Commentary on the Slave Narrative by Frederick Douglass
Commentary on a passage from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American slave, written in first person by Frederick Douglass, establishes an image of the great divide in classes between the white people of America and the black’s that where ‘imported’ into the southern parts as a good. It shows the discrimination of the blacks who where being used as slaves by their white owners who, for the most part, would whip them and beat them for no reason or mistake not even big enough for an animal to receive such punishments. Frederick Douglass had a somewhat better circumstance compared to other slaves that are mentioned. He was whipped less frequently and was recently in Baltimore under a not-so-harsh master and mistress, where he picked up reading and writing. However, he having knowledge angered him to some extent. Douglass longed for freedom, yet, despite being in so much of a better position than his fellow slaves, he cannot get it. He took out his emotions on the ships he would see going along the Chesapeake Bay. Within the given passage, there lie larger issues than just a slave screaming at ships. The anger of Frederick towards the ship symbolizes the anger of most, if not all slaves towards freedom. Douglass symbolizes the slaves, with the ships symbolizing freedom. The context must be examined to ‘decipher’ the hidden messages.
Varying themes are clearly visible throughout the passage. The theme of slavery is conveniently juxtaposition to the ideas of freedom. The passage, when putting it into context, happens when Douglass has moved out of Baltimore to St. Michael’s, where he was under the control of Mr. Covey, a supposedly well known ‘slave-breaker’. More specifically, this passage occurs on a Sunday when Douglass has a day off and goes up to Chesapeake Bay and rekindles his ‘fire of freedom’ in some form or another. In the given passage, he compares his situation to that of the free ships. This is just more than Douglass speaking for himself; he speaks for the larger slave community in general. When Douglass says “You are loosed from your moorings and set free; I am fast in my chains and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle…I before the bloody whip…” (Douglass 106). He compares the general situation of every black slave and contrasts it with the ships that are docked at the bay; however, there is one difference in Frederick. He, unlike most slaves, has the will and determination to run away and get free, but deep down inside, again, unlike most slaves, knows that he must plan everything out in such a way that he doesn’t get caught.
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Douglass also fantasizes about what the freedom will be like when he does happen to get away, which emphasizes his fortitude to get free. This can be seen when he says “…when I get there, I shall not be required to have a pass; I can travel without being disturbed…” (Douglass, 107). Douglass uses realism to portray his image of freedom. He uses the example of no passes to show his accuracy of his knowledge to some extent. However, the knowledge seems to end there as Douglass uses a metonymy to rephrase his idea of carrying no passes. Due to lack of elaboration upon other slaves, and perhaps also due to lack of trust, the idea of freedom is not widely talked about, in the presence of masters and even at night. Perhaps the fact that Douglass has tasted some form of freedom when he was in Baltimore may have sparked a need to be free, however, according to this passage, which occurs much after his little spree of ‘freedom’, he claims that he is still a kid, and will, some day, be free, but until then, he must suffer. Again, Douglass talking in first person doesn’t only refer to him, but to the larger black-slaves community.
Frederic Douglass seems very elaborate and concise about the use of religion not only in this passage, but throughout the book. An example can be taken when he is angered by the fact that the ships are free, yet he’s so close, but he isn’t; “You are freedom’s swift-winged angels…O God save me…God, deliver me…Is there any God…” (Douglass 106). He sometimes uses polysyndeton to rhetorically compare and contrast the religious hypocrisy within the book. Most slaves were brought up around Christian surroundings, which could be the reason for Douglass to use so many religious allusions. Throughout the book, major themes such as slavery, religion, freedom and racial discrimination keep coming up, with many minor themes that occasionally appear. His organization of themes and events are well thought out as they follow both a chronological order and creates a smooth, gentle effect to the whole reading. Themes and ideas aren’t randomly placed; on the contrary, they follow a well formatted, well structured argument which creates a more emotional status within the narrator, at the same time, making him seem smarter than he may be.
Foreshadowing, along with other literary devices, is used throughout the book. Symbolism is a major device in this passage, going hand in hand with foreshadowing. The main symbolism used here is him talking in first person and representing the larger enslaved black community, yet he foreshadows with his intricate knowledge of which way to go in order to go in order to get free. Ships also symbolize freedom to him, and them being there ‘taunts’ him and his status as a slave. The repetition of the theme of the ships being free and being a ‘parental’ figure, for example, when he says “O that I were on one of your gallant decks, under your protecting wing” (Douglass 106), foreshadows to some extent his plan to get free. Frederick Douglass compares and contrasts his current situation as a slave with the free ships.
Douglass emphasizes his knowledge when he compares and contrasts his situation with that of the ships. The use of metaphors is consistent to highlight the vast differences between slaves and white people, and the fact that almost all slaves are so close to freedom, yet are blinded by the fear of getting caught, or are visionless due to the intelligence of the white’s, who keep there slaves as oblivious as possible to as much information as possible. Douglass has realized this and is angered by it, but is unable to do much due to the supremacy of white’s and the discrimination of the blacks. His vocabulary and his orating skills in English, mainly due to the fact that he can read and write better than others, present his experience gained while he was in Baltimore. He can easily compare and contrast any given situation, which is seen here where he basically compared his slavery against ships quite basically on the spot. There is also anger exhibited within Douglass’ tone, with slight jealousy there towards the ships. The use of repeated exclamation marks presents the tone in a flawless manner, for example, “…I am a slave!...bands of iron!...and I am free! Try it? Yes!” (Douglass 106). This also exhibits desperation as he is talking about when he gets free, which gives him an image of a somewhat ‘psychotic madman’. He does, at a point, want to simply run away, with no care of getting caught or getting free, however, Douglass manages to control himself in time and regain his usual composure. Douglass is stupefied by work, exhaustion, and Covey’s repeated punishments. He loses his spirit, his intellect, his desire to learn, and his natural cheerfulness during his stay at Mr. Covey’s.
In conclusion, Frederick Douglass uses an array of literary devices to emphasize his determination, desperation and anger, all at the same time. He feels dehumanized and taunted by the fact that ships are free whereas he is stuck in such a life. He vows to run away, at a point with no planning, however, controls himself to a point that he fantasizes about freedom and thinks more clearly. Slavery to him is like a drug. He only takes so much and cracks but the Sunday’s off where he would be in a stupor under the shade acted as a ‘rehab’ to relieve him of some pressure. His use of literary devices in such concise orders brings all his points and his message all together.
[Word Count: 1389]
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. New York: Penguin Classics 1986.