Inhumanity and the Slave Family: The Rhetorical Strategies of Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Wells Brown

June 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

Every choice a person makes, every action a person performs, every thought that crosses a person’s mind is influenced by emotion. The strength and intensity of feelings in the decision-making process makes emotional manipulation a powerful tool for persuasive writers. In an attempt to promote abolitionist ideals and convince readers that slavery is unjust and immoral, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and William Wells Brown’s Clotel, Or the President’s Daughter utilize the rhetorical strategy of appealing to pathos. Thus, both authors succeed in exposing the readers to the tragic practice of tearing slave families apart.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe demonstrates the common practice of separating slave children from their parents in order to appeal to the emotions of the audience. Although the novel is fictitious, the author provides a quite realistic scenario in which a slaveowner agrees to sell a slave child named Harry to another master, which would rip the boy away from his mother forever. Harry’s mother, Eliza, becomes aware of the trade and dares to escape rather than lose her only surviving child. Stowe narrates Eliza’s journey with descriptive, sorrowful diction:

“If it were your Harry… that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning,—if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o’clock till morning to make good your escape,—how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom,—the little sleepy head on your shoulder, —the small, soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck?” (144)

In this instance, Stowe addresses the audience directly, explicitly asking the readers to think of what actions they might be capable if they found themselves in the same situation. By evoking empathy and fear from the readers, the author is attempting to persuade them to side with abolition, or at the very least, to begin to understand why the system of slavery is wrong. If Stowe can convince the readers that slaves are people just like them, then the struggles they face will be viewed as more more critical. Most people can relate to or imagine the feeling of losing a loved one, therefore Stowe is able to successfully appeal to pathos and elicit negative reactions to the system of slavery.

In the second novel, Clotel, Or the President’s Daughter, Brown also reveals how the system of slavery contributed to the destruction of family ties to bring about emotional responses from the audience. When protagonist Clotel loses her husband to a free white women, who can offer him a status that enslaved Clotel cannot, Brown emphasizes the issue of slaves being denied the right to marry. The tear-wrenching language describing Clotel’s devastation breaks the readers’ hearts simultaneously, as they can only attempt to realize her emotional misery when they read:

“Wild were the thoughts that passed round her aching heart, and almost maddened her poor brain; thoughts which had almost driven her to suicide the night of that last farewell. For her child’s sake she had conquered the fierce temptation then; and for her sake, she struggled with it now.” (169)

Here, Brown employs pathos similarly to Stowe in that he uses a passionate style of writing to make the readers feel for and identify with the slave characters. The intensity of this scene, in which a woman is so ruined by the common practices of slavery that she is barely holding on to her life, triggers a rescue response from the audience. By this point, readers cannot help but form a slight attachment to Clotel and her daughters, and therefore the audience cares about what happens to them. Once again, the readers are shown that the system of slavery does much more harm than good, pushing their emotions to the brink in order to persuade them to side with abolition.

By showcasing the destruction of slave families to compel profound empathy from readers, authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Wells Brown exercise the rhetorical strategy of pathos to promote abolitionist ideas. When Eliza nearly loses her precious son to a harsh master and Clotel is forced to surrender her beloved husband to a woman of higher rank, the grief-stricken audience is meant to feel as if something must be done to save these defenseless people. The emotion-provoking words in both works are quite effective at proving the immorality of slavery, and even now these words inspire a desire for the betterment of humankind.

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