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Slave Narrative Essay

1725 words - 7 pages

The purpose of a slave narrative during the American abolition movement was to directly address the violent truth of slavery. But to what effect did the truth of their autobiographical stories have on readers at the time? Within this essay, I am going to explore themes such as truth, motherhood and religion, and how they interact as narrative strategies throughout. In order to support the analyses, my primary authors will be William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs 1.
The primary texts stated are written in a voice which is antebellum of the American Civil War (1861-65), so it is interesting to see the that the two male authors use their own identity to title their work despite the risks involved, unlike Jacobs who uses pseudonyms to portray her story. Throughout all three texts, there is a familiar structure. Olney comments on how this is 'a sense not of uniqueness but of overwhelming sameness' 2. He continues to state how slave narratives follow a 'chronological, episodic narrative beginning with an assertion of existence' 3. This can be seen in my primary texts, for example, 'I was born in Tuckahoe' (Douglass, Narrative, p.2072) and 'I was born a slave' (Jacobs, Incidents, p.1809). On the other hand, Heermance disagrees, stating that the 'specifically personal, […] unique and exotic, nature [...] made each narrative intriguingly different from its brethren' 4. This quote supports the individuality of each slave, and their reactions and representations of the different forms of violence they were subjected to. However, Andrews justifies the similarity of structures within slave narratives; 'The ex-slave narrators and their sponsors had learned that [...] facts plotted in certain kinds of story structures moved white readers to conviction and to support of the antislavery cause' 5. With the facts of their birth plotted as the introductory sentences, we can see why the autobiographical narratives can be used as historical sources in connection to the abolition of slavery, as they focus on telling the truth. Despite the attempt to keep the accounts truthful, it is interesting to see when truth clashes with ambiguity. I believe this clash is the first strategy used within the slave narrative.
To describe truth in an autobiographical story was difficult, as it would have been hard to recall detailed conversations. Also, graphic descriptions of some violence would have deterred readers. A balance is required, and the quotation in the title of this essay is an example of this. Douglass watched his Aunt Hester being brutally whipped, and although describing it with detail 'where the blood ran fasted, there he whipped longest' (Douglass, Narrative, p.2074), he is unable to scribe his full emotional distress of the scene. This I note as being a tactic to portray the horror, through his personal reserve. For if Douglass was to discuss every excruciating emotion, this may have been viewed by some readers at the time, as a...

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