(Novels for Students)

Freedom and Imprisonment
From the very beginning of The Slave Dancer, themes of imprisonment and escape run through the book. In the opening chapter, Jessie and his family live in one tiny room, little more than a cell, with a few meager possessions, and Jessie feels crowded there, particularly in bad weather: "I hated the fog," he says. "It made me a prisoner." When he visits his Aunt Agatha to ask for a few candles, he is ordered about like a prisoner: "'Don't walk there!' she would cry. 'Take your huge feet off that carpet! Watch the chair—it'll fall!"'

Soon after this visit to his aunt, Jessie is captured and taken to the slave ship—a fate that will soon be paralleled in the fates of the slaves he must play his fife for. Like them, he is beaten; like them, he eats horrible food; like them, he has no option for escape other than jumping over the side and drowning. However, no matter how much he suffers, their suffering is always worse, a fact of which he is always aware.

The sailor Purvis, whose parents came from Ireland under conditions similar to those of the slaves, resents any pity Jessie feels for the slaves, because somehow, to him, it dishonors his parents' suffering when anyone cares about how the Africans are treated.

Jessie's physical imprisonment is bad enough, but Fox also shows how he becomes mentally imprisoned—how, from feeling sorry for the slaves, Jessie enters a time when he hates them—for they are the reason he was taken from his home, the reason for his own servitude on the ship. Also, as David Rees noted in The Marble in the Water, Jessie, after being abused by the crew, briefly becomes one of them, one of the abusers. He is only woken from this terrible state of mind by a beating.
Although the sailors are technically free men, they are not mentally free: limited by their lack of education and their brutally difficult lives, they can only muster up compassion for the slaves for a short time, and only when the voyage is going well. Some, such as Nicholas Spark and Ben Stout, never do; Stout is described as "dead," in an emotional or spiritual sense, and Jessie says that Spark is "entirely brainless and evil only in the way that certain plants are poisonous": he is mindlessly, ruthlessly evil, not even human.

Even after Jessie returns home, he is never completely free again. He has been deeply marked by his experiences and they shape everything he does, from his choice of a career, to his decision to move to Rhode Island, and his fighting for the North in...

(The entire section is 1048 words.)