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Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass: Analysis

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‘For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.’ (Douglass, 93). Frederick Douglass is known as one of the most prominent abolitionist speakers and activists in history; furthermore, creating one of the most sought after novels, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, regarding his life as a slave. He advocated for human rights and the abolition of slavery, exemplifying the detrimental effects of slavery on a person as a whole during this period. Throughout the novel, he conveys examples as to why slavery should have been morally obliged. Douglass also juxtaposes education in the sense of how it keeps the slaves blind of what slavery truly is and how it, too, could construct a plan of how to escape it as a whole. Inequality, education, and Christianity are examples of the pathways to freedom regarding its actual values within the institution of slavery. Douglass tries to show the readers how African American slaves were still human beings (like their white masters), but fail to be treated like human beings by such peers. These slaves were never given a chance to show their true selves because of the presence of inequality. Douglass, too, incorporates the use of rhetorical and literary devices such as imagery, pathos, ethos, irony, and anecdotes to substantiate to the audience why slavery should be eliminated.

Following his life as a slave, Frederick Douglass took his talent for literacy and writing and created something outstanding. He created the autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to connote the inequality he faced as a human being and heighten the reader’s understanding of the reality of slavery and to symbolize the way they were perceived as slaves. Inequality was heavily present during the 19th century, while Douglass and millions of others were slaves. Although he lived in Maryland, which was considered to be a less strident slave state compared to others, he still exposed the raw reality of what took place. Some believed because of his location, Douglass was not fit to tell a ¨ slaves story ¨ because of his so-called ¨ melodramatic ¨ explanation of slavery, to which he was denounced for. Nevertheless, he still was a slave and yet was treated poorly and experienced inequality to the extreme. ¨ The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. …By far, the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. ¨ (Douglass, 19). As a slave, Douglass was denied being revealed personal or straightforward information. No slaves were ever told their birthdays, and never dared to ask their masters either; furthermore, forced to estimate based on seasons and other random factors. ¨ I looked for home elsewhere…. If, however, I found in my new home hardship, hunger, whipping, and nakedness, I had the consolation that I should not have escaped any one of them by staying. ¨ (Douglass, 44). On the plantations where these slaves lived and called home, they were whipped and abused daily. Abuse was sought as regular life for these slaves; though knew no different, other than it is morally wrong to be treated that way as a human being. The inequality was present here because no white people were being punished purely for living; it only was the African Americans who were treated this way. ¨ He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death. ¨ (Douglass, 35). At any moment, slaves could be removed and sold to another plantation. This includes leaving their families if they were together from the start. All of this was taking place without the consent from slaves. Inequality present in the life of a human being, in general, is malign to a person’s mentality. In the 19th century, slavery was so prevalent in all ages of life, and for most, at a young age were segregated and treated differently than others. Frederick Douglass, in The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, tried to project the damaging effects of inequality and why it contends to the reason why slavery should be abolished. Not only did inequality play a part in his evaluation and goal as to why slavery should be put to an end, but factors such as education and the roles of Christianity (religion) enhances Douglass’ reasoning.

Douglass makes it prevalent within the novel to point out the ironic use of Christianity and religion by the slaveholders and masters. These religious slaveholders are known to use their faith as an excuse for their not so ethical actions. What they put their slaves through regarding strenuous and extensive work on plantations, physical and mental abuse, and standard treatment in everyday life, to name a few, is the exact opposite of what is preached in Christian churches and the religion as a whole! Christianity in the 19th century was the customary religion for whites, and in the case of the novel, privileged whites. White slaveholders considered themselves as Christian, despite their actions. When acting against their religion, they used it as an excuse to justify their barbaric actions, believing they are superior over others. ‘For all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, and most cruel and cowardly, of all others.’ (Douglass, 86-87). Douglass articulated that nonreligious slaveholders were less cruel, which is also paradoxical because they have no outright moral guidelines to follow as the religious masters did. ‘I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture – ‘He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” (Douglass, 68). This example shows how the slave masters would balefully abuse slaves and then account for their actions by using quotes from the Bible. Although Christianity and religion should be prominent reasoning as to why slavery should no longer be legal, they are factors as to why it is still contemporaneous. Using religion to excuse their actions, slaveholders thought of their superiority to defend their mistakes. Christianity was mentioned many times by Douglass when it came to factors why slavery was allowed and never put to an end. Not only did religion pertain to the issue, but so did a widespread trouble being education.

The only way to freedom for slaves is to learn how to free themselves through learning. Douglass is disgusted by education because it brought out a real and vivid understanding of the horridity of slavery. He and the other slaves wanted to receive a good schooling, but never were allowed because of the reality of what they’d learn-slavery. ‘I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition… It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.’ (Douglass, 54). Because of his education on the subject of slavery, it led to acts of mutiny, in hopes of gaining freedom. ‘…and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering.’ (Douglass, 29-30). Sophia Auld was his outlet for freedom. She was the one who taught Douglass to read and write, even though she was scolded for it by her husband. Slaves were permitted to remain uneducated in fear of them learning too much about slavery, and resulting in escape or retaliation. Education was lacking for slaves because of the fear of it occurring in the rescue for freedom. Douglass implies how the slaves purposely were kept as illiterate as possible, to refrain from any problems. Because of this, slaves were never able to be free. The lack of freedom is a reason as to why slavery should be outlawed because these slaves were kept from fundamental rights to learn. If slavery were never relevant, then we may have had a rise in educated and intelligent individuals throughout history. Although these factors, such as inequality, Christianity, and education, added to Frederick Douglass’ points of why slavery should be eliminated, many other components came into play as well. Douglass incorporated rhetorical devices into The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, such as pathos, imagery, anecdotes, ethos, and irony.

