The Function of Christianity in Slave Literature

Much of the literature that emerged during the 19th century dealt with the then controversial and incredibly widespread institution of slavery. Nearly equally widespread, however, was white Southerners’ claim to Christianity, a religion that, by the mid-19th century, had become inextricably intertwined with the institution of slavery. In his autobiographical slave narrative, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Frederick Douglass calls attention to the vast incongruity between the doctrines of Christianity and the practice of it in a region dominated by an economic system based on the enslavement of an entire race of people. Many of the other literary works of this time echoed this sentiment, confronting the issue of slavery against the backdrop of Christianity—for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which follows the journey of Tom and several other slaves under the ownership of several different masters, and Hannah Crafts’ recently discovered The Bondswoman’s Narrative, which chronicles a female slave’s life and eventual escape from captivity into the North. Uncle Tom’s Cabin provides a criticism of the “slaveholding religion” Douglass describes, largely by depicting characters who hypocritically promote this warped version of Christianity—characters who stand in stark contrast to what Douglass would likely call “the Christianity of Christ” that Crafts’ characters exhibit. Taken together, these two works ultimately affirm Douglass’ argument that the Christianity of the South is not true Christianity, and underscore the subtle but crucial difference between “Christianizing” and “being Christian.”

In the Appendix to his “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Douglass takes care to note the difference between what he calls “the slaveholding religion” of the South and “Christianity proper” (1235), remarking that, “between the Christianity of this Land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked” (1235). Here, Douglass is asserting that the teachings of Christianity in their original form lie in irreconcilable contradiction both to the Christianity of slaveholders and to the institution of slavery itself. He argues that, far from being an image of true Christianity as Christ intended it, the way in which southern slaveholders practice Christianity is, “a dark shelter under which the… most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection” (1217). This assertion points to Christianity, then, as a device for masking the evils of slavery rather than a belief system for its own sake. Douglass makes clear throughout his writing that the practice slavery, which is fundamentally evil, cannot coexist with Christianity in its true and authentic form—a mutual exclusion that thus produces the chasm between what he refers to as the “slaveholding religion” of the South and Christianity as it existed at its conception.

This contradiction, which Douglass conveys both boldly and articulately, is one that Harriet Beecher Stowe acknowledges and highlights throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe’s writing is ultimately a critique of the hypocrisy inherent in the slaveholding religion practiced throughout the South in the mid-19th century. Stowe’s position on the issue of Christian slaveholders, which aligns closely with Douglass’s, is made clear in the narrator’s remark that, “that soul immortal, once bought with blood and anguish by the Son of God… can be sold, leased, mortgaged, exchanged for groceries or dry goods, to suit the phases of trade, or the fancy of the purchaser” (881). This powerful quote calls attention to precisely what Douglass aimed to criticize, and unveils the overwhelming contradiction between Christianity—which proclaims the inherent value in every human life, regardless of race or status—and the practice of buying and selling human beings at the whim of slave owners and slave traders. Here, Stowe asserts that the evils of slavery are fundamentally at odds with the teachings of Christ, which a vast majority of white slaveholders claimed to follow. That Stowe intends to underscore this contradiction is also made clear through the character of St. Clare, who openly criticizes several of the other characters for the way in which Christianity is practiced. For instance, when Haley is attempting to sell Tom to him, and is emphasizing repeatedly Tom’s value as a pious, religious slave, St. Clare says that, “the country is almost ruined with pious white people… such pious goings on in all departments of church and state, that a fellow does not know who’ll cheat him next” (864). St. Clare’s remark is aimed at pointing out that piousness as it is understood and practiced in the South is not a reflection of genuine honesty or integrity; in fact, he argues that the apparent piousness of many white people makes it difficult to discern their character. Through this statement, St. Clare calls attention to the fact that the religiousness of the Southerners is not a reflection of any real virtue, and is therefore not in line with true Christianity.

As a whole, therefore, Stowe’s writing points out the discrepancy between Christianity and southern “Christianity,” and calls attention to the fact that buying and selling of human beings is fundamentally not Christian. However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin also highlights the more subtle but equally relevant issue of using Christianity to promote slavery through the attempt to “Christianize” the slaves. This can be seen most clearly through the character of Miss Ophelia and her relationship with Topsy, a young slave who is repeatedly referred to by the other characters with words like “wicked” and “heathenish.” Miss Ophelia, who is presented as well-meaning at least in comparison to most of the other characters, tries to train and educate Topsy. She devotes much time and effort into, as the Bible instructs, “train[ing] [her] in the way she should go” (865). Although, on the surface, Miss Ophelia’s efforts seem to represent the more positive side of Christianity in the midst slavery, her actions ultimately contribute the institution of slavery. It is clear from her first interaction with Topsy that she is training her not because she perceives any worth in Topsy as a person, but because she is convinced that Topsy needs to be “Christianized.” The first words Miss Ophelia offers in response to meeting Topsy are, “Augustine, what in the world have you brought that thing here for?” (865), followed by a reference to the slave children who occupy the house as “little plagues” (866). This remarks make it apparent that, regardless of her agreement to teach Topsy—which comes only after St. Clare points out that it is unchristian of her not to take responsibility for “the labor of conversion” (866)—Miss Ophelia’s interests are not in Topsy’s personal well being, for she fails to view her as having the value of a person.

Miss Ophelia’s work with Topsy, rather, is aimed at transforming her into the ideal, “pious” slave—an image that Tom embodies and is praised for throughout the novel. He is described, most often by those who are trying to sell him, as a “pious fellow” (808), emphasizing Tom’s devotion to Christianity as the reason for his “remarkably inoffensive and quiet character” (858). Here, it is clear that Tom’s piety is not praised simply because it is seen as a positive characteristic in itself, but because it moves him to be obedient and subservient. This becomes increasingly evident when Haley is trying to sell him to St. Clare, for he claims that Tom is, “‘All the moral and Christian virtues bound in black morocco, complete!’” (863). That Tom is so heavily praised for being religious points to white Southerners’ use of religion as a means of eliciting desirable behavior from slaves, and reaffirms the idea that teachers such as Miss Ophelia exist not for the sake of obtaining salvation for the slaves by teaching them Christianity, but for the sole purpose of making them more obedient and therefore more useful.

Where Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicts characters who use Christianity to promote slavery and to “Christianize” slaves for the purpose of evoking obedience, Hannah Crafts’ The Bondswoman’s Narrative paints a picture of Christianity in its more genuine form. Crafts provides a foil to Miss Ophelia’s character in the form of Aunt Hetty, the kind woman who helps teach Hannah to read and write as a child. Instead of attempting to teach Hannah to “act Christian,” Aunt Hetty teaches Hannah practical skills because her Christianity moves her to see the inherent worth in Hannah as a human being. Upon meeting Hannah, Aunt Hetty says, “I was thinking of our Saviour’s words to Peter where he commands the latter to ‘feed his lambs.’ I will dispense to you such knowledge as I possess” (7). Aunt Hetty, who in teaching Hannah to read is knowingly disobeying the law, risks her own well-being for the sake of aiding Hannah, without having any personal investment in Hannah’s obedience and piousness. Though she has nothing to gain from Hannah’s being “Christianized,” she says, “I feel a warmer interest in your welfare than I should were you the daughter of a queen” (8). It is in this declaration that the difference between Aunt Hetty and Miss Ophelia becomes strikingly clear. Aunt Hetty, unlike Miss Ophelia, shows genuine love and kindness as a result of her belief in Christianity, and sees a value in Hannah that Miss Ophelia, because of her perception of slaves as being of lesser worth, cannot see in Topsy. This fundamental belief is what accounts for the difference in the way each teacher goes about teaching; Miss Ophelia attempts to teach Christianity in order to elicit a particular behavior, while Aunt Hetty teaches Hannah because she is Christian.

These two characters, though they appear to have very similar functions, illustrate one of the subtle but fundamental differences between the slaveholding religion of the South and the true Christianity between which Douglass notes such an important difference. Where Miss Ophelia’s practice of Christianity, though perhaps well-intended, ultimately contributes to the institution of slavery by promoting subservience, Aunt Hetty’s enables Hannah to rise above her imposed status of slave by granting her literacy. That the characters’ treatments of the slaves with whom they interact are so different despite a shared claim to Christianity as their motive points to the difference that Douglass highlights between the religion of the South and what he calls “the Christianity of Christ” (1235). Taken together, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Bondswoman’s Narrative ultimately highlight two incredibly different versions of Christianity, and work to affirm Douglass’ point that Christianity had been so heavily warped by the desire to justify the institution of slavery that it no longer represented the truth of the religion, and became instead a tactic used to cover up the evils of the system.

Works Cited

Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Warner, 2002. Print.

Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 1174-239. Print.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 807-904. Print.

Slave Narratives and American Biographies: One in the Same

For centuries, slave narratives have been ignored by literary scholars and historians, and according the John Sekora, it wasn’t until the era after World War II that historians reevaluated their position on these early examples of African American literature (Sekora 482). Until that point, these narratives were “disclaimed as misleading, inaccurate, or tainted,”—somehow unworthy of being taken seriously (Sekora 482). Contemporary historians have scrutinized these narratives, and as Sekora notes, the slave narratives’ “factual validity and authenticity” have been proven (Sekora 483).

In Sekora’s essay, “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative,” he argues that slave narratives aren’t truly a subgenre of autobiography due to the circumstances in which they were written. His arguments have been evaluated by Robert S. Levine, who responded with an essay titled “The slave narrative and the revolutionary tradition of American autobiography.” In this essay, Levine refuses this definition of slave narratives, raising critical questions raised by Sekora’s argument.

I agree with Levine’s argument that the literary tradition of slave narratives should fall into the category of autobiography. Slave narratives earn their place as a subgenre of autobiography simply because they were written by their subjects and they detail events that shaped the lives of their writers. Slave narratives are some of the earliest examples of African American literature in our history, and whether or not their writing was influenced by a white audience does not discredit them.

