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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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Explain how Douglass uses literary devices such as imagery, personification, figures of speech, and sounds to make his experiences vivid for his readers in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave.

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Frederick Douglass's work stands as a first-person testament to the horrors of slavery, and his purpose was to help others see that as well. Ultimately, he wanted to open the eyes of Americans who were ambivalent or outright ignorant of the actual experiences slaves endured. To accomplish a powerfully persuasive narrative, he relies on many literary devices throughout his book.

One of the sharpest and most painful images is when Douglass recounts witnessing the beating of his own aunt as a young boy:

I have often been awakened at dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom [Captain Anthony] used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip to make her scream, and whip to make her hush; and not until over come by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

The imagery here is enough to make any reader wince. And that is exactly the effect Douglass wants to create—to make the image he witnesses as a young child so vivid that the reader cannot help but see the same horrors. Also worth noting in this section is the metaphor of an iron heart. His master is steeled in his purpose to inflict incredible pain upon this woman. Douglass also uses a nice triplet of subject: No words, no tears, no prayers. This intensifies the desperation of his aunt as she pleads for mercy. The juxtaposition of whipping to make her scream and whipping to make her hush shows the lunacy in the master's actions; they were merciless and completely unpredictable.

Douglass utilizes personification in the following text:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into an existence an entirely new train of thought.

In this section of chapter 6, Mr. Auld discovers that his wife has been teaching Douglass to read. He forbids her to give any further instruction, telling him that slaves "should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do." He continues his explanation: "If you teach [Douglass] to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master." It is these words that stir things within Douglass that he realizes have lain "slumbering." He finally is able to voice something he has felt all along: By keeping slaves from an education, white men are able to better keep them in slavery. No longer "slumbering," Douglass realizes his new mission: learning to read.

After a battle with Mr. Covey, Douglass uses this metaphor:

It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom . . .

This image of giving life to a dying fire is powerful in showing how Douglass is regaining his sense of self and purpose in chapter 10. Later in that same paragraph, he notes,

It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.

This allusion to the Biblical ascension of Christ straight from the tomb into heaven is also a metaphor for Douglass's own feelings of power. He sees that he can overcome his situation even though he has felt dead in his tombs of slavery for years.

The description of Mr. Severe in chapter 2 has alliteration:

His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy.

This repetition reinforces both the physical and the mental sufferings the slaves on this plantation endure under Mr. Severe.

Douglass's writing is rich in literary elements, and they all combine to create an effectively compelling narrative.

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Douglass uses literary devices, including imagery, to convey the cruelty of slavery to the reader. For example, he writes of his aunt's whipping, emphasizing the sounds of her pain, "The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest." Using imagery, he conveys the sounds she makes, including her screams, as she is brutally whipped by the overseer. He also includes the sight of her blood, another example of imagery: "soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor." These examples of imagery emphasize her pain and the harshness of her treatment and make these images more vivid to the reader. 

Douglass personifies spirituals, the songs slaves sing, in the following passage: "They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension." He imbues the songs with the ability to convey the cruelty of slavery. Using figurative language, he writes of the spirituals, "The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears." In this simile, he compares the relief of singing to the relief of crying. He also uses simile to describe the cruelty of his overseer, Mr. Gore. Douglass writes, "He was, in a word, a man of the most inflexible firmness and stone-like coolness." In this simile, Douglass compares Gore's cruelty to the hardness of a stone. This type of figurative language emphasizes the cruelty of slavery and the people who enforce it. 

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Like any good author, Frederick Douglass uses a variety of literary devices to make his experiences vivid to his readers.

Here are some examples of Douglass's use of these devices, all from the first two chapters of hisNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave:

*SIMILE (comparison that uses the words "like" or "as":

slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs...

*METAPHOR (comparison without using the words "like" or "as"):

Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster [He was not literally a monster, but behaved like a monster].

No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. [His heart was not actually made of iron; it was unfeeling, just as iron cannot feel emotion.]


*PERSONIFICATION (human characteristics are given to inaminate objects):

soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. [A shriek is merely a set of sound waves, and thus cannot rend--tear--a heart; the author is describing the shiek as if it were a surgeon with a knife who is cutting open a heart.]

 the jaws of slavery [slavery is compared to the biting jaws of a cruel person or vicious animal]

ALLITERATION (the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginnings of words):

they were tones LOUD, LONG, and deep

they BREATHED prayer and complaint of souls BOILING over with the BITTERIST anguish.



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