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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 265

Themes in "The Old Man Slave and the Mastiff" include memory, freedom, and oppression.

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Oppression is a major theme in the story, which opens with a group of slaves being delivered to their new master. Accompanying them is a large mastiff the slave owner purchased to help keep his slaves under control. Even though the mastiff is a terrifying figure who controls the slaves, he also suffers some of the same oppression as the slaves. He isn't free, he came on the same ship and suffered the same physical injuries that they did, and he lives at the whim of the master.

Memory is another important theme in the story. The old man slave represses his memories because that's what allows him to stay docile and survive life on the sugarcane plantation. However, the arrival of the mastiff makes it more and more difficult for him to ignore the surges of his memory. When they're too strong to ignore, he decides that he has to flee the plantation, despite the many people who had done it before having been caught and punished.

Freedom is another theme in the story. The old man slave escapes the master and the mastiff at the end to gain his freedom, but there's no indication of what that means for him in the physical world. The reader can't know where he's going or what will happen when he gets there. However, spiritually speaking, the old man has gained his identity and life back when he escapes from the master. His freedom is worth risking everything to him—including his life.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

On the surface, “The Old Man Slave and the Mastiff” is a realistic depiction of the horrors and cruelties of slavery as practiced in the Americas, specifically on Caribbean plantations. The story briefly describes conditions on slave ships and shows the daily life on a sugar plantation, particularly the fear and intimidation by which the Master and his commanders rule. They control the slaves by such techniques as using dogs, making examples of runaways, throwing hot pepper sauce into inflicted wounds, and allowing the slaves to vent their resentments and other feelings harmlessly via dancing, drumming, and storytelling in the evening.

However, another level of meaning exists in the psychological warfare going on between the slaves and the master and his commanders. The evening’s dancing, drumming, and storytelling reveal a hidden substratum of slave life, an undercurrent of raw emotional energy that sometimes breaks out in individual surges and could erupt in mass rebellion. At any moment, the balance of power could shift. The Master and his commanders recognize this and try to prevent a revolt by maintaining tight control, although their harsh control just fuels the slaves’ repressed feelings.

It is this psychological current of energy that the old man slave controls. As a result of his long experience as a slave, he has gained power over this current and maintains control almost instinctively, without being fully conscious of it. However, while hiding...

(The entire section contains 778 words.)

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