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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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Does Frederick Douglass use figurative language in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave?

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Douglass does use a range of figurative language devices throughout his writing. In the first quotation below, for example, Douglass uses a series of vivid metaphors to compare the plight of a slave with the plight of a free man.

"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I...

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Douglass does use a range of figurative language devices throughout his writing. In the first quotation below, for example, Douglass uses a series of vivid metaphors to compare the plight of a slave with the plight of a free man.

"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free!" (49)

When Douglass writes that he is "fast in (his) chains" and "confined in bands of iron," he means this both literally and figuratively. As a slave, he would have been often in chains and bands of the literal, physical kind. He also would have been in metaphorical chains and bands at all times. In other words, as a slave, he would never be free to move as he might want to move. He would always be bound by his status as a slave. Douglass also describes the free men in metaphorical terms as "swift-winged angels." This suggests, by contrast, that the slave is confined to the earth, or, taken further, to hell, where the slave languishes and toils without the freedom to fly.

In the second quotation (below), Douglass uses personification as well as a metaphor and a simile to describe his own attitude towards his slavery.

"From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom." (75)

The personification of slavery "hold(ing)" him "within its foul embrace" first of all emphasizes the strength, or the power, of the institution of slavery. Writing about it as if it were a person allows the reader to better imagine how it must have felt to be the victim of that power. We can all easily imagine what it is like to be held too tightly or crushed by another person. Douglass also uses a metaphor when he describes a "living world of faith and spirit of hope (that) departed not" from him. This gives the impression that Douglass has the strength of a whole world to draw upon in his fight against slavery, and the metaphor of a different world within him points to how much strength he had, and needed. Douglass describes the hope from this world with the simile, "like ministering angels." This simile suggests the therapeutic power of the world Douglass imagines within himself. Angels are also thought of as protective and as of agents of God, so using this simile helps the reader to understand how much protection Douglass needed.

In the third quotation (below), Douglass uses imagery of fire and darkness along with animalistic imagery to convey the impact that the life of a slave had upon him.

"I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!" (105)

In this quotation, Douglass refers to his spirit, crushed by slavery, as "a spark" that "died." A "spark" suggests that his spirit used to be a fire (connoting passion and vitality), and the fact that slavery reduced the fire to a solitary spark and then killed even that emphasizes how slavery can quench, or suffocate, the spirit of the individual. Douglass also employs animalistic imagery when he refers to himself, transformed by slavery, as "a brute." A "brute" connotes a savage, wild animal, and this imagery again emphasizes the idea that slavery, in quenching the fire of the human spirit, reduces the human to an animal.

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Douglass uses figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in his narrative. For example, he writes the following about the way slaves try to win favor with their overseers:

The competitors for this office sought as diligently to please their overseers, as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people. The same traits of character might be seen in Colonel Lloyd's slaves, as are seen in the slaves of the political parties.

Using a simile, he likens slaves trying to curry favor with their overseers to politicians trying to win election. He finds that both types of people are deceitful and are enslaved to false ideals.

He compares the mournful singing of a slaves to the way a castaway on a deserted island might sing to content himself in the following excerpt:

The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.

In this simile, he compares the sorrow of a slave to that of a castaway and writes that they sing for the same reason—out of sadness rather than out of celebration. While some think that slaves sing out of contentment, Douglass writes that slaves sing out of sorrow.

In another striking example, Douglass compares his faith that he will one day be freed from slavery to that of angels ministering directly to him. He writes:

I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom.

His faith becomes like angels whispering in his ear and cheering him on to persist through the horrors of slavery because he is sure that one day he will be free.

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In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass uses much figurative language as part of his rhetorical strategy to deliver his message to the reader.  Midway through his Narrative, Douglass makes an apostrophe to the ships on the Chesapeake Bay.  In the apostrophe, Douglass praises the metaphorical sense of freedom that the ships apparently have, and he talks about how they sail in and out of the area without boundaries.  Figuratively speaking, Douglass likens his own dreams to the ships, and he is able to say that he wishes for his own freedom--he wants to be like the boats and have the ability to move about to follow his own desires.  There is great irony in this passage containing the apostrophe:  the inanimate boats have a freedom that a living, breathing man does not.  Douglass uses this comparison as a rhetorical strategy to criticize the institution of slavery.

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After teaching himself to write, Frederick Douglass became as master at creating a spellbinding story, full of persuasive techniques needed to spread awareness of the horrors of slavery and using writing techniques to hold readers's attention. He knew that figurative language would work. Here are some of the examples from his narrative:

When describing his own aunt's beatings, Douglass writes this:

No words, no tears, no prayers from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose.

Here, Douglass uses the metaphor of an "iron heart" to describe how unmoving and unfeeling his master was in these beatings. He continues this scene with startlingly vivid imagery:

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 overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

Douglas wants the reader to wince at this imagery. He wants this to be so uncomfortable for the reader that he or she is compelled to demand a change in society. Douglas describes the first time he witnessed a beating this way:

It was a blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery . . .

Again, Douglass uses the metaphor of a "blood-stained gate" as a comparison to describe the horrors of this experience. He goes one step further and uses the metaphor to convey that he walked through the gates of hell itself when he first witnessed a beating.

Later Douglass talks about the songs that he used to hear when he was confined in slavery, songs that "told a tale of woe beyond [his] comprehension." He uses personification in this statement:

Those songs still follow me.

Douglass says that as he still hears the echoes of these songs being sung, it forever deepens his hatred of slavery and all it represents. People long for freedom and cry out for it in their souls; the songs he can still hear tell of this desperation.

The most powerful tool that Douglass uses in his narrative is imagery, often shocking enough to make the reader cringe. Additionally, he also weaves other literary devices into his adept wording as well to craft a compelling and persuasive narrative.

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