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.
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.