Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Resisting Sympathy, Reclaiming Authority: The Politics of Representation in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Academic journal article Tamkang Review

Resisting Sympathy, Reclaiming Authority: The Politics of Representation in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Article excerpt

In "The Site of Memory," Toni Morrison traces her literary heritage back to nineteenth-century slave narratives and notices that in relating their experience, those narrators were "silent about many things" and "there was no mention of their interior life" (110). Being a novelist, Morrison takes up the job to "rip that veil drawn over 'proceedings too terrible to relate'" (110). Morrison is aware that slave narratives have much to do with its political aim, the abolition of slavery, and that the abolitionism not only promotes the popularity but also regulates the representation of slave narratives. Besides the political missions of slave narratives, what and how to represent in slave narratives is clearly specified. As Morrison notes, facts are what slave narratives are aimed at representing, but interior life of those narrators or whatever unpalatable is inappropriate for the reader of slave narratives. Morrison's remarks point out two significant aspects about slave narratives: first, slave narratives have a strong desire to move the reader, to change the reader's mind from advocating slavery to abolishing slavery, or in a word, to arouse the reader's sympathy toward the sufferings under slavery; second, the politics of representation, i.e., how to represent their experience in order to achieve their mission, is the primary concern for those narrators.

As Morrison is concerned about what facts fail to convey and how the reader's sympathy gains control over the representation of slave narratives, the literary critic, William L. Andrews, points out that as a sort of African-American autobiography, slave narratives should be reconsidered in terms of their rhetorical and aesthetic strategies, other than the question of veracity that nineteenth-century abolitionism highly valued. Instead of appealing to the reader's sympathy, he argues, slave narratives tend to construct a self outside the margin of the normal and, as a result, alienate the reader (1-3). Indeed, both the representation of slave narratives and its relation to sympathy are central to critical attention. This paper aims to discuss Harriet Jacobs's slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (1) written from 1853 to 1858 and published in 1861, with a focus on the rhetoric of sympathy, which is simultaneously adopted and brought into question. My discussion seeks to demonstrate that implicit in her attempt to arouse the reader's sympathy is a tendency to resist what accompanies sympathy, that is, the exposure of her self and the scrutinizing gaze of the reader. Further, the politics of Jacobs's representation will be discussed to show her desire "not to be present" in the scene of sufferings. From the rhetoric of sympathy, intending to expose the horrors of slavery and the sufferings of slaves, to the politics of representation, desiring to disappear, the contradiction in the trajectory of Jacobs's slave narrative obliges us to reconsider the ethics of sympathy.

Since its publication, Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has caused considerable controversy. The identity of its author was not verified until 1981 when Jean Fagan Yellin confirmed, through Jacobs's letters and Lydia Maria Child's correspondence, that Jacobs was the author. (2) For one thing, the use of the pseudonym, Linda Brent, increases the difficulty of verifying the identity of the author; for another thing, the fact that Child edited and introduced Jacobs's slave narrative also induces commentators to suspect that Child was the real author. In 1992, Bruce Mills clarified the relationship between Jacobs, the author, and Child, the editor, as well as the extent to which Child revised, for instance, the arrangements of the chapters and the endings of Jacobs's narrative. (3) Thus, skepticism concerning Harriet Jacobs's authorship has been resolved.

With regard to the authenticity of what Jacobs relates in her slave narrative, however, critics seem to have more questions than answers. …

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