The Use of Chiasmus to Highlight the Irony of Slavery in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
According to Barton and Hudson's Contemporary Guide to Literary Terms, a chiasmus is a rhetorical scheme that is "particularly effective in creating irony through the reversal of accepted truths or familiar ideas" (189). Frederick Douglass uses the chiasmus throughout his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to highlight the irony of slavery's existence in a country that was built upon the ideals of freedom. Throughout his autobiography, we find several specific instances of chiasmus that cause the reader to pause and focus on the point that Douglass is trying to make. Each chiasmus is placed in an important point of the text (and, therefore, an important point of Douglass' life) and calls attention to that passage's significance.
Let us begin with what is, perhaps, the most famous Douglass quotation: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (64). This sentence serves as the turning point, the climax, of both Douglass' narrative and his life. Up until that point, throughout his entire life, the world had been busy making him a slave. From the moment he was born to a slave mother (even though his father was white), the forces of slavery had been suffocating his humanity. When he was forcibly separated from his mother, he lost the human closeness of family. When he helplessly witnessed his aunt being brutally beaten and was subjected to repeated beatings himself, he lost the human sense of pride. And, when he was denied education and literacy, he lost the human ability to obtain knowledge. In all of these ways, society turned Frederick Douglass, a man, into a slave. But, as we know, the transformation from man to slave was not completed successfully in Douglass. When his mistress taught him to read, she sparked a fire of humanity inside him that would continue to grow until it eventually overpowered his slave qualities, and cause Douglass, the slave, to be made into a man.
The transformation from slave to man occurred both over many years and in the space of a single afternoon. The Narrative in its entirety is a story of that transformation, but the chiasmus found at the beginning of Frederick's fight with Mr. Covey emphasizes that afternoon as the setting for the metamorphosis. In the longer transformation, Douglass was made a man ultimately through his willingness to take risks for the sake of freedom. He learned to read against his master's will, taught his fellow slaves, and attempted escapes, all for the sake of freedom. A slave could not exist as a slave forever with this burning desire for freedom within him. This lifelong risk-taking for the sake of freedom led up to the climactic afternoon where the slave fought the master and regained his manhood. When Douglass fought Mr. Covey, he regained his sense of pride that had been taken away from him. Mentally and...