In his essay, Sekora reasons that slave narratives are not a subgenre of autobiography for multiple reasons, stating first the definition of an autobiography:

Traditionalists and post-structuralists agree that autobiography comes into being when recollection engages memory. Recollection engages people, things, events seemingly fragmented and unrelated; as an essential part of its activity, recollection brings sequence and/or relation to the enormous diversity of experience; it plots the stages of the subject’s journey to selfhood. Meaning emerges when events are connected as parts of a coherent and comprehensive whole. (Sekora 509)

This definition of an autobiography, however limiting, still encompasses slave narratives in the general sense of their literary tradition. For example, The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass details significant events in Douglass’s life: witnessing his aunt being beaten, moving to Baltimore, and teaching himself how to read and write are just a sampling of events in the narrative that bring it to life. These “seemingly fragmented and unrelated” events and the “enormous diversity of experience” that Douglass details in his Narrative eventually are realized into the image of the man we find in Fredrick Douglass. This “coherent and comprehensive whole” points toward a very specific purpose: to detail the effects that slavery has on a person, and to serve as a resource to stand behind the movement for abolition (Sekora 509).

Each of these characteristics is also fulfilled by Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Although this book takes the form of a fictional novel, it is an autobiographical account of Wilson’s life working in the Bellmont’s house. Although this account takes the form of a novel, we still see anecdotes from the life of Wilson portrayed. She is essentially dropped off at the Bellmont house and left by her mother to live with this family, Mrs. Bellmont beats her and expects her to do house work, and she eventually ends up a poor, lonely woman struggling to succeed. The novel ultimately sends that message that abuse and neglect cause irreparable damage to a person, and it shows the experiences that African Americans faced in the time of slavery—regardless of if they were free or a slave.

This narrative has a coherent meaning derived from a series of anecdotes spanning over a period of time, outlining how these events led Wilson’s journey to selfhood; the characteristics that Sekora points out that all autobiographies should have are present. This book also takes on the formal components of a slave narrative that Levine points out in his essay, including the “lack of a clear sense of parentage, the accounts of separations from family members, the portrayals of brutal masters and overseers” (Levine 1). The novel even boasts a preface and appendix written to soften the opinions of her white audience, which is also characteristic of slave narratives. These works by Douglass and Wilson lie within both realms of slave narrative and autobiography.

These characteristics are important in the world of slave narratives, though. Many of the slave narratives that have been published contain a preface or an appendix, if not both. Unfortunately, as history goes, the vast majority of the literate at this time were white. Many African Americans were still enslaved, and as Douglass points out in his Narrative, the general mindset among slave owners was that “Learning would spoil the best n_____ in the world” (Douglass 40). With the major audience being white, these prefaces and appendices act as a sort of “buffer,” offering credibility to the author of the narrative.

Sekora’s argument continues to say that slave narratives aren’t examples of an autobiography because “the stated purpose of the slave narrative is far different from the creation of a self, and the overarching shape of that story is mandated by persons other than the subject,” (Sekora 509). His argument is that these prefaces and appendices are evidence of the voice of African American authors being taken over and imposed upon by their white publishers and sponsors. He isn’t entirely wrong in this assertion, either. The narratives take their form in the prose and voice of traditional white authors, which is attributed to white publishers. Sekora argues “the introductory letters can be seen as causal to the narratives they precede. The slave is the primitive other whose silence allows white sponsors to describe the grace, the beauty of their own civilized voices” (Sekora 510).

On the other hand, though, we might argue that these are just some of the earliest examples of the African American voice. In Douglass’s Narrative, the struggle to attain literacy is an issue represented that is unique to African Americans. His desire to learn is matched by his master, Master Hugh’s refusal to let him learn. Douglass eventually learns how to write through Hugh’s son’s old copybooks and through the poor white children that lived in the same neighborhood—essentially appropriating the white voice and language, making it his own. These types of stories regarding the attainment of literacy show up in multiple other narratives, with over thirty listed on the website published by Documenting the American South (“Guide”).

Also in Douglass’s narrative are concepts of African American spirituality. There is a part of the story when Douglass goes to Thomas Auld’s home to complain about his treatment by Covey, and the threat of Covey whipping him when he returns is very apparent. Sandy, a slave from a neighboring farm gives Douglass a root that will protect him from being whipped by a white man—and surprisingly we never see him whipped again. The root is a reference to rootwork, or conjure, which is another uniquely African American concept. Mentions of conjure in slave narratives are common, and these mentions that may seem foreign to today’s reader serve as another reminder of the African American voice in slave narratives. These uniquely African American themes permeate through this literature—starting a conversation among these works that a white voice cannot pale.

Both Douglass and Wilson call upon their black “brethren,” naming them as an audience that they intend to reach. Wilson says in her preface to Our Nig, “I sincerely appeal to my colored brethren universally for patronage, hoping that they will not condemn this attempt of their sister to be erudite, but rally around me a faithful band of supporters and defenders” (Wilson 3-4). These calls directly to African American readers speak most evidently to the idea of an African American voice that won’t be silenced or shut down by white editors or sponsors. These works are uniquely African American, and have the ability to speak to both audiences.

Levine asks the question: “Can it really be said that white autobiographers, as opposed to the black narrators of the slave narrative, are able to stand apart from the mediating forces of their culture?” What he means is that African American authors who wrote these narratives were obviously appropriated by the dominant culture of literature in a way that a white author would have never had to even realize (Levine 2). In essence, claiming that slave narratives don’t have a place in the canon of American autobiographies just because they were written in the language of their editors wouldn’t be fair.

Slave narratives definitely belong in the category of autobiographies for multiple reasons. Their events have been authenticated. Narratives, like in the examples of Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass and Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig: Or; Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, have the same qualities as autobiographies. Finally, and most importantly, slave narratives are some of the first accounts of the African American voice in our culture, and I agree with Robert Levine’s implications that they should be regarded as a unique addition to the genre of autobiography.

Works Cited

Douglass, Fredrick. Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 2012. Kindle AZW file.

“Guide to Religious Content in Slave Narratives.” North American Slave Narratives. Ed. Grendler Marcella, Leiter Andrew, and Sexton Jill. Documenting the American South, 2004. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

Levine, Robert S. “The Slave Narrative and the Revolutionary Tradition of American Autobiography.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. PDF.

Sekora, John. “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative.” Callaloo 32 (1987): 482-515. JSTOR. Web. 23 Jan. 2014.

Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig, Or; Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House, North Showing that slavery’s shadows fall even there. Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 2011. Kindle AZW file.

The Political Station in Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life” and Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

In their respective writings, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Douglass learn to operate and rebel in their own, personal political communities and are both ostracized by their political convictions. Douglass, a slave living in antebellum America, learns to read and write; his literacy in itself is a form of rebellion and he uses his newfound language against the system that educated as well as oppressed him. Emerson is also an outsider, but by choice; the ideals expressed in his writings necessitate his separation from his community. Both Douglass and Emerson are revolutionaries in their own right, defying their communities and consequential politics to pursue their personal ideologies. However, because of their respective positions in society, Douglass and Emerson approach politics and revolution in differing ways—Douglass must maneuver and rebel within the confines of the politics established by his community, while Emerson is able to redefine the political structure entirely, essentially existing outside the laws of his community. Douglass, because of his position in his community as a former slave, must work within the existing political guidelines to fashion his rebellion. Douglass must abide by the laws of his masters; he can only defy them while operating within the very political community they had established to subjugate Douglass. Because of Douglass’s suppression, he has no license, inclination, or impulse to act outside of the political community into which he has been forced. Instead, he rebels within the constraints of his community, and his revolutionary actions are therefore exceedingly recognizable as such. For example, as Douglass’s mistress, Mrs. Auld, teaches him to read and write, he begins to discover the politics surrounding his enslavement: “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a good achievement and I prized it highly” (29). As Douglass acquires his own utility by becoming literate, he learns the politics of the community that enslaves him. What’s more, Douglass is proud of this realization and guards it steadfastly because his newfound knowledge will allow him to challenge these politics, his community, and his master by rebelling against them. The fact that Douglass’s form of revolution occurs within the confines of the politics of his community in manifested in the syntax of his rhetoric. He states, “What he [Douglass’s master] most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loves, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought” (29-30). Through his rhetoric, Douglass aligns himself with his master, with the white man, with power and utility, and learns to rebel. The parallel structure of Douglass’s phrasing leads the reader to envision Douglass as the equal of his master, as a worthy adversary. Yet, by employing such a structure and syntax, Douglass demonstrates his adherence to the politics of his community. Douglass works within the confines of his political community, only able to defy his master through a carefully constructed equation. Douglass does not and cannot envision himself superior to his master; that would be a revolution completely unsupported and illogical within his political community because of his status as a black man, as a slave. Instead, he employs a structure that allows him to equate himself to his master, which is both revolutionary and possible within his political community.Emerson, on the other hand, as a prominent, white figure in academia, is able to manipulate his community’s politics. He is, therefore, able to fashion his own political community, living in a self-created world, by self-created laws. Unlike Douglass, Emerson is not subject to the politics of his community because he has the authority and status, through his position in society, to create his own political community. In his essay “Self Reliance,” Emerson argues that, “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members… The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion” (261). That is, Emerson proposes a new type of politics. Instead of working within the type of community that has always exists—instead of simply accepting the notion of “society”—Emerson creates a new ideology: where man stands alone, self-reliant and independent. Emerson is able to accomplish this task, to live outside the politics of his community as a voluntary exile, because of his position in society. As an educated scholar established firmly in the realm of academia, Emerson not only has the ability to create these new politics, but the authority and the confidence, as well. He states, “To be great is to be misunderstood” (265). Emerson’s view of the self within the community is revolutionary because it is far removed from any type of ideology the reader is familiar with and, while Douglass’s attempts to convey his autobiography is complete clarity about his position within his community, Emerson’s essay is far more interpretive. There is room to peruse and explore within Emerson’s essay because it is his creation. There is opportunity to “misunderstand” Emerson because of the freedom of his thought and rhetoric.Emerson’s view of politics and the community is not more or less revolutionary than Douglass’s. Both Douglass and Emerson manage their own type of revolution, yet Douglass does so within the established politics of his community, whereas Emerson is able to redefine the ideas of “politics” and “community” entirely, creating for himself a new set of guidelines by which to live, a new notion of what society actually is or should be. Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” is written with an air of freedom and entitlement; after all, he creates for himself a community where the individual is king. Douglass’s brand of revolution, on the other hand, is confined and dictated by his community. His political station within his community is reinforced by the sentence structure he employs. That is, his ideas of revolution are informed and determined by his social standing as a slave—even in his rebellion While Emerson plays God, creating for himself a new politic, Douglass maneuvers within the constraints of his community, locating revolution by playing by the rules of his masters.

