The Narrative of Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass

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The Narrative of Frederick Douglass: 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 5
Explanation and Analysis—Cheering Prospect:

In Chapter 5, Douglass describes being sent to live with the Aulds to take care of young Thomas Auld. His arrival at their house is marked by situational irony and pathos:

Mr. and Mrs. Auld were both at home, and met me at the door with their little son Thomas, to take care of whom I had been given. [...] Little Thomas was told, there was his Freddy, — and I was told to take care of little Thomas; and thus I entered upon the duties of my new home with the most cheering prospect ahead.

The "most cheering prospect ahead" cannot be all that cheering if Douglass is still to be enslaved. He is a child who is being put to work taking care of another child when he himself has no real caretaker with his best interests at heart. Douglass's youthful happiness at his "cheering prospect ahead" is thus ironic, emphasizing that for an enslaved child, the world does not offer much of a "cheering prospect" at all.

This naivety functions as pathos, stirring the audience's emotions in favor of enslaved children who do not know how bleak their circumstances are. Douglass ought to be dejected in this scene. He has been sent away from home, and he is being forced into labor for a child who is not yet expected to work. But as he has explained earlier in the chapter, the sad circumstances of his childhood have left him with no attachment to home.

In the 19th century, white children became powerful symbols of home and the shelter it provided from industry and labor. Daguerreotypes (an early kind of photography) boomed in popularity around the same time Douglass wrote his narrative. Images of white children were obsessively taken during this period, in a way they never had been before, to preserve them in their "innocent" youth. Even dead white children were photographed in their bedclothes, as though they were eternally sleeping, safe at home from the cruelties of the industrial world. Douglass, on the other hand, is locked out of the chance to become that sacred symbol of safety and innocence. By describing his own childhood, Douglass retroactively freezes an image of himself as a child who deserves to be sheltered from the world's cruelties. He offers this image to readers as a call to action on behalf of enslaved children who are still being denied the protection they deserve.

Chapter 6
Explanation and Analysis—Weaponized Literacy:

In Chapter 6, Hugh Auld forbids Sophia from teaching Douglass to read. In a twist of situational irony, Auld's speech about how much there is to fear from teaching an enslaved child to read convinces Douglass that literacy is the pathway to freedom:

The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read.

This is an important, formative moment for Douglass. He claims that Auld's words answer "a most perplexing difficulty" he has never been able to puzzle out about where white men's power comes form. Douglass recalls thinking that "the white man's power to enslave the black man [...] was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly." Up to this point, Douglass has admired white men's power as a mysterious achievement that is inherent to their race. In this moment, Auld's paranoia about what might happen if Douglass learns to read helps Douglass see that it is not whiteness that is the key to power, but rather the opportunities afforded to white people. For the first time, Douglass thinks that learning to read might allow him to take some of "the white man's power" for himself. Douglass claims that he owes as much to Hugh Auld as he does to Sophia for his turn to books as the means to liberation. While Sophia teaches him the alphabet, first offering him the tool of literacy, it is Hugh Auld who inadvertently shows Douglass that literacy can be used as a weapon against white supremacy.

The irony that Hugh's fearful and racist speech spurs Douglass on to become a highly-educated abolitionist demonstrates that enslavers' power is more fragile than many people think. Although enslavers control a vast portion of the nation's wealth and have many legal protections, even they know that white supremacy and the institution of slavery are built on a weak foundation. The simple idea of literacy among enslaved people, so that they can read and transmit information more readily, poses an existential threat to Hugh Auld and other white men's power because facts are not in their favor. Even in this moment, when he is at his most paranoid, Hugh underestimates Douglass as an intelligent person who is gathering information about himself and the world he inhabits. Auld's racist fear of Douglass gets the best of him, and he ultimately gives away his own game.

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Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—Abolition:

In Chapter 7, Douglass describes the dramatic irony of hearing the term "abolition" and not knowing what it means. He describes how he had to seek out the term's meaning, and he emphasizes that learning the meaning was life-changing:

I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself, or done something for which I should have been killed. While in this state of mind, I was eager to hear any one speak of slavery. I was a ready listener. Every little while, I could hear something about the abolitionists. It was some time before I found what the word meant.

Douglass goes on to write about his gradual emergence from the dark on the subject of abolition. He can't just read a definition; he must encounter the word in usage a number of times before he understands what it means and why he feels like it has special meaning for him. Douglass allows readers to see the irony that enslaved people, whose lives will be most dramatically affected by abolition, are cut out from the conversation about it. Indeed, enslavers try not to allow enslaved people to learn about abolition so that they will not enter the conversation. Enslavers were only too content to allow the conversation to take place among mostly white people, who usually held, at the very least, implicit biases against Black people. Even among liberal white Northerners, there was racist concern that formerly enslaved people would not be able to succeed as self-sufficient American citizens. By keeping real enslaved people from responding to this concern, enslavers allowed it to flourish.

This passage shows how cruel the irony is. The very idea of abolition provides Douglass with the hope to keep living when he is deeply depressed about his situation in life. Not only does the conversation around abolition need voices like Douglass's, but people like Douglass also need the idea of abolition to provide a light in the darkness of enslavement. This is one of many instances in which Douglass demonstrates that during his enslavement, the things he needed for spiritual survival as a human were kept from him. The resolution of this dramatic irony, through Douglass's amateur detective work, is emblematic of his character as a self-made man. Whereas white children have their needs met by the adults in their lives, Douglass seeks out and takes what he needs for himself. It's no coincidence that white American readers accepted him as a symbol of Black success given that in the U.S., the self-made man is a popular archetype. Douglass is telling the truth about his own life, but he does it in a strategic way. By emphasizing his self-sufficiency, he advances his goal of proving (to skeptical white readers) that emancipated Black people will be able to succeed as Americans.

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Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—Cords of Affection:

In Chapter 11, Douglass prepares another plan to escape enslavement. He describes the situational irony of being daunted not only by the prospect of what may happen if he is caught, but also the prospect of what will surely happen if he is not caught:

I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore, — friends that I loved almost as I did my life, — and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends.

Many enslaved people spent their entire lives longing for freedom. Because freedom was such a difficult thing to obtain, enslaved people also built lives and communities for themselves where they lived. These communities could be lost in one fell swoop when enslavers died, fell on hard times, or simply decided to be cruel. But they could also be lost when someone escaped. An enslaved person who escaped generally left everyone behind. They usually could not even write to their friends and family; on top of enforced illiteracy among enslaved people, a letter could have given away the location of the person who had escaped. Even in the North, legal protections for formerly enslaved people were not very strong. During Douglass's lifetime, laws were increasingly being passed in favor of enslavers. A formerly enslaved person in the North always faced the threat that they might be kidnapped or sued by their former enslaver.

Douglass emphasizes the horrible irony of the fact that the fulfillment of a lifelong struggle for freedom involves such a great sacrifice. It is also ironic that at long last, the thing keeping many enslaved people from escaping is the fear of loneliness. This deeply human problem prevents people from leaving a system that refuses to recognize them as human. By shedding light on this situational irony, Douglass illuminates the way even freedom was highly conditional for many or most Black Americans living during the institution of slavery. White readers formerly under the impression that it was simple for enslaved people to run away to the "free" states are left with a clearer impression that the entire country needs to change for unconditional freedom to be widely available.

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