The Bondwoman’s Narrative Summary & Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 51-page guide for “The Bondwoman’s Narrative” by Hannah Crafts, Henry Louis Gates includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 21 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Effects of Slavery in the Mid-19th Century and The Power of Education and Literacy.
The Bondwoman’s Narrative is an autobiographical novel by Hannah Crafts, unpublished at the time of composition but recently rediscovered in 2002 by literature scholar Henry Louis Gates. The story follows Hannah’s journey as a slave in Virginia and North Carolina before her escape to New Jersey. The book is likely the first and only novel written by a female African American slave in the United States of America.
Gates prefaces the novel with an introduction describing how he recovered, authenticated, and published Hannah Crafts’s manuscript. Gates purchased the handwritten manuscript at an auction. Several factors, including the novel’s sentimental genre, spelling errors, descriptions of black characters, and scientific dating indicate that the text is an authentic piece written by a self-educated slave between 1850 and 1860.
As the novel opens, Hannah is a house slave. When the estate overseer catches the elderly Aunt Hetty teaching Hannah to read, he sends Hetty and her husband, Uncle Siah, away. Unbeknownst to Hannah, the couple goes to jail. The estate Hannah lives on is under a curse, and when Hannah finds a room with the portrait of Sir Clifford, she has an ominous feeling. Legend has it that Sir Clifford, a former owner of the estate, once tied an old slave woman and her dog to a linden tree on the grounds, starving the pair to death. The slave woman cursed Sir Clifford with her dying breath. The linden tree still stands.
A year after Aunt Hetty goes to jail, Hannah’s master marries, and a bridal party visits the estate. An old man named Mr. Trappe also arrives and acts strangely, particularly around Hannah’s new mistress. Long after the wedding party guests have left, Mr. Trappe remains. Hannah, as the mistress’s main maid, notices Trappe’s malign influence on the mistress. The former maid, Lizzy, tells Hannah that Trappe has been hanging around the mistress for a long time and harbors a dreadful secret. Months later, Hannah is reading in secret and overhears Trappe blackmailing the mistress and demanding more money. The mistress later confesses to Hannah that she is a light-skinned slave, switched in the crib with the dead baby of her white mistress. Trappe knows this and has been extorting her for years. The mistress wants to escape and begs Hannah to help.
Hannah agrees, and the pair runs all night, hoping to reach a boat by morning. They become lost, but find shelter at a farm. Trappe appears, however, and they escape into the woods. There, they find an uninhabited cabin where they remain for months, living off berries. The cabin was the site of a bloody murder and seems to deteriorate the mistress’s mental health. One day, three hunters arrive at the cabin and discover the escaped women. They take the women to a small village jail, revealing along the way that the estate master has killed himself in the room with Sir Clifford’s portrait, and the estate has a new owner.
The women stay in jail with only Mrs. Wright, a delusional white woman who is serving time for helping an escaped slave. The mistress’s mental state deteriorates further. Trappe sends a slave trader named Hayes to take the women to a large, empty house. There, Hannah and the mistress are locked in a suite of rooms, confined but in relative comfort. They are there a month before Trappe summons them. He reveals that he is selling Hannah and the mistress the next day, and the mistress screams and ruptures a blood vessel. She dies in Hannah’s arms.
A slave trader called Saddler arrives and buys Hannah. He seems kinder than Trappe and takes Hannah away in his wagon. Before they arrive at their destination, something spooks the carriage horse and it bolts, crashing the wagon. Hannah regains consciousness on the estate of Mrs. Henry, a kind woman who treats her slaves well. Hannah has all of her limbs splintered, and she learns that Saddler died in the accident.
Hannah recovers enough to explore the Henry household. It is nicer than any estates she’s encountered before. The Henrys treat Hannah as something between a guest and a servant. Saddler’s next of kin has contacted Mrs. Henry, however, and intends to collect his property. Mrs. Henry cannot buy a slave due to a promise she made to her dying father, but she suggests that a friend named Mrs. Wheeler might be able to help.
Mrs. Wheeler arrives at the Henry estate and agrees to buy Hannah from Saddler’s relative, though Hannah compares Mrs. Wheelers personality to that of a spoiled child. When Hannah and the Wheelers arrive at the plantation in Wilmington, North Carolina, Hannah sees the field slaves living in slum-like conditions and is disgusted. After some time, Mrs. Wheeler banishes Hannah to work in the fields and live in the slums, promising her in marriage to a field slave named Bill.
Hannah escapes the next night, disguised in men’s clothing. Passersby believes she is a man and occasionally help her. One night, Hannah comes across runaway slaves, a brother and sister. The sister is feverish, and Hannah spends a night with them in an abandoned cabin. During the night, the sister dies. The next morning, Hannah and the brother continue their journey. While they are stealing a boat, the owner shoots the brother, killing him. Hannah, already aboard the boat, drifts downstream and into rapids. She falls into the water and wakes up injured on a riverbank. There, she reunites with Aunt Hetty.
Hannah spends several weeks with Aunt Hetty before boarding a ship destined for New Jersey. Aboard the ship, she hears how one of Mr. Trappe’s victims has killed him. Hannah reaches New Jersey and is free. She marries, finds her mother, and reunites with the Henry’s former slave, Lotty. Hannah teaches in a school for African American children and lives a happy life.