Humanization of a Murdered Girl in Douglass’s Narrative

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,Douglass tells many anecdotes to illustrate the horrors of slavery. One of these recounts the murder of his wife’s cousin. Douglass uses several strategies to gain our sympathy when describing the incident.First, Douglass does not hesitate to voice his disapproval of the whole affair with a very emotionally-charged report. Douglass starts the paragraph by calling Mrs. Hicks’ action “murder.” He then attracts our pity with the phrase “poor girl.” These words clearly distinguish the villain from the victim. Douglass further highlights Mrs. Hicks’ ferocity, saying that the victim was “mangled” in a “horrible” manner. He also uses the words “breaking” and “broke” to emphasize that the slave was shattered brutally. This diction urges us to, like Douglass, become enraged by Mrs. Hicks’ action. When telling the event, Douglass humbles the girl by leaving her nameless. He refers to her as “my wife’s cousin” and “this girl,” thus emphasizing her lower status as a slave. Another interpretation of her anonymity is that it allows her to represent other nameless slaves who suffered similar fates. The girl transcends the individual. She died an untimely death just as other black slaves die before and after her. Since Douglass tells a dead girl’s tale, he is her voice. As such, he graphically enhances the coroner’s report. The coroner simply decided that the girl “had come to her death by severe beating.” Douglass tells the story with exact details. He explains how the girl was tired because she had lost her rest for the previous few nights. Since being tired is a very human flaw, this detail humanizes the girl. As the girl is taking care of the baby, she is shown in a caring and maternal light. On the other hand, the real mother, Mrs. Hicks, is shown to have completely forgotten her baby’s distress as she attacks the girl without delay. Douglass tells how Mrs. Hicks grew angry at the tired girl’s slow reaction to the baby’s crying and “jumped from her bed, seized an oak stick of wood by the fireplace, and with it broke the girl’s nose and breastbone, and thus ended her life.” His parallel structuring of the verbs “jumped,” “seized,” “broke,” and “ended” adds an uncanny rhythm to the story that echoes the sounds of a cruel beating. These verbs also emphasize the monstrosity of Mrs. Hicks’ actions. By linking the girl’s mistake, a normal reaction of a common human symptom, with Mrs. Hick’s over-the-top reaction to a baby’s cry, another common occurrence, Douglass humanizes the victim and dehumanizes Mrs. Hicks. He therefore cleverly bends our sympathies toward the girl. The specific details that Douglass incorporates into the story make the incident more visual and believable. However, I wonder about their validity. Since the girl died a few hours after she was beaten, she probably did not get a chance to spread her story. The coroner only deciphered the reason of the girl’s death, not the reason of her beating. As such, how did Douglass obtain all the specifics, down to the material and location of the stick that Mrs. Hicks used? Yet if Douglass does mix fact with fiction, then this paragraph further attests to his intelligence and ability to influence his audience. Despite Douglass’ incorporation of fictitious details, his narrative possesses an honest ring. In fact, his writing strikes us as more believable as a result of these made-up but extremely probable accounts. A possible reason of this paradox could be just as the girl in the paragraph represents not only herself but all the other victimized slaves, this graphic tale of Mrs. Hicks’ atrocity depicts not just Mrs. Hicks’ cruelty but also the cruelty of all the other slave owners. Douglass could very well be using this girl’s situation as a template for a particular beating that he witnessed in a different setting. While Douglass uses emotionally charged diction and anecdotes, he does not use them frivolously. He carefully masks his own emotions behind his logic during the story-telling. Douglass uses only a few negatively charged simply to guide us toward the victim’s side. By not flooding his account with an excessive amount of his own indignations, he allows the horror of his stories to speak for themselves. Following the tale of the girl’s murder, Douglass simply mentions that Mrs. Hicks was not punished. Douglass does not write out his anger; instead, he leaves us to interpret the situation for ourselves. This way, when we admit the unfairness of the situation, we feel that we arrived at the conclusion through our own reasoning and not because we were told to get angry by Douglass. Douglass discretely incorporates emotions into his logic so that we would not feel manipulated into agreeing with him. Yet at the same time, he cleverly humanizes the victim so that we cannot help but sympathize with her. Douglass’s vivid telling of this particular incident serves as a fine example of how Douglass uses a few incidences to represent the countless atrocities that he has seen and to protest against the horrors of slavery.

An Analysis of the Different Forms of Freedom and Bondage Presented in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave brings to light many of the injustices that African-Americans faced in the 1800s under Southern slavery. The story of Douglass’s life is presented in a way that makes a compelling argument against the institution of slavery, reinforced by anecdotes detailing graphic beatings and inhumane cruelty on the part of the slaveholders. However, Douglass’s most compelling argument does not simply display the physical burdens of slavery, but also speaks to the toll it takes on both slave and slaveholder. The underlying theme of the story is that slavery corrupts the minds of slaveholders and weakens slaves’ intellects. In order to justify keeping an entire race of people enslaved, slaveholders had to claim that blacks were inferior – on the same level as animals. Consequently, they paid no regard to the sanctity of black families. They treated the slaves as if their familial bonds were completely worthless – something they would never have imagined doing to another white person. This is illustrated by Douglass’s own relationship to his mother, from whom he was separated in his infancy, “Very little communication ever took place between us…I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial…I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (Douglass, 21). This passage shows how the slaveholders became so convinced of the worthlessness of the slaves that they saw no reason to respect the bond between mother and child. As a result, the slaves’ view of family was also skewed. In the book, although Douglass appears to know that his mother is important and desires a relationship with her, he is not saddened by her passing because he was never allowed to have a healthy relationship with her. He also has no affection for his sisters and brother, who he was similarly unable to interact with. Additionally, slaveholders showed contempt for the families by raping slave women, impregnating them, and then encouraging their white children to whip their half-black siblings, (Douglass was rumored to have been fathered by his master). Slaves suffered from the loss not only of their freedom, but also of their family life, which the slaveholders deemed unnecessary for the slaves. Douglass argues that the slaveholders’ minds were so corrupted that they viewed the slaves as animals – thus their disrespect for black families and marriages. This is displayed through the story of Mr. Covey’s first slave, Caroline: “After buying her, he hired a married man of Mr. Samuel Harrison, to live with him one year; and him he used to fasten up with her every night!” (Douglass, 74) Covey, who professed to be a pious Christian, disregarded the holy institution of marriage by forcing adultery upon two unwilling people in order to breed more laborers. Additionally, the man was only hired for one year, showing that Covey had no intention of allowing the children to have any sort of relationship with their father. The attitude that regarded blacks as lesser beings warped the perceptions of slave and slaveholder alike towards black families. Another way in which Douglass believes the slaves were kept in mental bondage was in the area of education. The ability to read and write was denied – indeed obstructed at all costs – to slaves. They were expected to work all day and remain ignorant of the world around them starting at a young age. Their masters would rather see them engaging in drinking and boxing than learning to read the Bible: “It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings” (Douglass, 89). Douglass argues that the slaveholders would rather have the slaves engage in frivolous and degrading activities than read the very book that their faith centered on. He says that the slaveholders kept the slaves imprisoned through this deprivation of knowledge because they made the slaves think that debauchery was all freedom entailed. Also, when Douglass himself learned to read, he discovered that he no longer had the mentality of a slave and that the injustices of the system became much more apparent, inspiring him to work harder to attain freedom. This was an epiphany that the slaveholders did not want to occur amongst their slaves because it could lead to rebellion or mass desertion. Another way in which the slaveholders prevented the slaves from rebelling or running away was by making them accustomed to the system to the point where they accepted it as a permanent reality. From the youngest age at which they could possibly do physical labor, slave children were required to work. They grew used to a life of small rations, uncomfortable homes, long hours, and ever-vigilant overseers. Douglass says of the slaves who were selected to do errands at the largest house in the area, “It was associated in their minds with greatness. A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress…They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone…To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery” (Douglass, 28-30). This form of imprisonment is the one that Douglass seems most affected by. It is imprisonment through complacency. The slaves are so resigned to their condition and so unaware of the possibility of a better future that they rejoice when they are enslaved in a slightly more comfortable place. They desire the respect and admiration of their cruel overseers and feel they have earned it when they are sent to the Great House Farm. Rather than competing with rival farms over their own individual abilities, they bicker over who has the wealthier master and whose master treats them better. Their whole identity is based upon their masters’ wealth and reputation. This is also a form of psychological bondage because it causes the slaves to not only accept their enslavement, but adopt it as a definition of their own self-worth. This acceptance and embracing of their status as slaves results in submission to perpetual servitude because it is they only way of life they have known. Another example Douglass gives of the slaves’ ignorance of any way of life other than the one they endure is his own trip to Baltimore to serve under Hugh Auld. Upon arriving, Douglass sees Mr. Auld’s wife, Sophia: “And here I saw what I had never seen before; it was a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions…She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face” (Douglass, 45-47). Douglass had become so accustomed to white people showing overt disdain for slaves that he considered it completely unfamiliar to receive any positive attention from a white person. Sophia Auld’s kindness towards him is so foreign to him that he does not even know how to act around her. The difference between black and white is made so distinct by slaveholders that the slaves are unable to comprehend a white person treating them as they would treat a fellow white person. One of Douglass’s most important arguments is that slavery corrupts and mentally enslaves the white slaveholders, as well. The clearest example is that of Sophia Auld. Douglass says of her, “The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon” (Douglass, 47-48). Invoking images similar to those of a demonic possession, Douglass describes the transformation that Mrs. Auld undergoes when she becomes a slaveholder. After initially attempting to teach Douglass to read, she changes her opinion to that of her husband, believing that “education and slavery were incompatible with each other” (Douglass, 52). The power she gained over another human being and her desire to retain this power motivated her to try to keep Douglass in ignorance and treat him like a lesser being. She had once been kind-hearted, but is transformed by her corrupting power into a cruel and unfeeling person, exploding with rage at Douglass when he tries to read. Slavery blinds her to the suffering of another person with whom she normally would have sympathized. Douglass’s narrative is, on the surface, intended to show the barbarity and injustice of slavery. However, the underlying argument is that freedom is not simply attained through a physical escape from forced labor, but through a mental liberation from the attitude created by Southern slavery. The slaves of the South were psychologically oppressed by the slaveholders’ disrespect for black families and for education, as well as by the slaves’ acceptance of their own subordination. Additionally, the slaveholders were trapped by a mentality that allowed them to justify behavior towards human beings that would normally not be acceptable. In this manner, both slaveholder and slave are corrupted by slavery.

