The Narrative of Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass

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The Narrative of Frederick Douglass: Imagery 3 key examples

Definition of Imagery
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" contain imagery that engages... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines from Robert Frost's poem "After... read full definition
Imagery, in any sort of writing, refers to descriptive language that engages the human senses. For instance, the following lines... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Aunt Hester's Scream:

In Chapter 1, Douglass describes seeing and hearing his Aunt Hester endure horrifying physical and verbal abuse from Captain Anthony. This scene, about which several scholars have made landmark arguments, uses imagery and pathos to convey to white readers some of the more indescribable cruelties of enslavement:

[H]e commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. I expected it would be my turn next. It was all new to me. I had never seen any thing like it before.

This kind of violence was common on plantations, and many white Northerners thought of it only in the abstract, viewing it as a banal reality of a regrettable system. Douglass recounts the scene from the point of view of his childhood self, for whom this violence was especially shocking because it was not yet normalized as a daily part of life. He emphasizes the horror he feels as a witness to the scene, asking white readers to feel horrified alongside him. Through imagery, Douglass forces readers to look, listen, and feel what is happening in their own country, and to recognize it in all its grotesque specificity. The sound of Hester's "heart-rending shrieks" elicits a human desire to help her, but these shrieks are met only with "horrid oaths" from Captain Anthony. The image of "warm, red blood" helps the reader imagine the scene from both Douglass and Hester's standpoints. Douglass sees the blood, but it is Hester who feels its warmth on her body. Instead of rushing to stop the flow of blood, Captain Anthony continues to draw it.

In the 19th century, sympathy was considered by many to be fundamental to a healthy human society. The moral philosopher Adam Smith had helped popularize this idea with his 1759 book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith argued that without sympathy, society would crumble into lawlessness and murder. Douglass's readers would have been horrified by Captain Anthony's failure to sympathize with Hester for political as well as moral reasons. They would have seen his lack of sympathy as a threat to societal order, especially because Captain Anthony represents the way all enslavers have cut themselves off from the chain of human sympathy. Douglass uses imagery to cultivate a sense of pathos so that the white Northern reader, who has never seen the abuses of enslavement in action, can understand how dangerous the institution of slavery is to society.

Some scholars have criticized the urge to pay too much attention to this moment because it replays the violence against Hester. Others have argued that avoiding attention to the scene draws just as much attention to it. Douglass makes this moment symbolic, calling it "the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery." Readers who do choose to analyze this scene in depth should take care to remember that Douglass's narrative is based in real events concerning real people, and that Douglass's political and rhetorical goals are bound up in his own and others' trauma.

Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Sad Songs:

In Chapter 2, Douglass describes the sound of the songs enslaved people used to sing on the plantation where he grew up. He uses sound imagery to convey the emotional weight the songs carried:

They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them. [...] while I am writing these lines, an expression of feeling has already found its way down my cheek.

The "loud, long, deep" sounds are not simply sad. Moreover, they express the "boiling over" of anguished souls. The auditory image of song helps Douglass arrive at the visual image of souls boiling over their containers. This visual image in turn helps the reader imagine the sound of the songs more forcefully: these songs sound as though they are erupting from bodies that simply cannot hold them in anymore.

The interplay between sound and writing is very important in Douglass's narrative. Learning to read and write is a trope in enslaved people's narratives because white readers recognized literacy as a mark of humanity. Literacy was also enormously helpful in dismantling the ideology behind the institution of slavery and in planning escapes. Literacy eventually proved essential to abolition, as did song. Both books and songs allowed information and ideas to spread about the country, including ideas that enslavers had long tried to keep locked down. Some of these ideas were instrumental in starting the Civil War.

Despite his delight in self-expression through writing, a theme in Douglass's narrative is the fact that it is impossible to fully express in words what the experience of enslavement is like. Enslaved people who could not read or write, or who found reading and writing insufficient, could express themselves through song. Songs were often sung collectively. In addition to emotion, they often contained hidden knowledge that was too dangerous to pass on through direct conversation. Song had a long history of expressing that which could not be expressed in any other form. By describing the sounds of the songs, and how they make him feel even now (after his escape from enslavement), Douglass gets closer to conveying the things he might otherwise have trouble expressing.

Douglass writes that enslavers take the singing as an expression of happiness. Given the deep anguish of the sounds, this seems likely to be deliberate misunderstanding. The enslavers don't want to believe that they are responsible for mass human anguish, so they convince themselves that the anguish is not real. The vast gulf between what the songs are expressing and what the enslavers hear, and the way the songs still resonate so deeply for Douglass, suggests that even white people who try to understand the experience of being enslaved may never feel it fill them with "ineffable sadness" as it does Douglass. It is not entirely bad that white people struggle to understand the songs for what they are. Otherwise, enslavers would do everything they could to prevent this "testimony against slavery" from being made.

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Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—Cracked with Frost:

In Chapter 5, Douglass describes the relative ease of his life on Colonel Lloyd's plantation, but that ease is extremely relative. He uses imagery to describe the ways he is still scarred (literally) from his days there:

I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.

Douglass's description of the "cold, damp, clay floor" already conjures for the reader the bodily feeling of sleeping in such conditions. When he goes on to use his pen as a measure of the "gashes" that remain in the cracks of his feet, the cold crashes into the reader all over again. The version of Douglass who is writing this narrative seems far removed from the child who once slept on the hard clay floor. In fact, he so successfully blended into Northern elite society that his narrative was designed to corroborate his claim that he had been enslaved as a child. Northerners did not believe that this neighbor of theirs could have come from such a background.

The image of Frederick Douglass the writer laying his pen in the cracks of his feet collapses the distance between Douglass and his childhood self. His scars are irrefutable evidence of where he has been. The image thus also collapses the distance between the white Northern reader and enslaved children enduring life-threatening conditions. If readers have heard Douglass speak, they have come face to face with someone who was once a child in need of their help to free him from enslavement. White Northerners who may once have thought of slavery as regrettable but remote or abstract now have a personal connection to its harms.

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