for subordination…subjected to masculine supervision and denied any true independence.” (Rowe, 351) Harriet is expected to do this anyway as her identity as someone enslaved. To accept the role of a “lady” would be to accept her role as a slave. “The bound and silent figure of the slave metaphorically represents the woman’s oppression and so grants the white woman an access to political discourse.” (Sanchez-Eppler, 31) As women are also marginalized, the fact that as a slave she is marginalized would remind women that both groups are made less important and objectified.
So, Harriet reconfigures herself as a hero. She goes on a hero’s journey, accepting help from “donors” like Peter who arranges for her boat ride north, and going on a quest for Fanny, the “family member” who also needs freedom. There are several times when Dr.Flint attempts a reconnaissance, trying to lure her back into his hands- through lying, making her feel a false sense of security that he is away, and threatening her. She regains her freedom which was denied to her at the end, and makes sacrifices, such as not allowing her children to know she is hidden in the house they are living in in the hopes of not only getting her freedom but her children’s as well.
IMAGES (In order of appearance. Everything else in alphabetical order)
- Pow, Deborah “Narrative- Vladimir Propp” Web log post. RESPONSE AND REFLECTION. WordPress, 3 November. 2012. Web. 13 June. 2013. http://dlpow.wordpress.com/2012/11/03/narrative-vladimir-propp/
- Douglass, Frederick, and Harriet A. Jacobs. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Modern Library, 2000. Print.
- Luthi, Max. “The Fairy-Tale Hero: The Image of Man in the Fairy Tale” Folk & Fairy Tales. By Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 315-323.
- Rowe, Karen. “Feminism and Fairy Tales” Folk & Fairy Tales. By Martin Hallett and Barbara Karasek. 4th ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 342-358.
- Eppler-Sanchez, Karen. “Bodily Bonds: The Intersecting Rhetorics of Feminism and Abolition” Representations Volume 24 Autumn 1988 pp 28-59 (Article) University of California Press Web. June 15 2013