The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

by Gustavas Vassa

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Why does Equiano tell the story of two brothers in the final paragraph of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, the African? How does it exemplify rhetoric and relate to the rhetorical question at the end?

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In his autobiography, Olaudah Equiano includes the story about the brothers to call attention to the devastating effects of enslavement through separating families. The passage is an example of rhetoric because the author’s intent is persuasive. The primary rhetorical devices he employs are the rhetorical question and repetition. By posing numerous rhetorical questions, Equiano retains the reader’s attention and encourages them to confront numerous, distinct aspects of a practice he regards as inhumane.

Equiano explains that when people are sold into slavery, relatives are separated and lose hope of ever being reunited. He specifically mentions several brothers who traveled on the ship with him and “were sold in different lots.” He further recounts how moved he was when heard them cry out upon being separated.

Equiano next uses apostrophe, or direct address, in speaking to “nominal Christians,” or those in name only. After gaining the reader’s attention, he employs a series of rhetorical questions—those that have an obvious answer that fits with the author’s goals or are intended to provoke an argument. As the questions build in emotional intensity, all are designed to create empathetic responses in the reader and to encourage them to denounce slavery for its inhumane “avarice.” The sequence culminates with Equiano’s argument that the practice of separating families constitutes “a new refinement in cruelty.”

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