Rhetorical Analysis of Frederick Douglass’ Autobiogrophy
Frederick Douglass’s life narrative provides a look in on slavery by someone who was directly affected. Because many masters believed that teaching their slaves to read and write, “would spoil the best nigger in the world,” (Douglass 5) not many slaves were able to write their story for the future to see. Douglass’s perspective is a once and a lifetime look into how slavery affected an intelligent slave who knew how to both read and write. Unfortunately for him Douglass’s growing understanding was a curse rather than a blessing.
As his intellect expanded, his misery deepened as well and his lack of freedom began to bother him. Douglass shows his expanding sorrow, using tone, imagery and selection of detail. Through the these ten pages of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the struggle between accepting a harsh truth and the desire to return to the bliss of ignorance is apparent. He would have been much happier if he had been stupid. This excerpt of Frederick Douglass’s life narrative didn’t have one consistent tone. Rather, he has three most noticeable changes in his inflection.
In the beginning of the excerpt (pages 2-3), his tone is very ‘matter of fact’. He tells the reader about what it was like on a slave plantation but doesn’t tell the reader, how he felt about it. For example, Douglass discusses the allowances the slaves received, and says, “slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish , and one bushel of corn meal. ” (Douglass 2), however he doesn’t tell the reader if it was enough or not, or if he went to bed hungry, or not, at night.
This emotion-lacking first part took a drastic turn as page 4 came along, and Douglass tells the reader the bitter anguish that were in the songs slaves sung, and that (even though he previously did not understand them) the sadness that resonated within him as he thought about them. He finally gives an effect of slavery at this point when he calls it ‘soul-killing’, just based of the melancholy songs sung by slaves. As he became older, and more intelligent, these meaning of these songs which he were previously, “beyond my feeble comprehension,” (Douglass 4) became apparent, deepening the effect of his curse.
Finally, the last tone change in the passage was into anger. On page 9 Douglass says, “The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had… reduced us to slavery” (Douglass 9). The more Douglass read, the more aware of how unfair slavery was, and the more he began to detest the predicament he was in. If he wasn’t as intelligent, and had only experienced a life that was his own (and not the lives of those in his books) he would be more ignorant to freedom, and in turn happier.
Imagery, is one of the most important tools an author can use. Whether to visualize a setting, or to show emotion, imagery allows the reader to have a picture of what is happening in their head. Without, an image of what’s going on, the reader is stuck with a bunch of words that don’t mean as much. One type of imagery, that Douglass uses fantastically is emotional imagery. In the paragraph where Douglass first switches tone he states that, “while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek. ” (Douglass 4).
What this means is that a tear began to run down his face, but the way it is said is so much more profound and appeals to pathos much better. The next type of imagery Douglass uses is tactile imagery, making an image of touching something. After having explained how the slaves in the city were generally treated much better than in the country, Douglass points out that there were still pockets of slave owners who treated their slaves poorly. He described the young female slaves in the neighborhood who were constantly being beaten by their mistress as having cut up shoulders and a head where he could feel festering sores.
With his increased intelligence at this point, he understands how there is a difference in the treatment of people based on their surroundings and how unjust it all is. Douglass points out details throughout the narrative that make huge impacts on the reader. One such case is when he talks about Mr. Hopkins taking over for Mr. Severe on the plantation. Douglass contrasts Mr. Hopkins from Mr. Severe by saying “He was less cruel, less profane and made less noise than Mr. Severe… He whipped, but he seemed to take no pleasure in it. ” (Douglass 3).
Yes, despite still having an overseer that whipped the slaves, they described him as a “good overseer. ” This impacts the reader because it seems that anyone who would whip someone is a bad person, however, Frederick Douglass and the other slaves didn’t know anything other than his experience with Mr. Severe. Douglass details his anguish in becoming more aware of a life outside of slavery, where he wishes he didn’t know any better than most of the other slaves. He notes that “I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free I have no doubt that
I should have killed myself. ” (Douglass 9). For having just learned how to read, and understanding what might be if he were free, he was very quickly reaching the point of depression with no freedom in sight. Frederick Douglass was afflicted with his curse of intelligence at a very young age. While it may not seem like a curse in the traditional sense, for a slave the understanding of the reality of your situation is worse than being ignorant to the possibility of freedom.
So, would Frederick Douglass have been happier if he hadn’t learned how to read and write? Perhaps, as he may have enjoyed the experience of having a kind mistress without being reprimanded for trying to learn and having a better lot than most slaves did in the country. However, without having learned to read and write, he would not have been able to learn about the Abolitionist movement, gain his freedom and ultimately enjoy a high level of personal satisfaction.