Identity and Suppression in in The Scarlet Letter and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Despite differences in genre and content, both The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Douglass himself present a dehumanization of the seemingly weak protagonist. This occurs through stripping each character of their true identity and reducing them to a label such as ‘object’ or ‘slave’; neither Hester nor Douglass are seen as people, but instead are viewed through what they have done. There is, therefore, a huge emphasis on identity in both novels, as the protagonists struggle to maintain their own sense of identity whilst society forces a new one upon them. Despite their struggles, each protagonist is able to construct their identity away from society’s judgments. For Douglass, this freedom is through constructing a new literary identity; in recording his experiences, he manages to break away from this label of ‘slave’, an identity that suggests illiteracy. Hester also constructs her identity based on whom she chooses to love, Dimmesdale, instead of submitting to the shame of her label as ‘adulterer’. Therefore, there is a constant struggle throughout both these novels between a self-constructed identity and the identity given to each character by society.

In Frederick Douglass’ narrative, the slaves’ identities are stripped through a suppression of their native language. As slaves in a foreign wilderness, a common language presents a sense of community and a collective background. Without their common tongue, they are reduced to the nameless identities society imposes upon them: as workers that cannot use their voices to be heard. Despite this community through voice, Douglass presents a new truth: ‘the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head’. The very definition of ‘maxim’ as a ‘general truth’ is redundant and almost ironic in this instance. The saying may exist as a ‘general truth’ in a society where each individual has the choice whether to remain quiet or not. However, in this scenario, the maxim has developed in to a threat; the slaves must keep their tongue ‘still’ else they may risk their own death. This ‘general truth’ has therefore developed to a ‘manipulated truth’. This highlights a suppression of identity as their owners can control not only their bodies, but their language also. However, the slaves do claim a freedom through song, perhaps suggesting that their owners cannot fully suppress a language they do not understand. The owners only hear the ‘tones’ of their singing, whilst the slaves hear them as ‘a prayer of God for deliverance from chains’ (Douglass, p.20). This mocks the slave owners who seek to control them so; their ignorance to the melodic ‘tones’ means they do not see the song as a threat, despite it giving the slaves hope. Additionally, the verb ‘makes’ assumes falsely that a ‘still tongue’ is the only feature that will directly produce a ‘wise head’. The two are only co-dependent in the slave trade, presenting an ignorance that was encouraged to keep slaves in mental as well as material chains.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter presents a suppression of Hester’s true identity through this consistent symbol of the infamous red ‘A’, which stands for adulterer. Chillingworth suggests there is an element of fate in Hester’s status as an adulterer, perhaps implying that any resistance to this imposed identity is futile. He proclaims: ‘I might have beheld the bale-fire of that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path!’ It is extremely ironic that Chillingworth suggests that Hester was fated to sin, yet he uses the verb ‘might’, which suggests an element of uncertainty. Despite these consequences for Hester’s identity, he does seemingly take some responsibility for her downfall with the personal pronoun ‘our path’. This implies that her identity as an adulterer is a shared responsibility, yet ultimately Hester wears the ‘blazing’ letter alone. As Hester’s sin is materialized in the ‘scarlet letter’, Chillingworth then enlarges this symbol to a ‘bale-fire’. This presents connotations of desire, passion and hell, an overtly obvious metaphor. Yet despite this, Chillingworth still suppresses both the symbol and Hester’s sin for over seven years, which consequently rejects any responsibility he claims he has taken for where their ‘path’ has led. Perhaps the most important element to this symbolic fire is its instability; Chillingworth can only suppress his feelings, and his wife’s actions, for so long before they set their entire lives alight.

As previously mentioned, the protagonists in both these novels lose their identity through being judged by their actions, and not their character. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, this action is Hester’s sin. A. N. Kaul proposes that ‘any sin was evidence of damnation; or in other words, any sin represented all sin.’[1] Sin is therefore not only dependent on the act of wrongdoing, but the perspective from which it is viewed. This is extremely important throughout this novel. Hester is judged by others who construct her identity solely through her sin. As the novel is set in a nineteenth century Puritan society, it suggests that their approach to sin is blinkered. Hester is condemned to a point where the sin does not even seem relevant anymore: I ask not wherefore, now how thou hast fallen into the pit, or say, rather, thou hast ascended to the pedestal of infamy on which I found you. (Hawthorne, p.68) The focus is not ‘how’ Hester’s damnation occurred but instead the mere fact that she committed the sin. This idea of having ‘fallen into the pit’ is key. It not only presents the traditional view of physically descending to hell but also suggests a lack of intent in the sin; Hester’s fall was almost accidental through pursuing her actions not for sin, but for love. However, Kaul’s statement suggests intent remains irrelevant, as ‘any sin was evidence of damnation’. This suggests that all acts were of God and were judged by a religious faith, therefore the sin is deemed more important that the motive that inspired the action. This idea is ironically juxtaposed by Hester’s ascension. She is raised up, as if to heaven, yet it is only to a ‘pedestal of infamy’, designed to act as a platform of ridicule before she inevitably descends to hell. The label of the ‘pedestal of infamy’ acts as a judicial platform to display her sin, representing the scaffolding that is a constant symbol throughout the novel. Therefore, as Hester’s Puritan community views her one act as representing ‘all sin’, Hawthorne suggests that further context is needed to judge.

In comparison, Douglass’ narrative presents differing levels of sin and wrongdoing; its severity is constructed and dictated by humans, rather than religion. The narrative presents a set level of morality within the slave trade, which is most likely different to the wider world: ‘I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us’ (Douglass, p23.). This idea of measured levels of kindness separates the world of slavery from civilized society; through a helplessness in their life-long conditions, their own suffering can only be observed and not altered. Additionally, the labeling of cruelty as ‘kindness’ questions the truth in language; using a different word to describe the same experience does not change the reality of how the slaves were treated. Sin within this narrative is presented as an antithesis from The Scarlet Letter, as it is not set up as black and white binaries. Instead, hues of grey are established in relation to other sins committed and accepted as necessity. Yet, this establishment of sin and kindness may be fundamental to the slaves; they are in foreign territory with little knowledge of their moral order. Perhaps, this is the only truth of America’s morality that they are going to ever know. Thereby, sin and its implications on one’s identity is dictated not only by the action, but the society in which it is committed. For Douglass, slaveholders who are slightly less cruel may seem kind in identity.

The construction of identity not only depends on the individual, but who they are in relation to others. This is particularly important in Douglass’s narrative as he claims a freedom through narrative perspective, allowing a separation of his past existence and his present constructed self, groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’. He rejects the label of slave through placing it in the past tense: ‘when a slave’, suggesting that a transition of identity has occurred and the label can no longer be imposed upon his identity. The use of ‘a’, instead of ‘the’, implies he was not an individual but a member of a group; this lack of identity is juxtaposed against the new one he constructs for himself. The use of the past tense for ‘slave’ is also interesting to consider. A slave is seen as forever the legal property of another, and very few lived beyond their role as a slave. However, Douglass challenges this through the past tense, presenting the idea of slavery as a ‘career’ (Douglass, p.70) choice and not an enforced state of being, rejecting once again this claim to victimisation.

This theme of constructing one’s identity based on classification continues in The Scarlet Letter. Neither Hester nor Chillingworth consciously construct groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’, yet their lack of suitability and constraints of gender naturally separate them. Chillingworth laments: how could I delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl’s fantasy! (Hawthorne, p.68) This idea of ‘delusion’ presents Chillingworth’s incapability as an old man; he may be intelligent yet this is not enough to fulfill Hester’s ‘fantasy’. This concept is continued in the physical ‘[veiling]’ of Chillingworth’s face that not only alludes to matrimonial imagery but also suggests an imposed superficiality in Hester, that her love will be given based on appearance. The two are separated by the opposition between the mental, ‘intellectual gifts’, and the physical, ‘youth and beauty’, and the assumption that you can only bear one depending on your gender. The connotations of ‘gift’ however suggest an attempt to bridge this gap in eligibility, and an eagerness to compensate academically with what Chillingworth cannot provide materially. Yet, this remains merely a delusion throughout the novel, and the only product of his intellect was grief and paranoia. Hester’s gender places her instead with concerns of physical appearance. The idea of a non-tangible ‘fantasy’ suggests an ideal almost impossible for men to reach. The difference between both texts thus lies in the construction of identity. Douglass claims a liberty through using writing to construct a new identity, whereas Hawthorne’s characters are restricted by gender stereotyping that means their identities are constructed by society, and not by their own will.

