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

by Gustavas Vassa

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How does Olaudah Equiano use language to demonstrate his purpose in "The Interesting Narrative"?

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The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano is an early example of an antislavery narrative, one which circulated among abolitionists and opponents of the slavery trade in the Atlantic World during the early nineteenth century. Therefore he uses evocative language to illustrate the horrors of the slave trade and of slavery itself.

The book is full of examples of this. Early in his account of his kidnapping by Europeans, he notes that he believed that the "white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair" planned to eat him. He describes the "brutal cruelty" of the slavers, even toward some of their own crew. Like others who endured the horrors of the Middle Passage, he remembers the "loathsome smells" belowdecks and is haunted by the "shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying," even recounting young children falling into troughs of filth. He wrote of a young woman whose face was covered with a bizarre iron mask that kept her from eating or drinking, and throughout, observed men, women, and children being savagely beaten by enslavers. This evocative language, of course, deliberately tugs on the heartstrings of the reader, and is intended to point out the contradictions between slavery and Christianity:

O, ye nominal Christians! might not an African ask you, learned you this from your God, who says unto you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?

Like many other slave narratives, the Interesting Narrative underscores the fundamentally dehumanizing nature of slavery and the slave trade more specifically. Precisely because of this imagery, and Equiano's skill as a writer, contemporary readers found his Narrative to be persuasive and profoundly moving.

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Olaudah Equiano's language is very learned and eloquent. For example, he writes of his countrymen, "Our manner of living is entirely plain; for as yet the natives are unacquainted with those refinements in cookery which debauch the taste." His purpose is to show that he, a former slave, is capable of being not only a human on a par with whites but someone who is also capable of fine expression and sophisticated thoughts. He writes in the manner of an educated European, and his purpose is to show a white audience that slaves are human and therefore do not deserve to be subjected to slavery.

In addition, Equiano writes a letter to the British House of Parliament to introduce them to his narrative. In his letter, he explains that he was ripped away from his homeland, but he also states: "I ought to regard [this experience] as infinitely more than compensated by the introduction I have thence obtained to the knowledge of the Christian religion." In other words, he states that his experience being parted from his loved ones was compensated for by being introduced to Christianity. He writes in the language of a Christian and appeals to his audience as a fellow believer. 

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Olaudah Equiano's purpose for writing his narrative was to tell the truth of conditions of life for slaves, particularly in crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

In order to achieve this purpose, Equiano used particularly vivid descriptions and sensory details for just about every sense.

The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself,almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.

Some of the sensory details in this passage include that relate to the sense of smell include the stench of the hold, the air became unfit for respiration, and a variety of loathsome smells. Details relating to feeling include galling of the chains, almost suffocated, heat of the climate, and so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself. The last sentence of the passage offers two hearing details. The bold statement offers the visual sense. All these descriptors fall under the literary device imagery.

The diction Equiano chooses to use further specifies the pain these people endured. Words like horror, skrieks, pestilential, and loathsome paint the dire scene that they lived through.

He further develops this scene by blaming these indecent acts on the improvident avarice of the slave traders. This essentially means that they were greedy and their greed created a short-sightedness in them. Had they planned to sell all of these people, they might have taken some precautions to make sure that they would survive the trip across the ocean. This greed can certainly be seen as a theme throughout his entire narrative.

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