Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an autobiographical novel by the writer mentioned dedicated to the issue of slavery, the stereotyped portrayal of the slaves at those times, and the hardship that the slaves had to go through generation after generation until the slavery ended. The book describes the major events that shaped the personality of the author and narrator. This book can be identified as a slave narrative because this subgenre was topical at the time during Douglas’s life. The novel combines the features of the documentary report of the life with down to the ground chronological descriptions of the events with the outstanding literary craft. One of the crucial features of the novel is its credibility and first person, or subjective narration because it blurs the margin between the report and the literary piece. The first person narrative helps the reader to go through the entire evolution of the author within the historical period of oppression and inequality, which is helps the reader witness everything that the author did and to look at the events from his point of view.
Seemingly, the narrative perspective of the book is clear. The author tells the story of the first person because the events in the book happened to him. However, there might be other ways to persuade the reader, which is why it important to clarify why this very narrative strategy was chosen. As it was mentioned in the introduction the subgenre of the slave narrative was popular at those times, however, the work of Frederick Douglass stands out from that. It appears that the narrative goes from his early childhood to the moment that his personality is shaped, and this is the period when the conscience of a slave undergoes immense changes. To make the reader sympathize, Douglas implies a so-called ingénue image. The character of Douglas underwent the evolution, and such an image of the author is the way to show this prominent evolution. Nonetheless, the general tone of the narrative is solid and adult (Matlack, James). The contrast between the voices also familiarizes the reader with the narrator, making the emotional appeal stronger. In addition, the general function of the first-person narration is making the reader see the world and the events from the narrator’s point of view.
Another important issue that the narrator touches is the portrayal of slaves and the stereotypes connected with this portrayal. The contrast between the unwillingness to remember slavery and introducing it as a part of the life it visible even in the title of the book. It goes “Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself.” The title appears very detailed and even triumphant. The author declares his status with a certain pride because of this essentially the story of his liberation, both physical and moral. The portrayal of African Americans and slaves way different to the narrative presented by Douglas. According to Albert Boime (1991), the literature of the nineteenth century did not tend to portray them positively. There always was certain contempt in the way they were depicted. In other cases, they were not paid attention to at all. A slave, if described was not a dynamic character, the one unable to change and grow because of the representation, as well as the actual attention to the lives of slaves, was wrong. Moreover, the concepts of slaves and education never went along because they were not thought to be supposed to be intelligent or educated. This stereotype was clearly determined by the historical circumstances and the way it worked in the American society (Chakkalakal, Tess). On this background, the personal narrative of the self-development is breaking the stereotype in literature as well (Lee, Lisa Yun). It is difficult to say the image of a slave was always negative, but it was mostly shallow and thus mocking. There also was no much objection in society. The author was almost the first to give the voice to the protest of the image of a slave created, which is why he proudly mentioned it is the very title of the book.
The next thing to discuss if the abolitionist ideas in the novel and how they influence its tone. It is clear that the book contains a strong and elaborated abolitionist message because the whole point is the suffering that the slaves had to go through. Abolitionist movement is immense social activity against slavery and inequality resulted major social changes. The author’s point is clear, however, there are no judgmental passages about the inequality and injustice. It is the thing mentioned before, the conscious path of the protagonist to the self-identification and making the conscious goal to change the life for good (Hutchins, Zachary McLeod). According to the stereotyped portrayal, the slaves were not able to think critically because of the lack of education. However, the book portrays all the steps the narrator’s self-concept established. The first thing he learns as a child is how to be a slave, reflecting critically on it: “The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (Douglass, Frederick). Even though the experienced it in his childhood, he defamiliarizes this notion from himself and from the reader. The implication of the defaliriazation emphasized that all the human being are free from the moment in their live and slavery is not the inborn program for him and his brothers. In addition, it was a strong stereotype that helped the oppressors to justify the limitation of the freedom of others. The example of Douglas is it is difficult to learn how to be unfree and that it took him a long time. The milestone moment for this acquisition was the scene, where he sees his Aunt Hester beaten before his very eyes “It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it” (Douglass, Frederick).
The same progress is observable in the establishing of the concept of being morally free and venturing to escape. It was a liberation of the imposed idea of the slave status that helped him and, at the same time, requires a lot of the psychological effort. The first person narrative, in this case, is the dynamic observation of the internal motives that moved the decision of the protagonist. It is not always easy to follow own changing motivation and reasons. Moreover, there is no milestone, as it is with the establishment of the self-identity of a slave, that would determine the value of everyone’s and his own life for him. The decision about the escape is foregrounded the way that even the young narrator does not realize it fully. The narrator leads the reader to the truth that is as simple is possible: that he is a free person and does not have to be a servant only because of his ethnicity. Moreover, the book shows a confident and solid tone about his independence and dignity. The path to the realization of the truth, the truth that he always knew but forgot because he was pushed to: “This is the penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions” (Douglass, Frederick). The first-person narrative perspective is subjectivised the way that every reader can experience the adolescent path of the search for the truth, bearing this truth within them. Also, the author does not focus on the suffering of the slaves but does focus on their internment strength that helped them overcome the dark period of the history. He does not calls the for reader’s pity, but rather calls for the deserved respect for everything that they went through with a solid dignity.
To conclude, the narrative strategy the Douglas chooses is crucial in the achievement of the rhetorical purpose of the work. This technique helps the reader to come all the evolution of the views of the slaves and take the subjunctive perspective of the slave that managed to build his own independent self-concept that serves the inspiration for the future followers of the abolitionist ideals. The work describes emotionally the way that the author established his personality, independent and proud. The narrator did not try to provoke sympathy, but transmitted his self-respect to the reader and explained thoroughly what it meant to be free and how to come up with the concept of being un-free.
Boime, Albert. “The Art Of Exclusion: Representing Blacks In The Nineteenth Century”. The Journal Of Southern History, vol 5, no. 4, 1991, pp. 734-736. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2210614.
Chakkalakal, Tess. Novel Bondage: Slavery, Marriage, And Freedom In Nineteenth-Century America. 1st ed., University Of Illinois Press, 2011.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, The: Webster’s Polish Thesaurus Edition. 1st ed., ICON Group, 2008,.
Hutchins, Zachary McLeod. “Rejecting The Root: The Liberating, Anti-Christ Theology Of Douglass’s Narrative”. Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol 68, no. 3, 2013, pp. 292-322. University Of California Press.
Lee, Lisa Yun. “The Politics Of Language In Frederick Douglass’s Narrative Of The Life Of An American Slave”. MELUS, vol 17, no. 2, 1991, p. 51. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/466999.
Matlack, James. “The Autobiographies Of Frederick Douglass”. Phylon (1960-), vol 40, no. 1, 1979, p. 15. JSTOR.