The Chimney Sweeper
The speaker of this poem is a small boy who was sold into the chimney-sweeping business when his mother died. He recounts the story of a fellow chimney sweeper, Tom Dacre, who cried when his hair was shaved to prevent vermin and soot from infesting it. The speaker comforts Tom, who falls asleep and has a dream or vision of several chimney sweepers all locked in black coffins. An angel arrives with a special key that opens the locks on the coffins and sets the children free. The newly freed children run through a green field and wash themselves in a river, coming out clean and white in the bright sun. The angel tells Tom that if he is a good boy, he will have this paradise for his own. When Tom awakens, he and the speaker gather their tools and head out to work, somewhat comforted that their lives will one day improve.
“The Chimney Sweeper” comprises six quatrains, each following the AABB rhyme scheme, with two rhyming couplets per quatrain. The first stanza introduces the speaker, a young boy who has been forced by circumstances into the hazardous occupation of chimney sweeper. The second stanza introduces Tom Dacre, a fellow chimney sweep who acts as a foil to the speaker. Tom is upset about his lot in life, so the speaker comforts him until he falls asleep. The next three stanzas recount Tom Dacre’s somewhat apocalyptic dream of the chimney sweepers’ “heaven.” However, the final stanza finds Tom waking up the following morning, with him and the speaker still trapped in their dangerous line of work.
There is a hint of criticism here in Tom Dacre’s dream and in the boys’ subsequent actions, however. Blake decries the use of promised future happiness as a way of subduing the oppressed. The boys carry on with their terrible, probably fatal work because of their hope in a future where their circumstances will be set right. This same promise was often used by those in power to maintain the status quo so that workers and the weak would not unite to stand against the inhuman conditions forced upon them. As becomes more clear in Blake’s Songs of Experience, the poet had little patience with palliative measures that did nothing to alter the present suffering of impoverished families.
What on the surface appears to be a condescending moral to lazy boys is in fact a sharp criticism of a culture that would perpetuate the inhuman conditions of chimney sweeping on children. Tom Dacre (whose name may derive from “Tom Dark,” reflecting the sooty countenance of most chimney sweeps) is comforted by the promise of a future outside the “coffin” that is his life’s lot. Clearly, his present state is terrible and only made bearable by the two-edged hope of a happy afterlife following a quick death.
Blake here critiques not just the deplorable conditions of the children sold into chimney sweeping, but also the society, and particularly its religious aspect, that would offer these children palliatives rather than aid. That the speaker and Tom Dacre get up from the vision to head back into their dangerous drudgery suggests that these children cannot help themselves, so it is left to responsible, sensitive adults to do something for them.
The Life of a slave girl
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl opens with an introduction in which the author, Harriet Jacobs, states her reasons for writing an autobiography. Her story is painful, and she would rather have kept it private, but she feels that making it public may help the antislavery movement. A preface by abolitionist Lydia Maria Child makes a similar case for the book and states that the events it records are true.
Jacobs uses the pseudonym Linda Brent to narrate her first-person account. Born into slavery, Linda spends her early years in a happy home with her mother and father, who are relatively well-off slaves. When her mother dies, six-year-old Linda is sent to live with her mother’s mistress, who treats her well and teaches her to read. After a few years, this mistress dies and bequeaths Linda to a relative. Her new masters are cruel and neglectful, and Dr. Flint, the father, soon begins pressuring Linda to have a sexual relationship with him. Linda struggles against Flint’s overtures for several years. He pressures and threatens her, and she defies and outwits him. Knowing that Flint will eventually get his way, Linda consents to a love affair with a white neighbor, Mr. Sands, saying that she is ashamed of this illicit relationship but finds it preferable to being raped by the loathsome Dr. Flint. With Mr. Sands, she has two children, Benny and Ellen. Linda argues that a powerless slave girl cannot be held to the same standards of morality as a free woman. She also has practical reasons for agreeing to the affair: she hopes that when Flint finds out about it, he will sell her to Sands in disgust. Instead, the vengeful Flint sends Linda to his plantation to be broken in as a field hand.
When she discovers that Benny and Ellen are to receive similar treatment, Linda hatches a desperate plan. Escaping to the North with two small children would be impossible. Unwilling to submit to Dr. Flint’s abuse, but equally unwilling to abandon her family, she hides in the attic crawl space in the house of her grandmother, Aunt Martha. She hopes that Dr. Flint, under the false impression that she has gone North, will sell her children rather than risk having them disappear as well. Linda is overjoyed when Dr. Flint sells Benny and Ellen to a slave trader who is secretly representing Mr. Sands. Mr. Sands promises to free the children one day and sends them to live with Aunt Martha. But Linda’s triumph comes at a high price. The longer she stays in her tiny garret, where she can neither sit nor stand, the more physically debilitated she becomes. Her only pleasure is to watch her children through a tiny peephole, as she cannot risk letting them know where she is. Mr. Sands marries and becomes a congressman. He brings Ellen to Washington, D.C., to look after his newborn daughter, and Linda realizes that Mr. Sands may never free her children. Worried that he will eventually sell them to slave traders, she determines that she must somehow flee with them to the North. However, Dr. Flint continues to hunt for her, and escape remains too risky.
