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

by Gustavas Vassa

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Student Question

How do The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Phillis Wheatley's poems compare and contrast in terms of their literary elements?

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Context: Both Equiano and Wheatley begin their works by describing where they came from and how they were kidnapped and enslaved. They then go on to talk about their experiences of enslavement. Equiano's tone: Although he begins his work with a sense of humility, he shows a sly sense of humor in the pronouncement that he is not a saint or hero. He goes on to declare that his life is like that of many others who have been enslaved at some point in history. In an odd way, this leads him to claim that he is the recipient of divine favor ("I consider myself as a particular favorite of Heaven"). Wheatley'

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I will focus on only two works to help you get started: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) and one of Phillis Wheatley's exquisite poems, "On Being Brought from Africa to America" (1773). I will help you with context, themes, and word choice. The usage of literary devices is directly related to word choice.

Both Wheatley's poem and Equiano's narrative deal with the traumatic experience of displacement in the context of the slave trade, which involved their kidnapping and transportation to a strange land. Both Wheatley and Equiano give themselves context by discussing the place from which they came before being enslaved. They then describe how they learned to cope with a seemingly insurmountable condition and tapped into resources and talents that neither may have realized had they remained in their native lands.

Equiano's narrative starts out in the humblest of tones. He declares himself a simple man—"neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant"—and claims that he believes that "there are few incidents in [his] life, which have not happened to many." Then, rather cleverly and subversively, Equiano writes the following:

Did I consider myself an European, I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favorite of Heaven, and acknowledge the mercies of Providence in every occurrence of my life.

He embraces the gift of Christianity, which has helped him to see his good fortune in surviving, and even learning numerous languages over the course of his journey out of Guinea, but he does not identify as a European. Unlike slaves who were shipped to the Americas and robbed of their sense of history, Equiano maintains his memory of his origins. In a way, he seems to regard himself as a truer Christian, due to his firm embrace of Christian humility and avoidance of the sense of hubris that would drive Europeans to trade and enslave human beings in the first place.

Similarly, Wheatley also embraces those origins in the aforementioned poem—a fact that is declared from the outset when she identifies herself as someone who was brought from Africa to America. Like Equiano, she embraces the benefit she gained from her horrific circumstance: being converted to Christianity—a fact that has brought her peace and an ability to see her misfortune within a context that ennobles her suffering.

Wheatley ironically characterizes her kidnapping and enslavement in the context of "mercy" and describes Africa as a "pagan land." She was once a "benighted soul," but she has been "refined." Initially, one could read this as Wheatley believing that slavery was a kind of blessing in disguise. Because we have no way of knowing how Wheatley felt about her circumstances, no reading is right or wrong. I prefer to read Wheatley's account and that of Equiano as demonstrations of perseverance and the refusal to be defeated by their debasement.

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