The Cambridge Introduction to the 19th-Century American Novel, the traditional sentimental novel’s storyline focuses around a young woman finding her way through life, usually without the support of a conventional family. The women overcome life’s hardships, and “the key to these women’s triumphs lies in their achievement of self-mastery” (Cane 113). According to Gregg Cane, these didactic novels are targeted at young women to instill the idea that a domestic home, marriage, and family are what construct a morally good woman. The plot is used to extract an emotional reaction from the audience. Nina Baym describes all sentimental novels as having the same plot,
In essence, [they are] the story of a young girl who is deprived of the supports she had rightly or wrongly depended on to sustain her throughout life and is faced with the necessity of winning her own way in the world. This young girl is ﬁttingly called a heroine because her role is precisely analogous to the unrecognized or undervalued youths of fairy tales who perform dazzling exploits and win a place for themselves in the land of happy endings. (11-12)
These novels were extremely popular with white females during the 19th century. The heroine is a virginal (if not actually a virgin at least maintaining the idea she is still untouched and innocent) young girl who has to stand on her own two feet and protect her virginity from villainous men. She is often portrayed as a damsel in distress, and in the end a courageous man saves her. They get married and have a perfect happily-ever-after. In Harriet Jacobs’ slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Harriet Wilson’s autobiographical novel, Our Nig, both African-American authors incorporate the idea of the sentimental novel into their stories. Jacobs sets up her story to fit the notion of the sentimental novel in order to uncover the atrocities of slavery, but more importantly connect her life story to the lives of her audience, white females. Wilson’s novel takes place in the supposedly free north, and she uses the sentimental novel outline to expose the truth about the free north, and like Brent, connect herself to her audience. Both women portray their stories using the sentimental novel so that they can reach out to a white, female audience, and at the same time subvert their audience’s reality in order to reveal how similar slaves and free women are, and fight for freedom.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was first published in 1861, around the same time the civil war began. Francis Smith Foster notes that Jacobs takes conventional antebellum literary methods, the adored sentimental novel, and uses them to familiarize herself with her audience, while at the same time modifies them “in order to accommodate her testimony as she tests her readers’ abilities to accept and act upon that testimony” (97). Foster also sums up how closely Jacob’s story follows the sentimental outline,
Incidents reads like a story...