Both Hawthorne and Douglass’ texts are inextricably linked through the ideals of a New World freedom that would allow the protagonists to construct an identity and live as they please. Both novels present the possibility of living differently and being accepted in to a new ‘human family’ (Douglass, p.23). This presents a corruption in a supposedly free America, and reinforces this idea that the protagonist may have sinned, but the real cruelty is the world they live in. Therefore, each protagonist holds an identity that society forces them to suppress; they are only able to gain a freedom through the realization that, despite being a newly established society, it is still tainted. Therefore, a rejection from social expectation allows each protagonist to construct their identity as human again, becoming people that are neither claimed nor constructed by others.

The Political, Social and Philosophical Analysis of 19th Century American Gothic Literature

The highly innovative studies of Russian philosopher Sveltana Boym, which explore the human psyche and its relationship to the past, argue that ‘nostalgia has historically coincided with revolution’, (Askenaizer, 2016). Boym refers to the French and Russian revolutions’ influence on cultural nostalgia; a Romanic revival flourished throughout the fashion of France following the nation’s revolt, as the toga became a symbol of liberty and the red bonnet an expression of political radicalism, notably worn through the streets of London by the Romantic poet William Blake.

In England, earlier that century, a cultural nostalgia began and coincided with the country’s own state of political upheaval, foremost with architecture: the Gothic revival. This ran concurrent with the Jacobite uprisings and Civil War of the 1740’s, as the Catholic monarchy reared back from its defeat in the 1600s with desire to reclaim the throne. English literature began its contribution to the culture of Gothic revival in 1764 with Horace Walpole’s incredibly influential novel The Castle of Otranto, which, whilst can be read as sensationalizing Protestant suspicions of Catholicism and its repressed debauchery, employs a medieval nostalgia as a reaction to a new revolution, which began earlier that decade: the Industrial. From its very origins, we can see that the Gothic literary genre is fundamentally reflective of the political, social and philosophical attitudes of its time, as its purpose of communicating terror and horror allow modern critics and readers a telling glimpse into the ‘oldest and strongest emotion of mankind’, as seminal Gothic horror author H.P. Lovecraft proposes in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature; that emotion is ‘fear’ (1927).

American Gothic writing began in the 19th century as a reaction the transcendentalist movement which was established early in the century. Authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving introduced the concept of American Gothicism through their utilization of superstition and fear that was specific to their nation; Hawthorne’s terrifying portrayal of Puritanical life in The Minister’s Black Veil and The Scarlet Letter and Irving’s headless ghost of a Hessian soldier, evoking post-American-Revolution paranoia, in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Edgar Allan Poe; arguably the finest writer of the American Gothic genre in the 19th century and one of the most influential authors of the nation’s literary history. Poe’s macabre tales initiated an evolution in the Gothic genre and horror writing, emphasizing the psychological over the supernatural; moving from the mysteries of archaic medieval castles to the mysteries lurking within the common domestic home; highlighting the terror and horror that humans inflict upon other humans, as opposed to otherworldly beasts or antagonistic creatures; essentially progressing away from the fantastical and metaphorical to horrific realism, whilst still maintaining the fundamental tone and characteristics of the Gothic genre and its myriad of motifs, brought to a level that better related to the audience contemporary to the author’s historical and geographical context. Despite never achieving much economic success throughout his career, the writer captured the imagination of readers of the time, the 1845 poem The Raven catapulting the author to national fame.

For these reasons, Poe is an incredibly revealing author in regards to his context, for within the strange and grisly works there undoubtedly lies indications of the national Zeitgeist and political landscape of the time.

Poe’s short-story The Black Cat, published in 1843, can be read as a racial allegory and a critique on the severe Southern household in its relation to slavery. Whilst the seeking of allegory within a text frequently risks appearing forced and more reflective of a critic’s own philosophies, there is, in fact, substantial historical and textual evidence to suggest Poe was ‘aware of market trends’ and ‘capitalized on the conventions of slavery in his sensationalist fiction’ (Goddu, 2002). The literary critics Leland Person and Lesley Ginsberg view the Nat Turner Rebellion as a clear point of inspiration to The Black Cat, referenced in Hannah Walker’s inspired essay “The Black Cat:” A Reflection of Pre-Civil War Slavery, which proposes that the tale offers a more general damnation of Southern politics and the manner in which slavery taints and haunts the South (n.d.). The allegorical reading of the narrative, on a rudimentary level, is distinguished through the interpretation of the narrator as the slave master and Pluto as the slave.

The opening line of the tale bears significance to this reading, as the narrator describes a ‘most wild, yet most homely narrative’, which signifies the Gothic through its ‘wild’ yet ‘homely’ setting, adjectives that evoke Freud’s theory of the ‘unheimlich’ or ‘uncanny’, a key sensation to Gothic literature and contemporary examinations of the slave narrative (Poe, 1843). The described setting also illustrates the juxtaposed space of the Southern plantation, which would function dually as proud monument to Southern domesticity and economy, through its boastful white mansions, and spotlight upon the most savage corners of humanity, in its great agricultural expanses, in which blood was regularly spilled, torture was regularly exercised, rebellion sporadically attempted and a ‘wild’ atmosphere of persistent conflict and distress prevailed.

The focal symbol of this interpretation is, naturally, the character of Pluto and its treatment. Firstly, the color, execution and hierarchical role of this character holds significance, as to depict a black victim lynched by an abusive domestic authority during the turbulent political climate in which The Black Cat was published, suggests evidence that there is a clear subtext of racial commentary flowing through the narrative. In addition to this, there is importance in the relationship between the two characters being established as ‘man’ and ‘animal’; this drives the abolitionist argument of the time that slaveholders did not treat slaves as if they were human, but more akin to livestock.

One aspect of Pluto’s treatment that demands exploration is the mutilation of the eye; ‘I took from my waistcoat-pocket a pen-knife, opened it, grasped the poor beast by the throat, and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!’ (Poe, 2008, p. 231).

Poe’s tales are full of psychologically confused, traumatized and complicated individuals, many of whom feature as narrators and this creates the potential for psychoanalytical criticism of the work. In addition, Poe’s narratives, despite existing before the publishing of Sigmund Freud’s unprecedented theories on human psychology, exhibit many examples of Freudian symbolism, notably the phenomena of the ‘uncanny’ and the prolific emphasis on damage to ‘eyes’. Freud claims that a violent removal of eyes in art, literature or our dreams is symbolic of the ‘punishment of castration’ (1919). This strengthens the notion that The Black Cat mirrors the concurrent slave narrative, as the castration of African American males was a common occurrence for those accused of the rape or attempted rape of a white woman; and, of course, there is the more metaphorical castration of the slaves, stereotypical concepts of masculinity deem the subordinate position of slave as inherently emasculating, but also the incessant rape of both male and female slaves lead to what historian Nell Irvin Painter describes as ‘soul murder’ (Rooks, 2004).

Teresa A. Goddu proposes in her essay The African American Slave Narrative and the Gothic that there is an inherent connection between Gothic literature and slavery, ‘the spectre of slavery haunts the American Gothic’, and even that ‘there is a structural affinity between the discourse of slavery and the conventions of the Gothic’ (2013). Goddu also notes ways in which the abolitionist movement adopted the Gothic literary form as a means to convey the institution of slavery as a ‘diabolical system of merciless horrors and the slaveholder as a relentless demon or a monster in human shape (2013). Arguably the most well known slave narrative author of the 18th century was Frederick Douglass, a former slave whose autobiographical depiction of the slave experience, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845, functioned as a significant proponent in the anti-slavery movement.

Douglass employs tropes of the Gothic in the opening chapter of the narrative whilst describing the first acts of violence presented to the reader in the plot. By using elements of the Gothic in his writing of the gory punishments and vicious treatment of the slaves, Douglass highlights the inherent ‘horror’ in slavery and communicates this to the white American audience, who better understand through its Gothic packaging and, therefore, more likely to be persuaded towards abolitionist politics.

Douglass sets up the character of the master to us by describing him as a ‘cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding’, showcasing a subtle proposition of abolition to the reader, suggesting the master’s transformation into the bloodthirsty Gothic villain Douglass goes on to illustrate is a consequence of his direct involvement in slavery (Douglass, 1845). Interestingly, much of the violence in the narrative is directed at women, and whilst this was representative of the actual atrocities on the plantations, it can be interpreted that Douglass emphasizes the ‘damsel in distress’ trope of the Gothic, as this would prove more effective in its stirring of emotion in white audiences. Furthermore, Douglass even draws in the Gothic theme of sexual power, a trope that, as Professor John Bowen states, is fascinated with ‘obscene patriarchal figures, who seem to be able to have no restraint whatsoever on their desire’ (Bowen, 2014).

