The Life of Olaudah Equiano


Olaudah Equiano

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The Life of Olaudah Equiano: Irony 4 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Talking Book:

In Chapter 3, Equiano describes his wonder at Dick and Pascal's ability to talk to books (especially the Bible) and hear their responses. Equiano is using dramatic irony to get at the complex emotional experience he had growing up enslaved:

I had often seen my master and Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning. For that purpose I have often taken up a book, and talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.

The reader and the adult narrator both know that the books are not, in fact, talking to Dick and Pascal—at least not out loud, as the young Equiano seems to think. Coming from a society with its own technologies for communication, Equiano is unfamiliar with the concept of reading. He can nonetheless tell that, somehow, the books are communicating information to Dick and Pascal. Equiano's assumption that the others are able to hold conversations with the books is fair and reasonable. It demonstrates his innate curiosity and logical thinking. But it also demonstrates a deep sense of alienation from the others and from the books they are reading. Equiano wants to talk to books as well, and he is "very much concerned" that he can't get them to talk back to him. He seems to feel that it means there is something wrong with him.

The adult Equiano treats his younger self with compassion: of course, it is not his fault that the books would not speak back. It is endearing that he once thought they ought to. At the same time, Equiano's book is a narrative of self-development. He uses himself as an example for high-profile white readers of what a Black person can accomplish if allowed to participate in "civilization." One of the adult Equiano's proudest accomplishments is his literacy. Another is his well-researched devotion to Christian principles. Not only can he now read the Bible and other books, but he can also write about his life, his faith, and his political philosophy for European readers. Even if Equiano does not blame his younger self for misunderstanding how literacy works, he still believes that overcoming this misunderstanding is part of what has turned him into a respectable person.

Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Double Crossed:

In Chapter 4, Equiano uses dramatic irony to foreshadow his great disappointment when Pascal decides to sell him instead of freeing him. Equiano describes the misguided hope that built while he was aboard Pascal's ship:

[Pascal] even paid attention to my morals; and would never suffer me to deceive him, or tell lies, of which he used to tell me the consequences; and that if I did so, God would not love me. So that from all this tenderness I had never once supposed, in all my dreams of freedom, that he would think of detaining me any longer than I wished.

Pascal treated Equiano kindly—except, of course, for the part where he kept him legally enslaved. Equiano notes that, as he saw it at the time, Pascal even took an interest in his spiritual well-being and moral instruction. After all, why else would Pascal worry about helping Equiano retain God's love? Dramatic irony is at play here. The astute reader can see that the young Equiano is probably being manipulated. Even if Pascal does care about Equiano's morals, it is awfully convenient for him if a child he has enslaved is afraid of lying to him. Furthermore, according to Christianity as Equiano comes to understand it, God's love is not conditional in this way. Still, Equiano was young enough at the time that he believed Pascal at face value.

Equiano goes on to write that, because Pascal had him so convinced of his benevolence, he could not imagine that the older man would hesitate to free him whenever he asked. This statement foreshadows the fact that, when it comes down to it, Pascal will do exactly what the young and trusting Equiano cannot imagine, trading him for money to a new enslaver and a new fate. A heartbreaking sense of betrayal begins to build here. Young Equiano still believes in a better world than the one in which he lives. In fact, part of Equiano's education and "civilization" involves coming to understand that the economic system of slavery corrupts everyone who comes into contact with it. Whereas many of the people Equiano encounters through his life claim to use Christianity and the Ten Commandments as their north star when they are navigating life's difficult decisions, many of them actually allow their commitment to slavery and the riches it brings to enslavers to make their decisions for them.

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Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—Disgraced Grandeur:

In Chapter 9, Equiano points out the situational irony of the poor living and working conditions enslaved people endure in Genoa, a city that prides itself on its riches. He uses logos to gesture toward the implications of this situational irony:

This is one of the finest cities I ever saw; some of the edifices were of beautiful marble, and made a most notable appearance; and many had very curious fountains before them. The churches were rich and magnificent, and curiously adorned both in the inside and out. But all this grandeur was, in my eyes, disgraced by the galley-slaves, whose condition, both there and in other parts of Italy, is truly piteous and wretched.

Equiano appreciates the beauty of Genoa and the "rich and magnificent" architecture. Its churches are especially impressive. But Equiano notices that these displays of luxury depend on the utter lack of luxury in the lives of enslaved people. The beauty and magnificence come at a high price. They don't signify a society that is thriving so much as a society that prizes beauty above human well-being.

Italy's riches (both in terms of actual wealth and in terms of culture) were a sensitive issue in England at this time. England's intense push to expand its empire was in large part a competitive response to the growth of other European powers at this time. Italy was often seen as a particular threat because of its cultural history: there was a sense that a country needed a strong culture and heritage to thrive on the modern stage, and it was difficult for England to compete with the cradle of the Roman Empire. Equiano suggests that England ought not be so quick to emulate Italy. Scouring the world over for resources may allow England to display similar wealth to Italy, but the over-the-top displays of luxury Equiano sees in Italy depend on some of the most inhumane practices he has ever encountered.

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Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—Cruel Repayment:

In Chapter 11, Equiano uses verbal irony to highlight the injustice of the way Black laborers are treated in all sectors of the global economy:

One day I went with a free negro tailer, named Joe Diamond, to one Mr. Cochran, who was indebted to him some trifling sum; and the man, not being able to get his money, began to murmur. The other immediately took a horse-whip to pay him with it: but by the help of a good pair of heels, the tailor got off.

Mr. Cochran owes Joe Diamond money in exchange for his services. As Equiano writes, it is "some trifling sum"—in other words, not very much money at all. Instead of paying Diamond this "trifling sum," Mr. Cochran threatens to beat him with a whip. Equiano's phrasing is ironic: he states that Mr. Cochran gets out the whip "to pay [Diamond] with it." Obviously, beating someone is about as far as a person can get from paying them in valuable currency. Equiano trusts his readers, largely wealthy white men, to recognize this as a slimy business deal and feel affronted that a merchant would ever be treated this way. Even if the money itself is negligible, someone who renders a service should be paid fairly. Threatening physical violence against a merchant for requesting due compensation is dishonorable and violates the core tenets of capitalism and free trade.

And yet, on some level, Equiano is also being literal. Enslaved Black laborers around the world are regularly compensated for their work with physical and mental abuse. Joe Diamond is a free laborer who is trying to participate in the free market economy, and yet his Blackness makes Mr. Cochran feel insulted at the very idea that Diamond would expect money (as any white laborer would) in exchange for his services. Equiano uses verbal irony to demonstrate that slavery and its racist logic is corrupting the "free market," making it less free.

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