The long personal story of Olaudah Equiano established the slave-narrative genre in literature. Equiano takes the form of the spiritual autobiography that Saint Augustine used in his fifth century religious conversion work Confessiones (c. 400; Confessions) and adds to its pattern a new dimension—that of social protest. The spiritual conversion account follows a three-part structure in describing a life of sin, a conversion experience, and the emergence of a new religious identity. Equiano relates his spiritual undertaking in that manner, but he also parallels his battle to free himself from a life of sin with his struggle to escape from the physical bonds of slavery.
The prose style of The Life of Olaudah Equiano alternates between a florid, lofty tone typical of many eighteenth century works and a plain and graphic manner of writing. The latter style is the one Equiano uses effectively to describe his personal experiences and dangerous adventures.
Equiano presents himself in the early part of his narrative as a picaresque figure who is both fearful of and awe-stricken by the technical marvels of the white world. He allows himself to enter into the cultural life of the West, but he never becomes blind to the defects of that world. His personal experience with slavery and his fond, vivid memories of his African homeland impel him to reveal the truth about the evils of human bondage and to give an accurate account of the laws, religion, and customs of the African society.
In a remarkable manner, Equiano also presents himself in his work as an enterprising and heroic character. He relates how he labors hard after his slave duties are done so that he can save funds to buy his freedom. This act, of course, is important to Equiano, and he shows this by including his manumission paper in the middle portion of his...
(The entire section is 770 words.)
When Olaudah Equiano’s two-volume autobiography was published in 1789 in Great Britain, it was presented to members of Parliament and leaders of the anti-abolitionist movement. The great founder of Methodism, John Wesley, had it read to him on his deathbed. Many of the important personages in England were listed as subscribers to the former slave’s work, which is believed to have played a major part in the eventual abolition of the British slave trade. The remarkable narrative was published in the United States in 1791 and soon became a popular autobiography on both sides of the Atlantic. It was translated into several European languages and ran through many editions until well into the nineteenth century.
Equiano’s work is the prototype of the slave narrative, which became the chief instrument of the antislavery crusade. The former slave created a new literary genre when he combined the form of the spiritual autobiography with the story of the slave’s escape from bondage. This pattern can be observed in the fugitive-slave works of the nineteenth century. The most notable are Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Influences of the design also can be seen in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional slave book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and in many nonfiction and fiction works of twentieth century literature such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945), The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987).
Critics see Equiano’s narrative as following not only a spiritual but also a secular pattern of autobiographical writing. The secular manner was popularized by Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1791), in which the emphasis is on character development and material success. In like manner, Equiano is careful to make his point that a black person can develop and become materially successful through personal enterprise. Equiano, however, also stresses the fact that spiritual, personal, or material achievement can only be realized when a man or woman is given the freedom to accomplish all of this.