What are the literary devices in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[This answer is in two posts...]

The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas is an authentic, factual narrative of true, unmbellished events the purpose of which is to describe an accurate picture of life as a slave in America as Mr. Douglas experienced it first-hand. Consequently, it will be rare to find the types of literary devices in it that are used in abundance in fictional works or more emotive factual narratives. The sorts of literary devices that I'm refering to, which will be rarely found in The Life of Frederick Douglas are tropes like metaphors and similes and verbal irony and sarcasm . The first th that I mention are not literal, but are figurative and are used to create strong imagery. Since Douglas is telling a non-emotive, factual account, he sticks to literal meaning of words, unless he's quoting someone who spoke figuratively.

The second two I mentioned (verbal irony and  sarcasm) make points by expressing the contrast between what is expected to be and what actually is, with sarcasm being an extreme and often insulting form of irony. These two devices are often used to conjure up a response of humor to the wit being displayed, so, again, in a strictly factual account with as high a purpose as Mr. Douglass's purpose, he will not be expected to frequently indulge in either verbal irony or sarcasm, although you may find painful ironies in situations that he narrates (a situation in which the reality is different from the expectation.) An example of situational irony, which Douglas narrates with strict seriousness, is in Chapter 2 where he writes:

There were no beds given the slaves, unless one
coarse blanket be considered such, and none but
the men and women had these. This, however, is
not considered a very great privation. They find less
difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want
of time to sleep;

There is a doubly ironic situation told of in this passage. the first relates to beds. The statement that no beds are given to slaves is poignant enough, but then Douglas adds the irony that the blankets they are given are all that can be called beds. This highlights the sorrow of the truth by showing the irony therein. He goes on to say that the slaves don't really notice the absence of beds because, ironically, they so seldom have time to sleep, again, accentuating the sorrow of their situations.

For future reference, let's define literary device. A literary device is a literary element or a literary technique. (I'm not done....) Literary devices are the tools an author uses to express his ideas through the medium of language. This is why literary devices encompass both literary elements and literary techniques. So what are literary elements? Literary elements are the large universal parts of a narrative, whether fiction of nonfiction. These large universal parts are things like theme, narrator, setting, conflict, point-of-view, structure, etc. While you look for the literary devices in Douglass's strictly factual narrative, you can look for these kinds of literary elements.

[Second post below... Also, immediately below is a link to an eNotes Study Guide on allusions in Douglass's text.]

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[Second post...]

What are literary techniques? Literary techniques are the small, individual parts of language that the author chooses to uses in order to express the meaning of his work. Please take note that an author deliberately chooses which literary techniques to use whereas literary elements are universal to all works and therefore not chosen. some literary elements that an author might choose, in addition to the four mentioned earlier, are analogy, hyperbole, alliteration, allusion, idiom, motif, foreshadowing, paradox, symbols, tone, mood and many others. An example of the choice of a literary technique (which you remember is one of the two categories of literary device) is evident in the passage we quoted and discussed above. Douglas chooses an ironic tone of authorial voice for the passage. He might have written this: "They were not given beds but only blankets. This was not a large problem to them because they were not given much time for sleep." Perhaps you can see that my version is much more direct and doesn't have the hidden punch of the ironic tone, which causes a mental double-take, Douglas wrote in. His is something more like this very different double-take example: "He didn't have dessert, unless a triple banana split can be called dessert."

So these are all the kinds of literary devices to look for in The Life of Frederick Douglas: large universal elements; analogy like in Chapter 1 where "as" is used as an adverb to set up a comparison around the adjective "little", which is an analogy rather than a simile, in the sentence, "By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs" where Douglas makes an analogy between two things; ironic tone; paradox (something that can't be true is true: the white swan was black (a cugnet (baby swan) is black); mood; motif; allusion and idioms in remarks that Douglas may quote, etc.

[Below are eNotes Study Guide links and a reliable link to a comprehensive glossary of literary terms that define literary elements and literary techniques,]

James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I stand corrected and agree that "analogy" is probably a better term than "simile" (although I'm not sure the distinction between the two is all that clear, particularly when the comparison is brief), but I don't agree with the statement that Douglass' account is likely to make only rare use of literary devices.

Douglass' work was written not just as a historical record; it was an anti-slavery tract and is full of passion and all sorts of non-literal applications of language. In Chapter IV, for example, he describes the changes in the attitude of a woman who had previously been teaching him to read and write:

But, alas! this kind heart had but a short time to remain such. The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.

In this passage, I see metaphor and alliteration all over the place as well as metonymy (where "heart," "hands," "eye," "voice," and "face" all work as parts of the whole unnamed noun "woman").

teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Frederick Douglass uses several types of figurative language in his narrative one of which is allusion.  Specifically, Douglass makes many Biblical allusions in the narrative to question the interpretation of Biblical passages in their support of slavery.  Early in the narrative, Douglass discusses the phenomenon of slaves multiplying on plantations because masters had gotten into the habit of having intercourse with their female slaves.  Douglass says that if nothing else, the new class of biracial people "will do away with the force of the argument, that God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right."  Douglass makes an allusion to the passage in the Bible where Ham is cursed for seeing his father naked.  It had been a widely held belief that Africans and other black people are the decendents of Ham, which was therefore used as a justification for enslaving them.  Douglass, however, challenges this idea by stating that many slaves were the decendents of white overseers.  His challenge reveals the deeper meaning regarding the false justification of slavery and the moral ills that support the institution.

James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a big task, of course, as there are 11 chapters to Frederick Douglass' slave narrative. I'll gladly get you started, though.

The third sentence in Chapter 1 begins: "By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs..." This sentence contains a simile; slaves are likened to horses, using the word "as".

In case you don't already have a list of literary devices. you might want to review one or two. I've identified two such lists (see the links below), but you can no doubt find others!

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