Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 513 words.)