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Slavery's Dehumanizing Effects In The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass--with A Free Essay Review

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass presents an insight into the power imbalance between a slave and a slaveholder. In this account, Douglass proves that slavery destroys not only the slave but also the owner. The “poison of irresponsible power” that the masters hold has a detrimental and dehumanizing effect on their morals and beliefs (Douglass 39). This immense control in the hands of one breaks the kindest heart and finest feelings turning them into those of a demon. Douglass uses flashback , deep characterization, and appeals to the emotions to address the negative effects of slavery.

Douglass recounts his own parentage to show the hardships faced when a master plays the role of a father. He explains that the wicked desires of the owner destroy the lives of his children. “The master is forced to sell his mulatto children or constantly whip them out of deference to the feelings of his white wife“ (Douglass 17). This situation breaks the humanity of a white father and he is forced to break the unity of the family for himself and his mulatto children. Thus the existence of white fathers only proves worse for the slaveholder causing him to be cruel and resentful toward his slave children.

Next, Douglass uses deep characterization to show the transformation of behavior among slaveholders who hold corrupt power. One character is Sophia Auld, Hugh Auld’s wife. Before slavery took its complete effect, she was a sympathetic and kind woman who understood moral righteousness. However, recognizing “ the white man’s power to enslave the black man,” she transformed into an evil slave owner (Douglass 40). “The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work”(Douglass 39). Another example is Thomas Auld. Having come into possession of his slaves through marriage, he was not used to the power and responsibility of holding slaves. The possession of authority transformed him into a cruel and inhumane man who found religious sanction and support for his savage barbarity. The alteration of kind to cruel is an important component to prove the dehumanizing effects of slavery on slaveholders. This characterization provides a powerful argument against the negative effects of slavery.

Finally, Douglass appeals to the emotions through the use of imagery to show the full effect of slavery on the slaveholder. He gives vivid descriptions of the fiendish barbarity that overcomes the masters when using the heavy cowskin. “I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release” (Douglass 23). This is just one example of the cruelty and profanity that takes place among the slaves of the field. This barbarity that overcomes the masters in another testimony against slavery (Douglass 25).

Through his analysis, Douglass effectively proves that slavery has a soul-killing effect on the slaveholders. Through the use of flashback, characterization, and imagery he effectively persuades the reader that slavery is contrary to the laws of nature. His vivid language and insights into the power imbalance between a slave and a slaveholder disregards slavery as a feasible social establishment. Douglass implies that slaveholding fills the souls with bitter anguish and brings ineffable sadness to a man’s heart. His success in addressing the detrimental effects of slavery on the masters makes one rethink his moral righteousness and better understand the laws of humanity versus the severe barbarity displayed in the text. Finally Douglass brings to the point the value of freedom and justice that one rightfully possesses which another does not have the authority to rule over.

Essay Review

This is an intelligent, well-written essay, so I will be focusing here on a fairly high-level problem to do with emphasis and organization.

The organization of the essay is fairly typical of good college essays, but it is still a bit clumsy and misleading. The arguments of the three body paragraphs (2, 3, and 4) are connected only loosely by your focus on Douglass’ argumentative and rhetorical strategy: paragraph 2 deals with historical reflection as a strategy, paragraph 3 with “deep characterization,” and paragraph 4 with pathos. Doubtless you have been asked to discuss the way in which Douglass achieves his effects, and perhaps you have been given a template for the body paragraphs (in which case, you might consider this complaint moot), but in my view the focus here ought to be on the central argument of the Narrative, the different aspects of that argument should be the focus of the body paragraphs, and the transitions between paragraphs should be designed to indicate the logical progression of that argument. (The transitions at the moment are merely numerically sequential, not logically sequential: First, he uses strategy A; Next, he also uses strategy B; Finally, he also uses strategy C.)

If you want to revise the essay along these lines, start by deleting the last sentence of the first paragraph, the sentence that shifts the focus of your essay from what Douglass is doing (which is what every other sentence in the first paragraph eloquently articulates) to how he does it.

If you don’t delete that sentence, then following the organization of the essay as a whole, the ostensible argument of paragraph 2 is that Douglass “uses flashback” to reveal “the negative effects of slavery.” In that case, it makes sense to begin paragraph 2 with “Douglass recounts his parentage to show...” The problem is that such a claim is true only in a very trivial sense. Douglass is not so much using flashbacks to make an argument as he is analysing the nature of slavery and its effect by interpreting history. Of course that leads to a specific argument, and part of that argument is indeed that slaveholding hardens the heart of the slaveholder. (There’s a quotation to that effect, if I recall correctly, about his own slavemaster in the first chapter). That argument is rooted in Douglass own interpretation of human nature: the slave holder is not innately evil; instead the very practice of holding slaves hardens his heart (there are potentially relevant biblical echoes in the sentiment about the hardening of the heart). To say that he is using flashback to show this is to emphasize what is least important. What’s important is that he is both telling a story and telling us how to interpret it. He doesn’t want us to hate the slave master, he wants us to hate slavery. I say this as though I’m telling you something, but obviously you know it already. It’s the insight that makes up the bulk of your essay.

Now the same point, roughly, can be made about your claim concerning the use of deep characterization, although the point is a little more subtle. I’ll put it as directly as I can: Douglass doesn’t use deep characterization to reveal the impact of slave holding on the slave owners, he deeply analyzes character to come to an interesting conclusion about that impact. You tend to read the Narrative as though it were a novel, and the author has decided that deploying certain narrative techniques and constructing complex characters would be a good way to make a point. But above all the Narrative is, well, a narrative. Douglass narrates events. And there are whole sections of the Narrative in which he appears to be doing this in the relatively disinterested manner of a historical chronicler. Indeed, why not just say, “Douglass tells us what happened to make his point”? Well, obviously, because that would be trivial too. The important point is that the Narrative, as you recognize, is also a critical analysis. So when it comes to characters, I would suggest that the author is dissecting them, not constructing them. It appears to be like novelistic characterization because the characters, according to his interpretation of them, are complex.

The strength of your essay is your realization of what is most important in terms of the content of the Narrative, its deep understanding of the negative impact of slavery beyond the cruelty exacted upon the slaves themselves. In your final paragraph you say this:

“In analysis, Douglass effectively proves that slavery has a soul-killing effect on the slaveholders. Through the use of flashback, characterization, and imagery he effectively persuades the reader that slavery is contrary to the laws of nature.”.

I find the first of these two sentences true and insightful. I find the second partially true and trivial. What’s missing for me from your essay is an articulation of the link between the two. The link, however, is obvious. The Narrative is also, and in my view mostly, persuasive largely because it offers a compelling analysis.

Before I go, let me just note that my criticism of your essay is also in a sense trivial. The essay is insightful, and I am merely objecting to the manner in which its major insights are hidden behind a relatively superficial study of the book’s rhetoric.

Best wishes, EJ
Submitted by: anon


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August,12 2011

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