What were the conditions in which the slave worked in "The Slave's Dream" by Longfellow?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You didn't mention which work by Longfellow you are refering to, so I assume you mean "The Slave's Dream," which is a famous poem by this poet. We can glean some ideas of the working conditions faced by the slave through an examination of the first and last stanzas, which place the slave in his unfortunate present context before the return to his homeland that his final, dying dream allows him to accomplish in the middle of the poem.

We can see from the first stanza, therefore, that the slave worked in a rice plantation harvesting rice. It was clear that he was not treated well as a slave. Note how he is described in terms of his appearance:

His breast was bear, his matted hair

Was buried in the sand.

The way in which he is presented establishes that he is not treated well. He has no shirt or top to wear and his hair is allowed to become "matted" and unkempt. In addition, the way the first line stresses the "ungathered rice" emphasises the sheer volume of work that he was expected to accomplish.

The final stanza continues to present the harsh conditions faced by this slave by making reference to the "driver's whip" and the "burning heat of day." This slave was obviously expected to work hard during the hottest parts of the day, and any tiredness would be punished by the whip of the slave driver responsible for him. Such conditions make us appreciate that the death of the slave at the end, far from being a tragedy, is actually a welcome release form someone who was so cruelly snatched from his own land and culture and made to work like a beast.

mikeeverett99 | Student

Slaves worked from the time the sun came up to when the sun went down.  Work was difficult, especially during the hot summer months.  Picking cotton was no easy task, so the slaves that were physically capable did such tasks.  As slaves aged, their duties would change to less physically demanding tasks, thus children and the elderly tended to jobs such as washing clothes and cooking food.


Living conditions were harsh to say the least.  A family would share a very small dwelling, often times without a floor, besides the dirt of the ground.

Slaves were beaten, whipped and generally treated poorly.  However, it obviously behooved the master to not beat a slave past the point of being able to work.

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