The Longest Memory by Fred D’Aguiar is a compelling and tragically poignant novel set in Virginia, 1810. The unique, fragmented narrations with its ironies and bigoted criticisms lurking in the words of many presents a definite ethical vision in which the reader commiserates with the suffering and feels contempt for the savage. The calamity of the story and also its main ironic element centres on an old, veteran slave Whitechapel. He inadvertently causes the death of his son Chapel in the hands of the overseer of the plantation, who just so happens to be Chapel’s halfbrother. Prejudice shatters any faith of justice, equality and freedom in The Longest Memory, and acts to enhance the immorality of slavery and the horrible suffering of slaves. This is achieved through both the emphatic characterisations of the slaves, and tragedy of Chapel’s death.
Societal prejudice towards Negroes has been a widespread fact in American history. The class of slaves has been superficially judged and discriminated against.
‘It is neither extraordinary to beat a slave, nor incompatible with Christianity to wield a whip.’
Even those who considered themselves lenient slaveowners such as Mr Whitechapel, committed horrible acts of injustice.
I repeat, do not let me ever catch you reading
Again. If you do you will be sent away,
Far away to a place where slave boys
Die of hunger, hard work and the whip.’
All slaves have to learn to accept the fact that they are inferior. However, from some people’s points of views, slaves are much lower and should be considered as an investment or commodity. ‘Cattle need fattening, not slaves.’
They are regarded on a totally different plane of judgement.
‘I told my son that we are different from slaves in intelligence and human standing before God.’
Verbal irony also emphasizes the pain and suffering on the slaves behalf. By showing a contrast in the meaning of the words used and what they communicate, such as in Chapel’s response to being forbidden to read, the reader also feels the oppressive nature of the owner.
I am grateful;
To be a slave.’
However there are also more extended ironies, carried throughout the plot of the novel. The tragic murder of Chapel was partially brought about by the actions of his own father Whitechapel, however unintentional it was. Whitechapel had trusted his master and decided on revealing his son’s whereabouts because of his belief in that ‘A slave who has tasted freedom will never be a proper slave again.’
‘I resolved to save my son, not to abandon him to the horrible fate he might bring upon himself.’ Instead of being saved, Chapel was brought back to the plantation and, under the eyes of Whitechapel, sentenced to 200 whips, which eventually killed him.
Is also ironical that Chapel is the overseer’s halfbrother, conceived as the result of rape by the current overseer’s father. Cruelly ignorant, or just openly callous, this action brings the suffering of slaves to a new level, which when contrasted with the sensitivity and intelligence of the slaves themselves, leads the reader into siding with the slaves and agreeing wholeheartedly to the moral ideas of the novel.
Characterisation of the slaves paints the moral vision with a greater spectrum and builds the emotional power of the novel. By presenting the same event from both the slave’s and the master’s point of view, one feels as if oneself is standing in the middle of the moral climate of the plantation, able to see and feel every aspect of wrongdoing in the situation. For example, both Chapel and Whitechapel are portrayed with heroic and noble qualities. Readers soon realise they are far more than they are described by the slave owners and other members of the ‘white’ community. Chapel’s deeply meaningful words of his poem draws much sympathy towards slaves, allowing us to identify with slaves.
‘Darkness, I counter, drops an anchor slaves
Inherit from cradle to grave.’
This image is echoed later in the meditation on memory that closes the book. Over the years, Whitechapel has learnt that
‘The master is daylight, the slave is night. Slavery is a long day of the master over the slave and of nights turned to days. But how long can the master’s daylight continue to rule our nights?’
Love is a force that transcends all other barriers and the poetic relationship between Lydia, the plantation owner’s daughter, and Chapel highlights the element of tragedy. Lydia and Chapel’s relationship is one that is strictly forbidden. The strain of secret, struggled love threatened with racial discrimination gives their love poignant attributes. The allusion to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ reflects the idea that Lydia and Chapel’s love is also ‘star-crossed’ and doomed in the hands of fate.
The book also creates its moral atmosphere by employing a multitude of literary techniques (e.g. 1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person, diary, recount, poetry, articles,etc). This technique broadens slavery to reach a point beyond being mere issue. Rather, the whole book can be seen as debate. Humanity and freedom towards slaves is argued against the need for slaves to ‘put the pork on our plates.’ In some chapters, the debate is obvious:
‘The Virginian. Editorial, August 4, 1810. How should the plantation be run, firm or kind?’ By using this technique, the author avoids the possibility of bias that would be inevitable in such a passionate topic as slavery. It also illustrates D’Aguair’s understanding of all viewpoints of slavery, allowing him to rightfully argue to cruelty behind slavery.
The Longest Memory is clearly an in-depth novel, which deals with issues of slavery, human suffering and tragic love, elaborated with the use of ironies to explain the moral vision. The admirable qualities of dignity and tolerance expressed by the slave characters undermine all prejudices to prove how slaves have been unfairly treated. As a result, the audience sides loyally with the slaves and recognises many actions of the slaves as extraordinary feats of intrepidity.