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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
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What are some literary devices from the book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

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In his narrative, Douglass's intent is to convince white audiences of the horrors and evil of slavery. He uses literary devices to convey the inhumanity of an institution in which one group of people has total power over another. These devices include imagery, point-of-view, and dichotomy ....

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In his narrative, Douglass's intent is to convince white audiences of the horrors and evil of slavery. He uses literary devices to convey the inhumanity of an institution in which one group of people has total power over another. These devices include imagery, point-of-view, and dichotomy.   

Douglass uses vivid imagery to convey to his audience the reality of the life of a slave. He doesn't just state that slaves were whipped: he describes it using sensory details so that readers can feel the pain and humiliation of the slave. He writes:

I have seen Colonel Lloyd make old Barney, a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time.

Douglass always tells his story from the point-of-view of the slaves, and he uses this technique to dispel comforting myths that whites tell themselves about slavery not being so bad. For example, he writes in chapter two that while whites interpret slaves singing as a sign they are happy with their lot, to the slave, the opposite is true: slaves sing to express that they are distressed. He writes that the songs:

breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains

In chapter three, Douglass again uses point-of-view to tell the story of a slave who was sold down river to Georgia when he inadvertently complained about his situation to Colonel Lloyd, a master he had never met because Lloyd owned so many slaves. This is why, Douglass says, slaves will pretend to whites they are happy. He writes:

It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. 

Douglass also uses the literary device of dichotomy to draw a distinction between the natural behaviors of humans to one another and the distorting and corrupting effect racism has on those. For example, when he arrives in Baltimore in chapter six, he describes the kindness and humanity that his owner's wife, Mrs. Auld, shows to him and the other slaves at first, allowing them to look her in the face without cringing servility. She even begins to teach Frederick how to read. However, after her husband starts to indoctrinate her on the role of the slave and how damaging it is to teach them anything, she changes almost into another person and becomes haughty and cruel. Douglass uses this device to show that the abuse with which slaves are treated is not natural but socially constructed. 

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Literary devices is a broad category, but some examples are figurative language such as similes, metaphors and personification and rhetorical devices such as repetition and apostrophe.   Douglass is very descriptive, and it does not take much to locate these examples.

Douglass uses figurative language often, to really help the horrors of slavery hit home.  For example, he describes the overseer as having “stone-like coolness” (ch 4, p. 12).

In chapter 5, Douglass talks about the impact of going to Baltimore on his life by saying if he had not been removed from the plantation he would have “been confined in the galling chains of slavery” (ch 5, p. 15).  He uses this metaphor a lot.

In chapter 10, Douglass addresses the ships in the harbor, comparing them to his own life.  This is known as apostrophe, which is when a character talks to someone not there.

“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!” (ch 10, p. 29)

They can leave the harbor, and be free on the ocean, and he never can be free of slavery.

In this same chapter Douglass uses another device he uses frequently, repetition.

O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! ... O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! (ch 10, p. 29)

By repeating the exclamation, he really brings home his feelings and what he was thinking at the time.

Also from chapter 10 is this simile.  A simile compares two unlike things.

When I could stand no longer, I fell, and felt as if held down by an immense weight. (p. 29)

In this case, Frederick compares his body to a weight.  He has been weighed down by slavery.  He uses this language again in the same chapter.

The white men were on horseback, and the colored ones were walking behind, as if tied. (ch 10, p. 37)

In chapter 11, Douglass uses both repetition and simile to compare how he feels about people who think they understand slavery.

—in the midst of houses, yet having no home,—among fellow-men, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts ...(ch 11, p. 43)

By describing what is happening to him with literary devices, we are able to really picture what he went through.  As Douglass says, we can never really understand.  Yet his frank, honest, and precise descriptions are so vivid that he lets us into his world a little at a time, and we are grateful for it.

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