By Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was first published in 1892. Until recently it was considered the first novel by an African American woman published in the United States. Since the novel appeared in the 1890s, a time when Black women's organizations surfaced throughout the country, it was widely read because it addressed pressing social and political issues affecting the Black American community; in particular, lynching, race consciousness, suffrage, women's rights, and temperance are presented as key themes.
Iola Leroy was published during the latter years of Harper's prolific career as a poet, essayist, and short story and prose author. Her earlier novels, Minnie's Sacrifice (1869), Sowing and Reaping: A Temperance Story (1876–1887), and Trial and Triumph (1888–1889), appeared in serialized form in the Christian Recorder, a periodical published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Harper's novels were designed for political and religious advocacy, and were especially concerned about racial identity and commitment to social change.
The main character, Iola Leroy, embodies race, gender, and class contradictions in American society when she realizes she is black, is enslaved, and loses her status as a wealthy white woman. But unlike the tragic mulattoes of nineteenth-century literature, Iola does not become a victim. She transcends the oppressive dynamics of historical circumstances. After she is freed from slavery, she becomes a teacher, writer, and activist for the black race and for women's rights.
The setting of the novel begins during the Civil War and extends into Reconstruction. In the broader sense the novel is the slave narrative of Iola, and other slave narratives incorporated as prayer meetings, provide settings for other slaves to voice their perspectives and opinions about their experiences and reality. The war activities of the enslaved and runaways refute the prevailing myth that blacks did not fight for their freedom, and critical debates about Ku Klux Klan lynchings as well as the existence of racial discrimination in the North further demonstrate the dangers and difficulties blacks faced during Reconstruction.
In form, this novel is considerably dependent upon the interplay of dialogue to advance its thematic complexity, a format that is typical of nineteenth-century prose. At the same time, the work further demonstrates Harper's talent for capturing and contextualizing voice. Harper combines the politicized slave narrative with the episodic romanticism of the Victorian utopian novel to produce a unique prose style. Oftentimes Harper intersperses descriptions of historical settings with didactic political commentary, which disrupts the creative flow of the plot. Such commentary characterized proletarian literature of the times and is seen in Harper's earlier poetry and prose. The interjection of political analysis diffuses any tendency on the part of the audience to idealize the characters and draws direct associations between the story and historical circumstances.
The novel is firmly grounded in history. Harper uses the surnames of famous and important black cultural, political, and historical figures for her characters. In particular, the first name of the protagonist is the nom de plume of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a well-known black woman radical of the 1890s. The purpose of the novel is multifaceted, and the disruption affected by the author's stylistic techniques accomplishes her objectives. Throughout the novel, the characters confront, engage, and dispel illusions in order to free their minds and to determine and renew a liberated vision.