The prominence given to Emily Cartwright, whose story opens and closes the novel, should not draw attention away from the character for whom Cambridge is named. Cambridge earns his central status in the novel by virtue of having experienced what Emily can hardly conceive. His comparatively brief testimony, which is offered to readers after, and possibly as an antidote to, his trial for the murder of Brown, recounts in pitiable terms a saga of deprivation and manipulation that is more compelling for its cultural and psychological effects than for its physical details. Cambridge’s testament acts as a legend of the various effects that slavery has upon the spirit. It is these that the novel memorializes in its title.
The crucial feature of Cambridge’s experience is that he is unable to consider himself a slave. Many of his experiences after his initial enslavement contribute to this inability. The story of his acculturation in England, and his complete identification with Christianity, the principal means of such an adaptation, may perhaps be considered a satire on the hypocrisy of articulating a doctrine of charity in an age when economic welfare depended on kidnapping and exploitation. On the other hand, the legitimacy of Cambridge’s voice in his own story depends on an appreciation of his desire for faith and for the ratification of identity that espousing the faith of his masters provided. The subsequent revelation of the vulnerability of rectitude, and of the frailty of an assumed identity, contributes significantly to the sealing of Cambridge’s fate.
A comparable combination of vulnerability and properness undoes Emily Cartwright. Her inability to identify completely with either the world of the slaves or the world of their owners, and her inconsistent though quite understandable alienation from both, result in her eventually becoming merely an embodiment of her own powerlessness. The moral...
(The entire section is 791 words.)