The Longest Memory

by Fred D’Aguiar

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Discuss institutionalization in The Longest Memory.

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The Longest Memory explores institutionalization with regard to slavery as it looks at this institution from different angles.

The rules of slavery are set in Whitechapel's mind. He believes that slaves like himself need to respect the institution and the society in which they live by obeying their masters and working hard. He himself is a respected slave on his master's plantation, and the other slaves look to him as an authority figure and guide. Whitechapel is all about establishing a relationship of trust with his master and working toward peace and stability on the plantation. This means following the rules set in place by the slave system.

But there are other slaves on the plantation that do not view the institution of slavery as Whitechapel does, and one of them is his own adopted son, Chapel. Chapel is not Whitechapel's biological son but rather the child of Whitechapel's wife, Cook, who was raped by a white overseer. Chapel gets himself into trouble when he falls in love with the master's daughter, who illegally teaches him to read. We can see how Chapel disregards the rules of the institution and the beliefs and advice of Whitechapel. He cannot accept the structures of the society in which he lives.

Chapel's disregard for the rules actually gets him killed, although the white overseer who kills him also breaks the rules, going directly against the master's orders. The death of his son changes Whitechapel's whole outlook about the institution of slavery as he realizes that there can never really be a full bond of trust between slave and master and that the rules he has trusted in can easily be broken.

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