Frederick Douglass

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Examples of Douglass's use of sentimentalism and emotional manipulation in his Narrative

Summary:

In his Narrative, Douglass uses sentimentalism and emotional manipulation by vividly describing the brutal treatment of slaves, such as the whipping of his Aunt Hester. These emotional appeals aim to elicit sympathy and outrage from readers, highlighting the inhumanity of slavery and fostering a deeper emotional connection to the plight of the enslaved.

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Can you identify two examples where Douglass uses sentimentalism and emotional manipulation?

Firstly, I must say that I do not agree with the notion that Douglass uses "emotional manipulation" to convince his readers of the obvious evils of slavery. "Persuasion" would have been a better word for your instructor to use.

That said, sentimentalism was a very common rhetorical strategy during the nineteenth century, used by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin and later, by Douglass, in his short story "The Heroic Slave," a fictional rendering of the story of the slave insurrection led by Madison Washington on-board the Creole.

In his autobiography, to which I assume you are referring, you could argue that Douglass uses sentimentalism to talk about his departure from Colonel Lloyd's plantation. He finishes Chapter V by acknowledging the reader's suspicion that he might be "superstitious" and "even egotistical" for believing that God intervened in his favor, so that he would be chosen among all of the other children on the plantation to leave. In fact, he says that he "should be false to the earliest sentiments of [his] soul, if [he] suppressed the opinion."

Sentimentalism, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, is the quality or state of being defined by feeling, sensibility, or emotional idealism. The philosophy of moral sentimentalism, which may have guided abolitionist principles, is to use feeling and sensibility to guide conduct. However, what Douglass seeks is not simply feeling from the reader, but feeling as a guide toward empathy. For this reason, it is not manipulation, word which suggest malicious intent or exploitation, but persuasion that he employs, which helps people who are otherwise very distant from the problem of slavery to understand how it feels to be owned, to be abused, to be starved, to go without clothes in winter, all of which Douglass describes. By narrating his relief about being sold to the Aulds, he helps the reader feel what it is like to be rescued, in a sense, as well as to understand his faith in God. Very often, in sentimental writing, the narrator directly addresses the reader. Douglass does this in the passage at the end of Chapter V.

In another instance, in Chapter VII, he talks about the impact of literature on his understanding of his condition. He mentions "The Columbian Orator," a book edited by Caleb Bingham (not to be confused with the painter George Caleb Bingham) that was used to teach children public speaking. In it was a dialogue between a master and a slave. He also discovered Irish dramatist Richard Sheridan's speeches on behalf of Catholic emancipation.

Reading gave him perspective but, as his master had predicted, it also "[torments] and [stings his] soul to unutterable anguish." Thinking became his torment and his knowledge and analytical ability became inextricable from his senses. He heard freedom "in every sound" and saw it "in every thing":

I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

Here, he is employing the sensibility common to sentimental literature, as well as the use of nature as a motif. Douglass also draws a connection between freedom and nature to suggest that freedom is natural, while the state of bondage is unnatural.

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Can you identify two examples where Douglass uses sentimentalism and emotional manipulation?

I would argue that the whole first page or so of Frederick Douglass's autobiography uses sentimentalism and tries to manipulate the reader emotionally.  This book is meant to try to persuade readers that slavery is bad and naturally Douglass wants to use examples that will touch readers emotionally.

Douglass starts off by talking about how he did not know when his birthday was.  This appeals to our emotions because birthdays are such a special day for people.  It makes us feel very sorry for him.

So does his next example of how slaves are abused.  He says that babies were typically taken from their mothers before they were even a year old.  This is the ultimate in something that would appeal to our emotions.

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Can you provide two examples where Douglass uses sentimentalism or emotion to manipulate readers in his Narrative?

One example in which Douglass appeals to sentiment and emotion is in the first chapter. In this excerpt, he speaks about being separated from his mother at a young age. He writes:

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.

His parting from his mother is tragic, and his retelling of this separation is intended to point out the evils of slavery to the white readership of his book. His appeal to sentiment is intended to convince the reader of the evils of slavery, which includes the practice of tearing vulnerable children from their mothers at a young age.

Later, in chapter 10, Douglass discusses the harsh treatment he receives as a field hand under the barbaric Mr. Covey. When Douglass is in chains, he is within sight of the Chesapeake Bay, and he sees the sailboats in the bay. He writes of this sight: "You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!" He addresses the sailboats as if they are people and remarks that they are freer than he is. This is an emotional scene in which Douglass notes the ironic that sailboats are freer than he is. This scene, which is beautifully and lyrically written, is also intended to manipulate the emotions of the reader and convince the reader of the evils of slavery.

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Can you provide two examples where Douglass uses sentimentalism or emotion to manipulate readers in his Narrative?

Early in the narrative, Douglass described his Aunt Hester being cruelly whipped and his own terror as a seven year old who happened to be at the scene. He uses details to describe the violence in a way that raises the reader's emotion of horror against the evils of slaveowners having so much power over other human beings. After witnessing part of it, such as seeing her aunt's hands bound over her head, seeing the blood running down her bare back, and hearing her screams, he sneaks off. He wants to manipulate the reader's emotions, especially through choosing to show a woman (rather than a man) whipped and its effects on an innocent child. He is emotional as he writes:

I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.

Douglass expresses sentiment too when he discusses the woeful lamenting that characterizes the song of the slave:

Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. The mere recurrence to those songs, even now, afflicts me; and while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek.

The adult Douglass cries as he remembers the slave's singing. In this case, he wants to most strongly to state that the songs the slaves sang were not happy because, as he mentions, the singing of the slaves was often used by whites to argue that the slaves were happy. Douglass wants the reader to know that these songs expressed anguish and pain, never joy.

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Can you provide two examples where Douglass uses sentimentalism or emotion to manipulate readers in his Narrative?

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass uses emotional manipulation on a few occasions to affect his reading audience.  First, Douglass makes an apostrophe to the passing ships in Baltimore.  He compares his life to the "lives" of the ships, stating that the ships are free while he remains in bondage.  The apostrophe has a tone of remorse as Douglass makes a bid for freedom. 

In another part of the narrative, Douglass tells the reader about his grandmother and how she was expelled from the plantation and sent to live in a house by herself in the woods.  Douglass laments this treatment of his grandmother, a woman who spent her entire life rearing the slave children on the plantation only to be sent out into the wilderness to starve to death. 

These two passages present a shift in tone from the majority of the narrative which is written in a more objective tone and style.  The apostrophe to the ships and the description of Douglass's grandmother grab the hearts of the reading audience and sway favor for Douglass as the narrator.

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