The shocking evil of slavery as an institution is a prevalent theme in this work—an evil which is intrinsic, not relative. D’Aguiar makes clear that the brutality that slavery routinely perpetrates did not stem exclusively from a master toward his slave. He tempts his reader with...
The Evil of Slavery
The shocking evil of slavery as an institution is a prevalent theme in this work—an evil which is intrinsic, not relative. D’Aguiar makes clear that the brutality that slavery routinely perpetrates did not stem exclusively from a master toward his slave. He tempts his reader with false hope when he details an agreement between Whitechapel and his master which would save the life of the novel’s hero, but while this agreement is honored by those involved, by introducing the character of the overseer the author reminds his readers that slaves were vulnerable not only to their masters, but to all those whom slavery empowered.
The terror with which slavery compelled obedience is also shown to breed its own kind of evil, the evil of complicity. A modern reader cannot help but feel anger at the inactivity of the hundreds of slaves watching on at the brutal and protracted punishment of Chapel, yet in the graphic descriptions of this act, D’Aguiar succeeds in transmitting some of the terror that compelled such docility to his readers.
Futility of both Rebellion and Appeasement
A second key message conveyed by D’Aguiar in this work relates to the futility of a slave’s life, the way that the slave system fenced them in and denied them any means for prosperous existence. In a formal sense, D’Aguiar’s choice to frame this narrative as a memory demonstrates that its events are set in stone, that there is no possibility of reprieve for those involved. Yet even had the narrative been left in some doubt, D’Aguiar shows how all the possible responses—namely, to appease or to fight a slave master—would end in tragedy. On the one hand, Chapel is rebellious and is betrayed by the very person he harbored the most trust for, Whitechapel. On the other hand, Whitechapel himself had afforded lifelong service to his master, obeying all the conventions by which “good slaves” were defined by white slave masters; nonetheless, he is unable to save his son from his fate.
Human Capacity for Brutality and Complicity
On the whole, the language with which D’Aguiar illustrates the events of The Longest Memory is blunt and brutal, a stylistic choice that conveys the reality of life for slaves. The humanity of these characters appears in certain passages where the author undertakes soaring descriptions of the sufferings endured, in particular by the work’s protagonist, Whitechapel. Such passages create a contrast that is further born out in the work’s plot.
D’Aguiar unfurls his narrative as multiple voices, offering varying perspectives on the same incident. This technique prevents the reader from viewing the punishment of Chapel as a secret or intimate affair. They must instead view it as a more public event in which a whole community, not simply a group of onlookers, becomes complicit.
The punishment suffered by Chapel is visceral and physical in nature. It stands in sharp contrast to the young man’s humanity, the fierce intelligence and passionate emotions by which his character had been defined. The revelation that Sanders Jr. was in fact Chapel’s half-brother stands as a final testament to how, under slavery, humanity’s filial ties are overlooked, consciously or unconsciously, because of the animalistic hatred that motivates one group of human beings to dominate another.