After seven years in the attic, Linda finally escapes to the North by boat. Benny remains with Aunt Martha, and Linda is reunited with Ellen, who is now nine years old and living in Brooklyn, New York. Linda is dismayed to find that her daughter is still held in virtual slavery by Mr. Sands’s cousin, Mrs. Hobbs. She fears that Mrs. Hobbs will take Ellen back to the South, putting her beyond Linda’s reach forever. She finds work as a nursemaid for a New York City family, the Bruces, who treat her very kindly. Dr. Flint continues to pursue Linda, and she flees to Boston. There, she is reunited with Benny. Dr. Flint now claims that the sale of Benny and Ellen was illegitimate, and Linda is terrified that he will re-enslave all of them. After a few years, Mrs. Bruce dies, and Linda spends some time living with her children in Boston. She spends a year in England caring for Mr. Bruce’s daughter, and for the first time in her life she enjoys freedom from racial prejudice. When Linda returns to Boston, Ellen goes to boarding school and Benny moves to California with Linda’s brother William. Mr. Bruce remarries, and Linda takes a position caring for their new baby. Dr. Flint dies, but his daughter, Emily, writes to Linda to claim ownership of her. The Fugitive Slave Act is passed by Congress, making Linda extremely vulnerable to kidnapping and re-enslavement.
Emily Flint and her husband, Mr. Dodge, arrive in New York to capture Linda. Linda goes into hiding, and the new Mrs. Bruce offers to purchase her freedom. Linda refuses, unwilling to be bought and sold yet again, and makes plans to follow Benny to California. Mrs. Bruce buys Linda anyway. Linda is devastated at being sold and furious with Emily Flint and the whole slave system. However, she says she remains grateful to Mrs. Bruce, who is still her employer when she writes the book. She notes that she still has not yet realized her dream of making a home for herself and her children to share. The book closes with two testimonials to its accuracy, one from Amy Post, a white abolitionist, and the other from George W. Lowther, a black antislavery writer.
Linda Brent – The book’s protagonist and a pseudonym for the author. Linda begins life innocently, unaware of her enslaved state. In the face of betrayal and harassment at the hands of her white masters, she soon develops the knowledge, skills, and determination that she needs to defend herself. Linda is torn between a desire for personal freedom and a feeling of responsibility to her family, particularly her children.
Dr. Flint – Linda’s master, enemy, and would-be lover. Although Dr. Flint has the legal right to “use” Linda in any way he chooses, he seeks to seduce her by means of threats and trickery rather than outright force. Linda’s rebelliousness enrages him, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of breaking her will. Throughout the long battle over Linda’s right to own herself, Dr. Flint never shows any sign of remorse or understanding that she is a person with rights and feelings.
Read an in-depth analysis of Dr. Flint.
Aunt Martha – Linda’s maternal grandmother and chief ally. Aunt Martha is pious and patient, suffering silently as she watches her children and grandchildren sold off and abused by their masters. Aunt Martha also represents a kind of maternal selfishness, grieving when her loved ones escape to freedom because she will never see them again. For her, family ties must be preserved at all costs, even if it means a life spent in slavery.
Mrs. Flint – Linda’s mistress and Dr. Flint’s jealous wife. Mrs. Flint is characterized mainly by her hypocrisy. She is a church woman who supposedly suffers from weak nerves, but she treats her slaves with callousness and brutality. Mrs. Flint demonstrates how the slave system has distorted the character of southern women.
Mr. Sands – Linda’s white lover and the father of her children. Mr. Sands has a kindlier nature than Dr. Flint, but he feels no real love or responsibility for his mixed-race children. He repeatedly breaks his promises to Linda that he will free them.
Uncle Benjamin – Linda’s beloved uncle, a slave who defies and beats his master and then runs away. Uncle Benjamin’s successful escape inspires Linda, but also shows her that to run away means to give up all family and community ties.
Benny and Ellen – Linda’s children with Mr. Sands. Linda loves Benny and Ellen passionately, and her feelings about them drive the book’s action. Benny and Ellen are dutiful children but otherwise are not characterized in great detail.
The “white benefactress” – An upper-class white friend of Aunt Martha’s who hides Linda for a while. She is not named even with a pseudonym and is one of the few genuinely sympathetic slave owners in the book.
