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Narrative of Frederick Douglass: Literary and rhetorical Devices that Portray the Brutality of Slavery

Updated on June 20, 2013
Fredrick Douglass
Fredrick Douglass

Have you ever heard the saying “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, and then thought: what if both of my legs and arms are severed completely from my body, I am made to be blind, mute, deaf and am penniless with nowhere to go and nobody to care for me? Now imagine, in addition to paralyzing your senses, you are also incapacitated mentally—now you have slavery. In the autobiographical novel outlining Frederick Douglass’s life as an American slave, conflicts throughout the book work to portray Douglass’s perseverance and strength. Douglass masters the art of writing and communication better than some of today's most educated, and thus provides the story with realism and rationale. Instead of strengthening the men and woman in chains, slavery merely provided the avenue by which their strength could manifest.

Lest the ends be portrayed as justifying the means, slavery cannot be afforded any redeemable qualities. Its intrinsic evil and debauchery overcomes the advent of an idealistic viewpoint that looks to modern egalitarian society as the conclusion of its effects. It is therefore erroneous to say regarding any account of slavery (especially that of Frederick Douglass) that the end product results in a positive progression of human spirit. This mindset, provided by men such as William Ellery Channing, applies to some occasions dealing with individual and collective tussle such as the struggle for educating oneself or the difficulty a country endures for the purpose of furthering international economic connections; these difficulties are the result of competition and the natural order of human pursuit for success, whereas slavery, although profitable to the ruling elect, constitutes a complete disregard for humanity. Any superior fortitude represented following the introduction of slavery was already present in the heart and soul of Douglass; however, it could only be made recognizable subsequent the advent of a formidable force that had the potential for eliciting such a response.

It may be said, due to his mastery of numerous literary techniques, that Douglass’s autobiography educates more so than a thousand textbooks on slavery. However, the content in it of itself, although not lacking, would fall many orders of magnitude below what was achieved by coupling it with the rhythmic patterns, chiastic sentence structuring, similes, metaphors, gruesome imagery, and other literary methods that distinguish the story. Douglass’s detailed depiction of his experiences and characters that shaped them , such as his account of the overseer Mr. Gore: “his savage barbarity was equaled only by the consummate coolness with which he committed the grossest and most savage deeds upon the slaves under his charge”(33), and then proceeding to validate the barbarity that he paints Gore with by describing the circumstances surrounding Gore’s cold-blooded murder of Demby (an innocent slave), relates the story in such a way that evokes the deepest emotional response afforded a human being.

Further emphasizing the message, metaphors, chiasm uses, and a seemingly rhythmic flow, all breathe life into Douglass’s elucidative and rationalistic analyzation of an irrational phenomenon that otherwise would mimic the style of a course, condensed textbook. One instance, at what could be considered the climax of the story, in which Douglass finds it in him to fight rather than submit to Mr. Covey (the “slave breaker”), Douglass inverts two ideas, contrasting them, and states: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” (65) From this point forward, the narrative’s tone shifts and the triumph of good over evil progressively comes into view. Correspondingly, Douglass states with a poetic and rhythmic flow: “My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.” (69) Following the pinnacle of his brutish enslavement and in explaining his feelings towards the tyrannical nature of slavery and the corresponding treatment befitting such institutionalized evil, Douglass employs yet another method (figurative language) to portray his ideas: “Let us render the tyrant no aid; let us not hold the light by which he can trace the footprints of our flying brother.” The culmination of these various techniques characterizes the influence Douglass had on the abolitionist movement, his oratory genius, and the success of his narrative. Although it is obvious that Douglass escaped slavery from the onset of the book, being that the book itself is evidence of this fact, experiencing Douglass’s accomplishment first-hand evokes new and untraveled emotionalism.

In portraying his life to the world, Douglass also displays his character, his sagacity, and intellect—propelling the reader further into the expressive narrative. Giving the most despicable of people the benefit of the doubt and in clarifying the circumstances that surround the various characters in the story leading each to act in a specific way, Douglass’s account is further authenticated: “Mr. Freeland had many of the faults peculiar to slaveholders, such as being very passionate and fretful; but I must do him the justice to say, that he was exceedingly free from those degrading vices to which Mr. Covey was constantly addicted.” (72) Despite the possible consequences, Douglass also omits using pseudonyms to conceal his identity (although he refrains from including details that might embarrass others), and instead opts for an unabridged depiction, to the best of his ability and recollection of the facts. With this approach, Douglass maintains uniformity in his story, thus making it more difficult for his adversaries to poke holes in.

The significance of Douglass’s unambiguous experiential accounts rather than broadened analyzation is only realized once implored. Slavery did not condition the human spirit so as to create the uncensored society enjoyed by modern Americans today, but rather it showed the intrinsic strength of Americans following its expiration. Fredrick Douglass represents one of many Americans who were willing to fight for their freedom and, in the case of white men such as William Lloyd Garrison, the freedom of others. The irrefutable sensibility of Abolitionist works, including Douglass’s narrative, is fueled not by a plain and uninspiring tone, but rather stateliness of language and communication. Douglass's heart felt narrative really truly is a must read for those interested in a real world perspective of slavery in America.


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    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 4 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I think the utterly brutal and degrading quality of slavery is often lost sight of today. In a way, I suppose it's good that we can no longer even imagine human beings being subjected to the reality of life under the "peculiar institution." Frederick Douglass knew that reality and was able to communicate it effectively. Your hub makes us want to read Douglass. Thanks!