These conventions of Gothic literature are exercised through the treatment of the character of Aunt Hester, a rebellious slave, who is also strikingly attractive, as Douglass details how she has ‘very few equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance, among the colored or white women of our neighborhood’ (1845, p. 5-6). It is hinted that the master possesses a desire for Aunt Hester and this is what fuels his motivations to torture her in such a degrading, bloody and sexual manner; it is noted that he would ‘take great pleasure’ in the whipping and that Douglass ‘often’ would wake to the ‘heart-rending shrieks’ of his Aunt (Douglass, 1845, p. 6). This establishes Aunt Hester as the ‘damsel in distress’ character and the master Anthony as the patriarchal tyrant overcome with his own perverse desire, manifesting into violent villainy, as, ‘No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose’ (Douglass, 1845, p.6). Douglass displays fantastic persuasive use of the Gothic in this sentence, employing the ‘power of three’ nouns to highlight the master’s rejection of language, emotion and religion as he whips the slave, demonizing him and removing the audience’s empathy for the character. The master is also firmly placed in a predatory position, abusing his power, as Aunt Hester is illustrated as ‘his gory victim’. Lastly, Douglass cements the dehumanization of the character through the image of the ‘iron heart’, which, in the commencing years of the popularity of transcendental philosophy, capitalized on the suspicion of dictators and rejecting the natural.

Douglass uses anaphora through the repetition of the adjective ‘whip’ and the noun ‘blood’ that occurs across the ten-line description of Aunt Hester’s torture, to drive the connection between the two, to draw some pathos from the reader, to emphasize the consequence of slavery; when cold, patriarchal, monstrous whips are cracked, human blood is spilled.

Arguably the most Gothic referential line of the narrative is written within this chapter, ‘It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass’, conjuring images of the supernatural and explicit Gothic horror, simultaneously connoting slavery to sin and religious evil; which, to many 19th century American readers, who practiced devout Christianity, would have been a shocking and potentially emotion-stirring comparison, in favour of the abolition movement (Douglass, 1845, p.5).

The Gothic genre was also put to political use in the 19th century to assist in the promotion of a new agenda: feminism. In reference to Edgar Allan Poe, a man who experienced the tragic loss of many of the most important and beloved women, and the hatred of authoritative patriarchal figures throughout his years, the 1843 short-story The Tell-Tale Heart can be read through a feminist lens. We can interpret the erratic nature of the narrator as reflective of the contextual concept of women as emotionally and mentally volatile, which is also presented through the narration of Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Further evidence to support a feminist reading suggests that no gender is specified to the narrator, the relationship between the narrator and the ‘old man’ is not given and considering that they appear to live in the same house, we can see this as potentially marital, romantic or sexual. In addition, some critics, such as Mary J. Couzelis, argue that narrator’s hatred of the old man’s ‘vulture’ eye is symbolic of the objectifying ‘patriarchal gaze’ (2012).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman employs the Gothic literary genre in the 1892 short-story The Yellow Wallpaper, in which she applies a plethora of Gothic tropes to the objective of conveying an early feminist agenda. As well as a writer of fiction, Gilman published many innovative non-fiction meditations on the subject of feminism, notably Women and Economics (1898), her philosophical and political ideologies inspired by her experience with post-partum depression and a divorce; her poor treatment during the troubled period served as the primary incentive for writing The Yellow Wallpaper (Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, 2011). Depression in women was widely dismissed in the 19th century as ‘female hysteria’, which contextual physicians regarded as a symptom of the womb and the stereotypical notion of women as uncontrollably emotional (Joshi, 2017). Gilman expresses her disdain for male insolence and arrogance when concerned with female mental health through the Gothic literary genre, communicating the terror of untreated mental illness and the patriarchal oppression of women through a manner which many readers of the time could more easily be shocked by, empathise with and comprehend.

Notably, in conjunction with Douglass, the narrative opens with the Gothic trope of the ‘imprisoning… violently archaic’ setting, which profoundly comments on racial oppression and arguably draws a link between colonial slavery and the oppressive treatment of women in the 19th century (Bowen, 2014). The narrative is set within a ‘colonial mansion, a hereditary estate’, which the narrator personally believes to be a ‘haunted house’ (Gilman, 1892, p. 1). As the United States were barren of the medieval architecture that many of the Victorian Gothic novels would employ to ‘see the relationship between the modern world and the past – not as one of evolution or development – but of sudden juxtaposition and often violent conflict’, it is interesting that Gilman chooses to present a ‘colonial mansion’, in which it is heavily suggested represents the horrors of the past through its allusion to being haunted (Bowen, 2014). Professor John Bowen proposes that this Gothic trope is used to exhibit ways in which ‘the past erupts within the present and deranges it’, a phenomena which in the early 20th century would be theorized as psychologically symbolic of repression in the mind and the resurfacing of undealt with trauma in Freud’s essay The Uncanny (1919). Through this scope, we can interpret Gilman’s placement of the haunted colonial mansion as a comment on the patriarchal, Eurocentric obsession with power that fueled the colonial empire of the 17th and 18th centuries and the birth of the United States as a nation. There is an unequivocal influence of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre through Gilman’s association of mentally ill women trapped within domestic confines and colonial oppression. Additionally, the contextual stereotype of black women’s sexual promiscuity and unruly nature coexisting with the narrative’s depiction of the colonial mansion’s ‘ghosts’ as rebellious yet entrapped females further drives the subtext of racial commentary, it’s concurrence with female oppression and their connection to the ‘terror’ that could be explored through the Gothic genre. Whilst the presence of the supernatural is ambiguous with Gilman’s narrative, arguably deliberately so, as a means to convey the destructive force of depression and isolation, still many critics do choose to interpret the hallucinatory aspects of the text as a more literal usage of the supernatural. Alan Ryan considers it’s potential to be a ‘ghost story’ (1988) and the innovative Gothic horror author H.P Lovecraft suggests that, in theme with a colonial interpretation, the narrator is driven mad through a possession of the ‘madwoman’ who ‘was once confined’ within the yellow room (1927).

In addition, it is important to notice that Gilman also relates the oppression to issues of class, as the narrator informs us it is a ‘hereditary estate’, and, therefore, in similar vein to Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, this setting functions as a critique of the politics and ideologies that are inherited down within the families of authority which maintains the imposition of tyranny upon women, former slaves, non-white ethnic groups and the lower classes in the USA throughout the 19th century.

However, the primary focus of Gilman’s narrative is the appliance of the Gothic literary form as a vehicle to drive a subtext of feminist ideology accessible to the average reader of the time.

The wallpaper is a symbol for the shallow male reassurance and feeble decoration of the confining walls of domesticity, a ‘revolting’ yellow, the color of happiness, a patronizing dictation to abide by the social expectations of women set by the patriarchy of the nation during the 19th century. Interestingly, there is in fact some neurological merit to Gilman’s text, Carlton Wagner, the director of the Wagner Institute for Colour Research, proposes that yellow walls ‘activates the anxiety centre of the brain’, (Van de Water, 1992). The room can be seen as a social immurement, making resource of the ‘buried alive’ trope of American Gothic fiction, popularized by Edgar Allan Poe, to effectively push the notion of female isolation from any sort of societal progression.

In conclusion, from its very roots, Gothic literature mirrors the issues of the society in which it is conceived, and therefore it comes as no surprise that the American authors of the 19th century adopted the genre to comment on their own nation’s social issues. Most interesting, however, is the manner in which these authors progressed the Gothic form out of the medieval nostalgia conventional to the works of British writers and, through the profound influence of Edgar Allan Poe’s experimental and ground-breaking canon, propelled the genre into new explorations of the human psyche and social critique.

The United States is a nation that was born from the genocide of a Native people, began its civilization enshrouded in Puritanical paranoia and patriarchal oppression, enslaved and traded the people of Africa to brutally empower its capitalist foundation, underwent insatiable political turmoil and social conflict throughout its development and fought against the very countries that first colonised its soil with European blood. Its establishment has consistently been experimental in its approach, which, arguably, has exhibited both the most inspiring and progressive accomplishments of humanity and some of the most inhumane atrocities to occur in our history. America is truly a nation of revolution and this is prolifically reflected in the work of its artists.

As we conceivably enter a new age of revolution, that of the digital and the internet, we can expect with confidence and hope for a new abundance of artistic terror, nostalgia and the next progressive step in the genre of the American Gothic.


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A Larger Purpose

For Frederick Douglass, his Narrative was more than just a powerful story that would go on to be incredibly famous and influential. Telling his story was a major contribution to the abolitionist campaign, therefore, conveying the disgusting realities of slavery was hugely important. Douglass needed to evoke the sort of emotions that would help the cause that was most important to him. As a fantastically eloquent writer with a heart-wrenching story of unbelievable tragedy, he was in just the position to have this effect. The way Douglass mindfully used language is impressive and it is obvious that every description within the Narrative was designed to have a specific effect. His deliberately nonchalant statements regarding tragedies and progressively more evocative descriptions of violence all contributed to his effort to win over the reader and communicate, to their full extent, the horrors of slavery.

The way Douglass opened the Narrative, communicating the slave’s acceptance of horrible facts with his subdued language, is perfectly followed by bold proclamations challenging other truths of slavery. The actual words he used were powerful ones that not only showed his own intellect as a slave but persuaded his audience. These methods and many others achieved a desired effect on the reader. This is how Douglass was able to guide the reader to realize the horrific truths of slavery. Frederick Douglass began his Narrative matter-of-factly. If it were not for the weight of his words, chapter one would be a slow start. The first sentences describe depressing realities presented specifically to evoke particular emotions from the reader. Douglass states that it was a “common custom… to part children from their mothers at a very early age” (18) in such a way that the reader realizes how much slaves, as children, accepted as fact. Douglass realized the value of slowly winning over the reader. His enormous range as a writer enabled him to evoke a wide variety of emotions, starting with sympathy. At the beginning of the Narrative Douglass simply provides the reader with information to form his or her own conclusions. He was aware of the shocking realization the reader would be having, seeing that all of the things he describes were normal. He knows how the reader will react but he does not act on that reaction until he was confident with his relationship with the reader.