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Pathos and imagery play a significant role when developing the reasoning as to why slavery should not be allowed. From merely the first page of the novel, emotional appeals were present. The abuse and pain through the words illustrated what these slaves, including Douglass, went through daily. These descriptive and profuse words painted a horrid picture of the violence, and gruesome life slaves lived. It stimulated the audience’s pathological thoughts and feelings while reading.

¨ No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped… I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget…¨ (Douglass, 23). Douglass recounts the experience of watching the slaveholder whip his aunt until he covered her in blood and the pleasure the slaveholder seemed to gain from it. The graphic description of her abuse makes readers feel the same anger Douglass must have experienced. ‘Mr. Gore told him that he would give him three calls, and that, if he did not come out at the third call, he would shoot him… Mr. Gore then… raised his musket to his face, taking a deadly aim… and in an instant poor Demby was no more. His mangled body sank out of sight, and blood and brains marked the water where he had stood.’ (Douglass, 39). This scene in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is exceptionally vivid. Mr. Gore shoots this innocent slave. Slaves were abused and killed for minuscule reasons. How Douglass shares with the audience is the exact way it was when it happened in front of him, which is a picture in his mind that will never escape. It is blatantly obvious as to why the pathos and imagery examples connect to why slavery should be over. The emotions and graphic wording from just reading is detrimental, but to experience it first hand must have been much worse. Pathos and imagery played a significant role when developing the reasoning to prove why slavery should be abolished. Rhetorical devices are an effective way to get the point across as a writer, which is precisely what Douglass did.

Douglass introducing anecdotes from his grandmother’s life, demonstrates the reasons why slavery is morally wrong. The presence of Douglass’ grandmother represents a story probably shared by many slaves. She was evicted from the plantation because she had reached the elderly age of no longer being able to work. She had cared for the master since a young age, but they continued to set her in the woods alone to let her finish her life. ¨ She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever.¨ (Douglass, 60-61). She cared for her master all of her life, and yet was treated as such. She is part of the reason as to why his plantation is so populated with slaves. Her humanity and feelings were not taken into consideration when her short story is told. The anecdote that is present within this part of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass adds to Douglass’s point of why slavery should be eliminated because the masters showed how a slave’s value and ability are more important than their humanity. Douglass, including this anecdote, conveyed to the audience that slaves were worthless once they were physically incapable of working, not taking into consideration their morals. The ethical and ironic appeal to readers also comes into play with not only this anecdote, but with other reliable examples within the novel.

Ethos and irony play well together when proving why slavery should no longer be allowed. The ethical morality and the irony present within the examples are very similar and complement each other well. Douglass uses irony and ethos to point out the faults regarding the logic of slavery. He and other slaves lacked fundamental human rights or knowledge they deserved to know, and lacked receiving respect like the humans they were. ¨ I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it… The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age.¨ (Douglass, 19). Douglass incorporates ethos in the novel by beginning in chapter 1, explaining how he and the other African American slaves do not know their birthdays, unlike the white children. Starting the book off with such a powerful example of a device proves how bad it was during that time, and why Douglass is such a credible source for this topic. ¨ The slightest inattention to these was unpardonable… with the severest punishment; no excuse could shield them, if the colonel only suspected any want of attention to his horses… They were frequently whipped when least deserving, and escaped whipping when most deserving it. Everything depended upon the looks of the horses…¨ (Douglass, 33). In this example, Douglass describes his former master, Colonel Lloyd, and how he obsessed over his horses. The slaves who were in charge of caring for the horses, held a high responsibility, and if the horses weren’t up to par, the slaves would be beaten. By using irony here displays how Lloyd treats his animals like humans, and his slaves like the worst of animals; moreover, has no respect nor care for slaves, and all the compassion in the world for his horses. Ethos and irony work well together because although they are different examples within the text, they deliver the same message. Slaves are insufficient for human treatment, nor even treated with respect. They were conserved from learning necessary personal information and were treated worse than an animal. The inequality and unfairness are present in these examples and demonstrate why slavery should settle to an end.

Frederick Douglass is known as one of the most prominent abolitionist speakers and activists in history; furthermore, creating one of the most sought after novels, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, regarding his life as a slave. He advocated for human rights and the abolition of slavery, exemplifying the detrimental effects of slavery on a person as a whole during this time, and why slavery should be eliminated. Factors such as inequality, Christianity, and education are ample examples that are showcased throughout the novel as to why slavery should not be allowed. Douglass also incorporated rhetorical devices like pathos, imagery, anecdotes, ethos, and irony to get his point heavily across. Including Douglass, these slaves are not treated like human beings and are not receiving fundamental rights. Douglass created The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass as a way to spread awareness of the way slaves were treated throughout history. After reading his novel, it is evident to the reader after studying the book and visualizing all of what went on, why it is such a passion to Douglass that slavery should be eliminated. Many people over time have said, ¨ slavery should be abolished, ¨, but until reading this novel, people will not understand what actually went on. The abuse, torture, and inhumane treatments, all symbolize the exact reason as to why Douglass’ point of the elimination of slavery should affect the audience enough to make a change.

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Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass: Analysis. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
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