The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African Critical Essays

Gustavas Vassa


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The long personal story of Olaudah Equiano established the slave-narrative genre in literature. Equiano takes the form of the spiritual autobiography that Saint Augustine used in his fifth century religious conversion work Confessiones (c. 400; Confessions) and adds to its pattern a new dimension—that of social protest. The spiritual conversion account follows a three-part structure in describing a life of sin, a conversion experience, and the emergence of a new religious identity. Equiano relates his spiritual undertaking in that manner, but he also parallels his battle to free himself from a life of sin with his struggle to escape from the physical bonds of slavery.

The prose style of The Life of Olaudah Equiano alternates between a florid, lofty tone typical of many eighteenth century works and a plain and graphic manner of writing. The latter style is the one Equiano uses effectively to describe his personal experiences and dangerous adventures.

Equiano presents himself in the early part of his narrative as a picaresque figure who is both fearful of and awe-stricken by the technical marvels of the white world. He allows himself to enter into the cultural life of the West, but he never becomes blind to the defects of that world. His personal experience with slavery and his fond, vivid memories of his African homeland impel him to reveal the truth about the evils of human bondage and to give an accurate account of the laws, religion, and customs of the African society.

In a remarkable manner, Equiano also presents himself in his work as an enterprising and heroic character. He relates how he labors hard after his slave duties are done so that he can save funds to buy his freedom. This act, of course, is important to Equiano, and he shows this by including his manumission paper in the middle portion of his...

(The entire section is 770 words.)