A Quest for Selfhood

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 14 June 2016

A Quest for Selfhood

In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave, Frederick Douglass effectively describes his escapes from slaveholders through his intellectual literacy. In virtue of his experience as an enslaved man, Douglass writes about the abuse he suffers for being African American. He writes his narrative for the general public including slaves, to show the slaveholders’ wrongdoings. Douglass portrays the demeaning treatment of slaves to express inhumane conditions, which they face repeatedly. Throughout the novel Douglass is able to persuade his readers that slavery is cruel and an immoral act, through the use of visual imagery, situational irony, and formal diction. Through the use of visual imagery, Douglass is able to persuade the public that the physical scars from slave have dehumanizing effects by describing brutality, and human degradation.

On one of Douglass’s first accounts, he describes his mother’s death by stating “I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial” (Page 18). This incident relates to pathos because it reveals Douglass’s lack of interaction with his mother and the isolation he endures in the early stages of his life, which emotionally draws the reader into realizing the psychological afflictions of slavery. As well as his mother’s passing, Douglass utilizes visual imagery to account for the last days of his frail grandmother: “If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children…” (Page 56). Douglass exposes how little sympathy slaveholders possess towards slaves. Visual imagery of this incident persuades the reader of slavery’s savagery because it is clear that Douglass is kept away from the people whom he loves, and is forced to feel nothing but sorrow.

Due to the restrictions from slavery, Douglass copes with his aches by describing clear details of the worst days of his life. Likewise, Douglass presents the remorseless treatment of slaves through the use of situational irony. A representation of this is shown within old Barney and young Barney-father and son. He says “They were frequently whipped when least deserving, and escaped whipping when most deserving it” (Page 30). Douglass explains that living in a constant state of fear, the boys are never safe from severe punishment regardless of doing everything they’re told. Douglass also uses logos to convince the public that slaveholders are not capable of managing others because they don’t have moral sense. Additionally, Douglass illustrates another situational paradox when he fights back against Mr. Covey: “From this time I was never again what might be called fairly whipped, though I remained a slave four years afterwards. I had several fights, but was never whipped” (Page 75).

Douglass’s fierce determination for freedom results in respect from his slaveholder, which is unbelievable and contradictory to slavery overall. Because of the situational irony from the events prior, Douglass is able to express how irresponsible slaveholders are to be manipulating slaves. Furthermore, formal diction is most prominent is Douglass’s narrative because it describes most of the details. Despite his restrictions, Douglass’s strong desire for education allows for gains in his knowledge, to which is distinct through his writing skills. Douglass’s intellectual literacy not only distresses the general public towards slavery, but mesmerizes them to conceive the idea on how he made it out alive. A prime example of formal diction is shown when describing Mr. Austin Gore: “Mr. Hopkins was succeeded by Mr. Austin Gore, a man possessing, in an eminent degree, all those traits of character indispensable…” (Page 33)

He claims that the first-rate overseer, Mr. Gore is superior and honored because of his highly callous acts. Thus, Douglass is able to address a highly educated audience such as the readers of this academic narrative. He then adds, “Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity” (Page 41). In other words, Douglass desperately wishes for freedom, and is able to fulfill his fortune at Baltimore. Formal diction allows Douglass to put his eloquent vocabulary to use. Although Frederick Douglass was an enslaved man, he teaches himself to read and write.

He uses his intellectual gains of writing as a way to portray his brutal life, and explains the struggles he goes through to now being America’s role as the most famous African American slave. Throughout the narrative, he uses rhetorical devices to personify the thoughts that go through his mind as a slave. He also uses figurative language to vividly illustrate the hardships of being African American with the use of visual imagery, situational irony, and formal diction. These devices also make the tortures of being a slave more understandable and easy to comprehend. His eloquent literacy continues to be relevant in both history and the modern world today.


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  • University/College: University of California

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 14 June 2016

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