Once that relationship gets established, Douglass aggressively challenges the treatment of slaves. For example, Douglass questions the religiousness of his former Master Thomas who let his slaves “nearly perish… with hunger” (58) and then would “pray that God would bless [him] in basket and store!” (58) the next morning. Although effective, Douglass saved these opinions for later, when he is convinced the reader sympathizes with him. Douglass sticks to writing matter-of-factly when informing the reader that he has “no accurate knowledge of [his] age” (21). Frederick Douglass, at the time of writing his Narrative, was aware of the inhumanity of not knowing one’s age but specifically presents it as a simple fact, anticipating the reaction of the reader. For example, Douglass compared the chance of a slave knowing there own age to a “[horse] know[ing]… theirs” (19). By drawing this comparison between slaves and animals, Douglass shows the reader how slave masters regarded their slaves as subhuman. This comparison forced the reader to see the animalistic treatment of the slaves whom Douglass humanized, making this realization unbearable. Douglass designed this paragraph to achieve this emotional response without spelling it out, because at this point in the Narrative he has allowed the reader see his point of view on their own so that he can build off of that understanding later.

When he wrote his Narrative, Douglass knew that he needed to connect with the reader. It was necessary to break down the walls between a free man and a slave to truly further the abolitionist movement. By communicating his own personal experiences and those of other slaves, Douglass established this connection between himself and the reader as the Narrative progresses. He was already confident that the reader was on his side, so he expanded on that by sharing emotion with the reader. He wanted the reader to recognize his consciousness of slavery, to know how he felt, and to feel the same way. When introducing Mr. Gore, the “cruel, obdurate” (33) overseer of the Great House Farm, Douglass provided a sickening example of his cruelty. He told the story of Mr. Gore “raising his musket to [the face of a slave]” (34) and killing him for disobeying orders. In this example of Douglass’ writing, his language is chillingly descriptive. He vividly described the “mangled body [of the slave sinking] out of sight [and the] blood and brains [marking] the water where he stood” (35). Douglass clearly realized the reaction the reader would have to this story and by introducing Mr. Gore as cruel he made it nearly impossible for any reader to disagree with his position, solidifying a bond between himself and the reader that he would maintain for the rest of the Narrative with his language and purposeful descriptions.

Later in the novel, Douglass described the treatment of his grandmother after submissively serving her master for her entire life. He detailed her sentencing of a life alone in the woods, after she had become useless to her master, “thus virtually turning her out to die!” (54). Douglass had taken another step here, he became more forthright and powerful, and fully acknowledged the firm grasp he had obtained on the reader. Instead of simply stating the truth, Douglass challenged his grandmother’s treatment and in doing so he asked the reader to join him. He asked the reader if a system that allowed his grandmother to suffer such a lonely, tragic fate was one that is worth fighting against. Up until this point he had been stingy with his emotions, but as his story continued, Douglass gained more and more confidence with his relationship with the reader and he began to express his true feelings. His exclamatory remarks are followed by a poem by abolitionist John Whittier. The placement of such a poem is representative of Douglass’ lingual progression throughout the Narrative as it draws the reader’s attention to his knowledge and makes the reader associate himself more with Frederick Douglass. Douglass utilized many other aspects of language to establish this connection with the reader. Douglass’ use of first person narration is a seemingly obvious decision but it is also extremely effective.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the first book he ever wrote. Douglass realized how influential an autobiographical, first person, depiction of slavery could be in terms of the abolitionist movement. He put a face to slaves across America, the most important challenge for abolitionists. He did so not only by narrating in first person, but also by telling relatable stories. For example, by talking about his grandmother and how her master saw “she was of but little value” (53) and decided to send her into the wood, Douglass utilized the common threads between him and every other human. Douglass found the most relatable atrocities of slavery and presented them to the reader to ensure that the conditions of slavery were thoroughly understood. The suffering of one’s family members is not only dreadful, but relatable, for urban workers, house wives, slaves, and even plantation owners. The emotional effect first person narration has in the Narrative is best seen when Douglass is contemplating his condition and escape. When concluding that he as to escape Douglass says “I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery… I will run away. I will not stand it.” (68). Nothing compares to the emotional weight of Douglass’ words. The first person narration of his Narrative allows for the cries of slaves to be heard honestly, from the source. I

n the 1800’s reading Frederick Douglass’ Narrative was eye opening to many people because of how well written it was, given the author was a slave. This is another reason why first person narration was hugely important to the effect of Douglass’ Narrative. Douglass could have written a fictional, third person Narrative about the life of a slave with autobiographical elements, Douglass even went on to do just that, but he knew for his first book, nothing would be more effective than the full reality of his life, narrated in first person. Frederick Douglass’ effective use of language to connect with his readers and contribute to his cause is an example of how valuing the experiences of others is immeasurably important to society. Frequently throughout history, humans have failed to understand one another, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass gives insight into how, in an extreme example, that can have a terrible effect. His Narrative is an example how how we can better understand one another. By breaking down the barriers between himself and his opposition, Frederick Douglass was able to create an understanding that had a huge contribution to the abolishment of slavery. Few are unaffected by stories of mistreated grandparents, or unbearable violence. Douglass was capable of understanding human emotion and how his reader would react to his words. That is how he is able to communicate his powerful message so effectively.

Frederick Douglass and Historical Contingency

From the moment his master forbade him to learn to read, Frederick Douglass, a writer and former slave, realized that literacy was the “pathway from slavery to freedom” (Douglass 77). He seemed to be talking about his own escape from slavery, but it is possible that he was referencing the emancipation of all Southern blacks, because his purpose in writing had always been, above all, to gain support for the abolitionist movement and turn public opinion against slavery. Soon after escaping to the North, he began to use his illegally learned ability to write speeches, articles, and his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass understood the importance of history and its influence on present actions, and understood that those who can best shape the meaning of history and current events can best influence these actions. With this in mind, he used these writings to attempt to shape public opinion on slavery. However, he wrote during an unstable and ever changing time in America’s history, so to better respond to changes and shape interpretations, he had to make changes in his arguments and rhetorical styles. Writing his Narrative before the civil war, Douglass’ purpose was simply to sway public opinion against slavery, whereas the articles he wrote during the war have more specific calls to action. His Narrative makes heavy use of emotional appeals to manipulate the reader’s sympathy and empathy, and ethos to establish his credibility, while his Civil War writings focus more on logical arguments to support his specific claims and pathos to strengthen the arguments.

Before the South seceded and the Civil War came, it was unknown if slavery would ever end. Southern slave owners wanted the institution of slavery to appear as a benevolent system, that they were good masters who provided for their slaves. In his Narrative, Douglass reveals the ugly and violent truths about slavery that he witnessed or experienced, making heavy use of emotional appeals to influence the thoughts of his white audience. His purpose in writing this book was to convince readers to oppose slavery, using these appeals to make them sympathize or empathize with slaves as fellow humans. Throughout the narrative, he piles on example after example of the horrific mistreatment faced by slaves, hoping that the readers’ emotional responses would cause them to strongly oppose slavery. He hopes that getting more people to oppose it would help lead to faster abolition. He begins immediately, with a mild example, starting the second sentence with the statement “I have no accurate knowledge of my age” (49). He goes on to say that he has never met a slave who knew his own birthday. Though this may seem insignificant, he tells readers that “The white children could tell their ages” and that he “could not tell why [he] ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (49), showing that knowledge of one’s age and birthday are things that people in the North would have taken for granted. The absence of such a small yet value laden thing would have come as a shock to readers. He shows that from even a young age he felt dehumanized by slavery, and by comparing the races, tries to get white readers to empathize with the dehumanization he felt by considering how they would feel about not knowing their birthdays or ages.

From there, the emotional appeals only intensify. In the next chapter, he describes the few belongings allotted to the slaves. According to Douglass, “Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers… one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes; the whole of which could not have cost more than seven dollars” (56). In describing the low quality and small quantity of the only clothing they could get in a year, he makes sure to mention the estimated price so that free white readers can compare the sum with how much they spend on clothing. As they obviously spend much more than that, Douglass wants them to feel guilt. The readers would hopefully feel worse about themselves and because of this, more strongly sympathize with the slaves. His inclusion of the detail that “Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year” (56) when their clothes became unusable is also to shock the audience, horrifying them with this unfair treatment of children and again drawing sympathy from the audience.

The most extreme examples of his emotional appeals deal with the physical abuse of slaves. Rather than trying to make the audience empathize with the physical pain, he instead describes the scenes in detail to make them feel the horror he felt when watching this pain inflicted on others. In the first chapter he mentions what happened to his Aunt Hester when she disobeyed their master’s orders. The master “took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her… entirely naked” and proceeded to whip her, “and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor” (54). He later gives several examples of beatings and whippings that he endured, but it would be unreasonable to ask his free audience to relate to these situations that have no equivalent in their lives. Rather, he relays this memory of watching his aunt being abused in vivid and graphic detail so the audience can imagine the scene and watch it along with him, hoping that while they feel sympathy for the aunt, they also empathize with the “terrified and horror-stricken” (54) feelings he experienced while watching as a child. Douglass includes all of these appeals to the readers’ sympathy to make readers feel worse for the slaves with each example. In this way, he uses pathos to try to achieve the purpose of his Narrative, turning people against slavery.

However, Douglass wrote the Narrative at a time of intense prejudice in America, even in the free North. Blacks, especially former slaves, were not expected to be able to write or speak as well as he could. Because of this, many people were doubtful that his work was authentic and this made it difficult for him to achieve the purpose of his narrative. He was forced to use ethos frequently, to establish his credibility and therefore increase the effectiveness of his work in convincing people to agree with him. To explain why he, as a former slave, is able to write well, he gives the story of how he started learning how to write, and why he continued learning. After he began to serve a new family, his mistress, Mrs. Auld, “commenced to teach [him] the A, B, C. After [he] had learned this, she assisted [him] in learning to spell words of three or four letters” (76). When his master discovered this, he forbade his wife to teach him any further. At this moment, Douglass realized why whites did not want blacks to be literate. “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man… Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master” (77). He makes sure to emphasize how important he considers the ability to read and write to alleviate the skepticism of some of his readers. He hopes that, seeing his powerful drive to learn, they would understand why he is able to write so well and stop questioning the authenticity of his work. When the readers are not preoccupied with doubting his text, they would read it with a more open mind would be more susceptible to his emotional appeals. In this way, Douglass uses ethos, appealing to the authenticity of his character, to advance the purpose of his work.

