“Woman, however, like the colored man, will never be taken by her brother and lifted to a position. What she desires, she must fight for” (59 Douglass The Woman’s Cause). Frederick Douglass’s portrayal of women in his self-entitled novel Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Salve, lacks the foundation that it should. Douglass does not give the African American female characters enough voice; they all seem to lurk in the shadows of their oppressor. Women often appear in Douglass’s Narrative not as full characters, but as vivid images specifically, images of abused bodies.
Douglass’s Aunt Hester, Henrietta and Mary, and Henny, for example, appear only in scenes that demonstrate their masters’ abuse of them. Douglass’s depictions of the women’s mangled and emaciated bodies are meant to incite pain and outrage in the reader and point to the unnaturalness of the institution of slavery.
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Slavery took its toll on all of its participants, but women fell prey a larger part of the abuse due to the fact that their bodily strength was less and slaveholders perceived them as weaker.
Aunt Hester’s character is brought up in the first chapter of the narrative. Douglass’s description of Aunt Hester tells the reader that she was “ a woman of noble form, and of graceful proportions” (Douglass 398) she was a woman who was desired by many. However her femininity and grace led to her downfall of pure jealousy by Captain Anthony. Young Douglass witnessed his aunt being beaten which for him was the first time he had seen something so horrific. “I had therefore been until now, out of the way of the bloody scenes that often occurred on the planation” (Douglass 398).
The overkill in the beating of so called disobedient slave touches the readers sympathetic side, since this narrative is being read by women who would not want the same fate for them selves. In the nineteenth century, most Americans assumed that there was a natural order in society, which placed men, and women in totally different spheres. The ideal woman was submissive; her job was to be a meek, obedient, loving wife who was totally subservient to the men around her. Douglass uses the figure of Sophia Auld to illustrate this. When Douglass arrives to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld, Sophia treats Douglass as nearly an equal to her own son.
Soon, however, Hugh schools Sophia in the ways of slavery, teaching her the immoral slave? master relationship that gives one individual complete power over another. Douglass depicts Sophia’s transformation in horrific terms. She seems to lose all human qualities and to become an evil, inhuman being. Douglass presents Sophia as much a victim of the institution of slavery as Douglass himself is. The fact that Sophia is a woman helps Douglass’s portrayal of her as a victim of slavery. It is significant that the male slaveholders of Douglass’s Narrative, even Hugh Auld, all appear to be already schooled in the vice of slavery.
Women, and Sophia especially, exist in Douglass’s Narrative as idealistically sympathetic and virtuous beings a gender stereotype common in nineteenth? century culture. Thus Sophia becomes, along with the slaves themselves, an object of sympathy for Douglass’s readers. The readers’ horror and regret for Sophia’s lost kindness reinforces their sense that slavery is unnatural and evil. Henrietta and Mary are the slaves of Mr. Thomas Hamilton who are depicted in chapter six. This is a prime example of the woman weakness to the man. The two young girls are thrashed and are described as being cut in to pieces.
The fact that not only the man of the house but also Mrs. Hamilton beats the young girls is appalling. Not only are they verbally abused but physically abused they are victims of the hatred to their race. These women are only weak because of their owners continuously bring them down; they have no strength to fight back. The violence towards “Henny” in chapter nine may be by the far the most disturbing picture of helpless woman in the narrative. Not only can “Henny” not help her self due to her physical statue but she also is tied up for hours at end.
“Henny” represents the helpless slaves who could not fend for themselves. Her body strength is non-existent because not only is she a burn victim but also she can not work to build strength. Reader’s hearts go out to her because she is defenseless against the strength of the man. While Douglass’s Narrative shows that slavery dehumanizes slaves, it also advances the idea that slavery adversely affects slave owners. Douglass makes this point in previous chapters by showing the damaging self? deceptions that slave owners must construct to keep their minds at ease. These self? deceptions build upon one another until slave owners are left without religion or reason, with hypocrisy as the basis of their existence. African American women are victims in this narrative. Not only do they not have a voice or any spoken words but also they are only depicted when they are beaten and broken. The vulnerability of these women adds a sympathetic element that touches every reader whether female or male. Douglass shows how much slavery affected everyone from slaves, to housewives to the salve owners themselves. There was no person untouched from the devastating events that slavery caused.