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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Essay

In the book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass chronicles his slave life during the mid 1800s. By informing his readership of the realities and cruelties of slavery, Douglass’ seeks to persuade Northerners to become involved in the abolitionist movement. He accomplishes this purpose by delivering his message throughout the entirety of the book — slavery is harmful to all participants – with the effective utilization of ethos, logos, and pathos.

The trio works to support his thesis, and this support therefore aids Douglass’ overall purpose. Although each of the argumentative devices is effective, the most powerful component is pathos, which is a quality that evokes pity or sadness. Unlike ethos or logos, pathos speaks directly to the readers, in this case the North, and profoundly influences their emotions and thoughts on the issue of slavery. Therefore, pathos is the most effective strategy in Douglass’ narrative because it accomplishes the author’s purpose by sufficiently delivering his message, through the manipulation of emotions to Northern readers.

Ethos is without a doubt an apparent strategy throughout Douglass’ narrative; in fact, the entire book is ethos. Douglass’ life was, at the time, living proof of the cruelties of slavery. He takes advantage of this fact in his narrative and describes almost every detail, being sure to leave out names whom he did not intend to offend or embarrass, and brings to reality the treatment of slaves in the 1800s. In addition, Douglass incorporates references to the Bible, often relating slaves’ lives to peoples’ lives in Biblical times. For example, “My friend Nathan Johnson (of whom I can say with a grateful heart, ‘I was hungry, and he gave me meat; I was thirsty, and he gave me drink; I was a stranger, and he took me in’).” This is a reference to Matthew 25:35, which discusses the importance of caring for others, even strangers.

Douglass includes this passage to compare Nathan Johnson to a humble, selfless man that would care for anyone. Furthermore, the reference supports Douglass’ credibility as an educated man of God and a reliable non-fiction author. Just because he was once a slave, ignorant of freedom and all its blessings, including education, it did not stop him from brilliantly writing his narrative through which he sufficiently proves his credibility by means of correct grammar, references to the Bible and other highly respected pieces of literature, and the simple fact that he was once a slave and therefore contains the most reliable information. However, ethos is not the most effective strategy on his readers; it does not support his purpose or meaning as much as pathos does.

Logos is also a strategy used throughout the entirety of the book, simply because it is a narrative of Douglass’ life, therefore it must be composed of non-fiction occurrences. He includes as much detail as he can, but he leaves out particular names and happenings in order to prevent embarrassment of the individual or even potential consequences. Despite his restrictions, Douglass still includes amazing thoroughness and accuracy. For example, “I left Master Thomas’s house, and went to live with Mr. Covey, on the 1st of January, 1833.” He uses three specific details in one tiny sentence, which just shows the reader his incredible memory and accuracy. Although his precision within the book is rather impressive to the Northern readers, the simple facts do not supply them with Douglass’ deeper meaning, that slavery is harmful to all participants.

Rather, logos gives the readers the direct happenings of his slave life, but it does not reach out to the Northerners’ emotions, humans’ weakness and main influence to take action, to the extent pathos does. Pathos is a strategy in argument that aims to draw pity or sadness from the audience or reader, and it is often the most persuasive tool to accomplish a purpose. In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass uses a generous amount of pathos in order to persuade his Northern readers to become involved in the abolitionist movement. He accomplishes this purpose by including sad incidences he saw or experienced himself. For example, Douglass tells the story of his Aunt Hester being punished with a whipping, “He commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood…came dripping to the floor.

I was so terrified…that I hid myself in a closet.” This description of the first time he saw someone whipped is drawn out in detail purposefully; Douglass wants the reader to engage in the narrative and let his/her emotions drive them toward pity for slaves and hatred of slavery. He includes many other descriptions like this, but they all have the same purpose. Emotion drives many peoples’ actions, and Douglass wants to persuade his Northern audience to become active in the abolitionist movement by letting their emotion take over. Pathos also brings out the meaning of the essay; by explaining cruel experiences, Douglass includes proof of his meaning, that slavery is harmful to both the slave and the slaveholder.

Northerners are persuaded by this meaning and affected by the traumatic incidences in the book, and are driven to involve themselves in the move to abolish slavery. Pathos is therefore the most effective strategy that encourages Northern readers to follow through with Douglass’ purpose. Douglass utilizes ethos, logos, and pathos in a brilliant way, but it is acceptable to claim that pathos had the largest effect on the readers of the North in the 1800s. While ethos and logos give the author credibility and information to discuss, pathos affects the reader directly.

It becomes tiresome to hear of straightforward facts, like moving from master to master or plantation to plantation. The readers want to hear of excitement, so when Douglass talks about sad topics, it involves the reader, as well as affects their opinion of slavery. By taking advantage of pathos and the readers’ impressionable emotions, Douglass conveys his message and fulfills his purpose, and therefore, pathos is the most effective strategy in his book.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick, and Houston A. Baker. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1982. Print.


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