The texts that Douglass writes during the Civil War are not focused on his experiences as a slave, but are based around proving arguments. Because of this, he does not need to rely on ethos in these texts as he did in the Narrative. These writings, unlike his Narrative, have clear purposes and specific calls to action. Now that the South had seceded and the North was fighting to make them rejoin the Union, there seemed to be a chance to end slavery. While in the Narrative Douglass relates his experiences to elicit sympathy, he no longer sees a need to simply convince people to oppose slavery. During the war, he instead makes specific arguments about current events and believes that following these arguments could lead to the end of war, the end of slavery, and better treatment for free blacks. To defend these points, he makes much more extensive use of logical rhetoric, but still uses pathos to make these logical arguments more effective. However, the pathos is used more forcefully and to appeal to different emotions than before. In his article “Fighting Rebels With Only One Hand,” his main purpose is clear: African Americans should be allowed to fight for the Union army. He supports his claim with logical arguments, but to make his speech more effective he continues to make use of pathos. Comparing the country to a burning building, he says that its owners “are determined that the flames shall only be extinguished by Indo-Caucasian hands, and to have the building burnt rather than save it by means of any other. Such is the pride, the stupid prejudice and folly that rules the hour.” He then asks, “Why does the Government reject the Negro? Is he not a man? Can he not [be a soldier] like any other?… We do believe that such soldiers, if allowed to take up arms in defence of the Government, and made to feel that they are hereafter to be recognized as persons having rights, would… in every way add to the national power.” Douglass makes a logical point that allowing blacks to fight would increase the strength of the North with a larger army, but he makes it in a very emotional manner. Rather than simply saying that allowing blacks to fight would turn the war in the North’s favor, ending the war more quickly, he emotionally charges his language, calling the prejudice “stupid… folly” to ridicule those who oppose the right of blacks to be soldiers. His comparison of the country to a burning building captures the urgency of the situation. While his emotional appeals in his narrative were meant to gain sympathy from the reader to make them oppose slavery, the emotional appeals in his articles function to strengthen his logical arguments, to make his readers feel shame or to feel anger and convince them to agree with him. While he uses guilt in the Narrative as another way to elicit sympathy, he uses it here to influence people more directly into taking action or agreeing with him.

According to the historian David Blight in his article “For Something Beyond the Battlefield”: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War, “Douglass seemed acutely aware that the post-war era might be ultimately controlled by those who could best shape the interpretations of the war itself” (Blight 1159). After the war, Douglass struggled to shape interpretations of the war as a moral war of emancipation, hoping it would help the newly freed African American community. However, it was not only after the war that Douglass tried to get some control over the era by attempting to shape interpretations of current and past events. During the war itself, he used his articles to try to turn the war into such a moral conflict. Before the war, he tried to shape interpretations of the system of slavery, and to some degree, succeeded in turning people against slavery and helping the abolitionist movement. His purpose shifted with changing historical moment, and his argument styles shifted accordingly.

Works Cited

Blight, David W. “‘For Something beyond the Battlefield’: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War.” The Journal of American History 75.4 (1989): 1156-1178. JSTOR. Web. 14 Jan 2014.

Douglass, Frederick. “Fighting Rebels with only One Hand.” Humanities Core Course Guide and Reader: War 2013-2014. Burke, Carol M. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2013. 55-56. Print.

—. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Barnes & Noble Books. Nook file.

Escaping Slavery: The Ultimate Choice for Frederick Douglass

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Douglass documents his life as a slave and eventual escape. Although he does not offer a timeline or name the people involved in his escape, he describes his feelings regarding the subject. Douglass conveys his attempt to escape from bondage in the face of evil and almost certain death by using rhetorical strategies to ensure that readers can identify with his story. While most readers cannot relate to Douglass’ struggle – which is beyond full comprehension for 21st-century readers- he makes it accessible by providing clear images and widely known anecdotes. Douglass argues that an escape from slavery is a terrifying, and dangerous feat that greatly lacks certainty of success, but he would still prefer to take on these obstacles than remain hopelessly enslaved.

Douglass argues that escaping slavery creates a multitude of fears and obstacles that seem impossible to overcome. He vividly describes the obstacles he and his fellow slaves must face in order to attain freedom. He writes, “Now it was starvation, causing us to eat our own flesh;—now we were contending with the waves, and were drowned;—now we were overtaken, and torn to pieces by the fangs of the terrible bloodhound.” He uses powerful imagery to clearly describe the frightening and unappealing consequences of a failed escape from slavery. He goes beyond simply offering starvation as a possibility, but asserts that escaping slaves would reach a point where they would “eat their own flesh” from lack of sustenance. This detailed depiction offers a truly terrifying image, which appeals to the audience’s humanity and demands empathy because no human should have to endure this gruesome experience. He uses dashes to create a pause in reading, so the previous line resonates with the reader before starting the next. The repetition of the word “now” builds each horrifying possibility upon the last, ensuring that the reader anticipates an even more terrifying option. The repetition creates a list of obstacles, as though they must overcome one obstacle after another, in order to succeed. \ The tone of hopelessness and impossibility supports the assertion that slaves attempting to escape bondage would likely confront a dreadful reality. He asserts that, “this picture sometimes appalled us, and made us / ‘rather bear those ills we had, /Than fly to others, that we knew not of.’[1]” Douglass invokes Shakespeare’s language from Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which he expresses that humans would rather live in misery than face the unknown. These words reflect Douglass’s choice to either accept his current state of enslavement or risk his life by contending with the possible consequences of escaping, including death. By invoking Shakespeare, Douglass presents his uncertainty in a manner that creates a universal understanding, even among people who otherwise would be unable to relate. Douglass drives home the point that no matter what one’s circumstances, the fear of the unknown can supersede all other fears. Most people would rather suffer with what they know than risk the comfort of familiarity – however awful – for the unknown. By writing that the reality of death “sometimes” appalled him and other slaves, he concedes that stories of the terror slaves experience in their attempts to escape were sometimes powerful enough to quell notions of escape.

In addition to associating possible escape with sheer fright, Douglass argues that a successful escape is extremely doubtful, but that he prefers to harbor a minuscule amount of hope that he’ll reach freedom. He believes that possible reward is one worth dying for. He states, “There stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us, —its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting itself greedily upon our own flesh. On the other hand, away back in the dim distance, under the flickering light of the north star, behind some craggy hill or snow-covered mountain, stood a doubtful freedom—half frozen—beckoning us to come and share its hospitality.” By personifying slavery, Douglass underscores the power and presence of slavery. He proves the doubtfulness of freedom by the contrasting a “very stern” slavery that exists very prominently in his reality with the “dim distance” at which freedom stands. His use of the repetition of prepositions “away”, “under”, and “behind”, demonstrates the extreme difficulty one must endure to reach freedom. He shows that the distance to freedom is further than any person has ever traveled, and therefore almost impossible as he states that it lies beneath the North Star. He calls into question the possibility of ever reaching it. He further describes freedom as “half-frozen,” proclaiming that even upon reaching freedom, it may not be accessible. That is, if an escaped slave reaches a free state, doubt remains if they would ever have the opportunity to live according to the freedoms afforded to them because in reality they could be returned to bondage or remain treated as inferior. Overall, the succession of prepositions emphasizes the doubtfulness of a successful escape because each prepositional phrase after the other shows how many obstacles stand in the way. Ultimately, he believes that even after describing the challenges involved with attaining freedom, its promise still tantalizes him. The personification of beckoning freedom proves how real freedom still is to him like its reaching out to him, even in the context of doubt.

Douglass then continues on to describe how, “In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. [2] With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.” Douglass uses allusion in his reference to Patrick Henry’s famous speech, “give me liberty or give me death”, which provides a powerful similarity and contrast. The words “liberty” and “death” carry an equal possibility in the case of Henry; one would realize either liberty or death. One the other hand, Douglass offers a less feasible option of “liberty” and a more plausible alternative of “death” by adding the words “doubtful” and “certain”, underscoring the vast unlikelihood of a successful escape. He asserts that a successful escape is unlikely by using patriotic rhetoric and comparing his plight to that of arguably the greatest underdogs in American history. Although, he proposes the contrast to that with his own situation by making his chances of success seem even less possible. He again uses this reference to create a universal understanding about the gravity of his situation, so people can relate and better understand his struggle. Despite his previous declaration that he sometimes would rather remain in his current misery than face the fear of the unknown, Douglass ultimately concludes he would rather struggle to gain his freedom with no certainty it would become a reality than continue to live according to the certain terms that slavery promises.

Through the use of verbal rhetoric, Douglass expresses both the emotional and physical challenges he face confronts when considering an escape from slavery. He offers imagery to help readers resonate with his plight. His vivid descriptions speak to the terror of escape and the horrors of physical human bondage. He implicitly depicts the cruelty of slavery through his decision to face an uncertain and possibly worse future than remain enslaved. Even when he declared that he preferred remaining in his current and certain state of misery because the fear and terror of escape was too horrifying, by the end of the passage he ultimately proves that slavery is too great of a misery to endure. Douglass shows that when faced with unthinkable challenges, people often prove their will to live and defiance against those who seek to inspire fear. Douglass’s story exemplifies that the refusal to surrender one’s dignity and refusal to sacrifice one’s dignity is worth dying for. In the end, his faith in freedom overcomes his crippling fear.