Critical Analysis of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Ryan
February 12, 2012
In 1825, freedom was but a word on the wind to a slave; it was an abstract idea. Freedom is an idea that is seemingly in complete disagreement with the life of a slave. Yet freedom is an idea that permeates the heart and soul of every man; even more so for those for which freedom is not given. The life of a slave is a life filled with painful contradictions and hypocrisies. Is not every man in the image of God? Is not every man destined to be free? Such thoughts, while the most natural and innate, are dangerous to a slave. Many slaves have pushed down the urge that so forcefully tries to spring the idea of freedom from the soul. Yet for some, the urge is too great, and the call for freedom is one that cannot go unanswered. One such person is Frederick Douglass, who authored the courageous and heart-wrenching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In the great Narrative, Douglass serves as a man committed to exposing the reader to the vile, inhumane nature of slavery, while fostering a formal relationship with the reader, not unlike a witness who has been called to testify in court about a defendant; in this case, slavery. Frederick Douglass keeps the reader at arm’s length, almost unsure as to the reader’s sentiments towards slavery. Douglass wrote the Narrative in the year 1845, when the typical reader is just as likely to favor abolishment, as he is to own a slave. Consequently, Douglass presents his narrative in a logical, straight-forward manner; presenting the facts of his case against slavery in a measured tone. Often times, Douglass will present the horrid and disturbing stories he recounts with a simple phrase like, “the facts in this case were these…” (381). By using a formal tone, Douglass evokes a sentiment of objectivity in the reader, urging the reader to observe the stories as they are presented, and more importantly, asking the reader to set aside their personal feelings towards slavery, whether be pro or anti-slavery sentimentalities, and take his accounts at face value. The story that follows the above pretext is a singularly gory and objectionable one, that describes how Douglass nearly had his eyeball burst in a fight by several white carpenters’ apprentices. Douglass utilizes this tactic throughout the duration of the Narrative, and to good use. Douglass realizes that if the reader takes each gripping account at face value, it is nearly impossible to be unmoved. Even though Douglass uses this formal tone, the Narrative permeates with emotion. Like any good witness in a jury trial, Douglass presents his case in a calm, calculated tone; yet the stories he recants are so unsettling and visceral, that it is nearly impossible to be unmoved. One such story that is delivered in a stoic tone, yet is infused with emotion is the story of how Douglass was savagely whipped by the duplicitous and ornery slave-master Mr. Covey. After trying, and failing to wield oxen, Douglass recounts how a slave was often treated. Douglass writes: Just as I got into the woods, he came up to me to stop my cart, and that he would teach me how to trifle away time, and break gates. He then went to the large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and, after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take off my clothes…Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave marks visible for a long time after. (357)
In this passage, Douglass uses a stoic deadpan delivery when describing how Mr. Covey trimmed the three large switches “neatly with his pocket knife”. The author’s tone seems almost out of place in contrast to the volatile, thought-provoking nature of the story; yet Douglass uses this distinction purposefully, and effectively....
Cited: Douglass, Frederick. "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass." The Classic Slave Narratives.
Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Penguin, 2002. 300-403. Print.
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