Emily Flint – Dr. Flint’s daughter and Linda’s legal “owner.” Emily Flint serves mainly as Dr. Flint’s puppet, sometimes writing Linda letters in her name, trying to trick her into returning to Dr. Flint.
Mr. Dodge – Emily Flint’s husband, who seeks to recapture Linda after Dr. Flint dies. Although Mr. Dodge is northern by birth, entering southern society has made him feel as floundering and desensitized as any native-born slave holder.
Mrs. Hobbs – Mr. Sands’s New York cousin, to whom he “gives” Ellen. Mrs. Hobbs is a little slice of the Old South in Brooklyn, selfishly treating Ellen as property and highlighting the continued danger for escaped slaves even after they reach the Free States.
Mrs. Bruce (#2) – Mr. Bruce’s second wife. The second Mrs. Bruce is an abolitionist American who protects Linda at great risk to herself and ultimately buys her freedom from Mr. Dodge. Linda claims to be very grateful to Mrs. Bruce but is also very upset at being purchased by her.
Amy and Isaac Post – Abolitionist antislavery friends of Linda’s in Rochester. The Posts appear in the book under their real names. They show Linda that it is possible for white people to treat her as an equal.
Reverend and Mrs. Durham – Free blacks, and the first people Linda meets in Philadelphia. The Durhams, with their legitimate marriage and morally upstanding lives, remind Linda that slavery has robbed her of the chance to have a normal existence.
Luke – An acquaintance of Linda’s from home whom she meets on the street in New York. Luke has escaped by stealing money from his dead master, and Linda uses him as an example of how slaves cannot be judged by the same moral standards as free citizens.
An innocent young slave girl, Linda must grow up fast when she finds herself in the clutches of a morally corrupt master. She begins life with a secure attachment to her parents, who take excellent care of her for her first six years. They don’t tell her she is a slave, which enables her to develop a strong sense of self-worth that later allows her to overcome major obstacles. Linda is confident and spirited, and she never really accepts the fact that she is the property of another person. Although she is exposed to the most degrading treatment at the hands of Dr. Flint, she never loses her self-respect or her desire to have a normal home and family. She is devoted to her children and willing to endure great suffering for their sake.
Just as she refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the slave system, Linda totally rejects her master’s claim that she is his property, body and soul. She is an independent spirit, and Dr. Flint’s sexual harassment only intensifies her desire to control her own life. Linda is clever, rebellious, and strong-willed, and from the start, she lets Dr. Flint know that she will never submit to his advances. She enters into a battle of wills with him and at times even expresses a perverse satisfaction at tricking him or making him angry. Her independence also leads her to have an affair with Mr. Sands, largely to spite Flint and retain some control over her sexuality. Although she doesn’t love Mr. Sands and believes that it is wrong to have sex with him, she takes satisfaction in her ability to choose whom to sleep with. Similarly, when she hides in an attic crawl space for seven years, substituting a life of physical suffering over the relatively “easy” existence she would have had as Dr. Flint’s concubine, Linda once again expresses her strong desire to be psychologically and spiritually independent.
As Linda grows up, and particularly after she becomes a mother, her rebellious and independent nature is somewhat modulated. As a young girl, Linda dreams only of escaping slavery for a better life in the North. After becoming a mother, she still wants freedom, but she also feels deeply attached to her children, who are also Dr. Flint’s property. She is unwilling to leave them and worries about what will become of them if she runs away. Unlike some of the male characters in the book, she cannot simply sever all of her emotional ties and start over in the North. Most of Linda’s actions are directed by this essential emotional and moral conflict. She is torn between her independent nature and her maternal feelings, which urge her to sacrifice her own opportunity for freedom to save her children. In the end, motherhood wins out, although Linda’s bold spirit is never extinguished.
Although he is based on Harriet Jacobs’s real-life master, Dr. Flint often seems more like a melodramatic villain than a real man. He is morally bankrupt and lacks any redeeming qualities. He is thoroughly one-dimensional, totally corrupted by the power that the slave system grants him. He sees no reason not to use and abuse his slaves in any way he chooses, and he never shows any signs of sympathy for them or remorse for his crimes. If Dr. Flint expresses kindness, it is invariably a ruse to try to get Linda to sleep with him. Dr. Flint represents the cruelty, callousness, and treachery of the entire slave system.
Dr. Flint loves power above all else, and it often seems that forcing Linda to submit to him is more important to him than simply sleeping with her. He is galled and infuriated by her defiance, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of breaking her will. Rather than simply raping her, he persists in his efforts make her acknowledge his mastery. When Linda escapes, he pursues her relentlessly, putting himself hundreds of dollars in debt to chase her to New York. After his death, his venom and determination seem to be reincarnated in the form of his son-in-law, Mr. Dodge. Dr. Flint neither changes nor grows over the course of the narrative. His malice, representing all of the evils of slavery, appears to affect Linda even from beyond the grave.