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Frederick Douglas Rhetorical Analysis:
In this excerpt from Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, the author contrasts his excitement at becoming a free man with the accompanying terror at the thought of recapture by hypocritical, religious, white northerners. Using highly antithetical language and alternating syntax, Douglass illustrates the extremes of his emotions at the time of his escape.
From the very start, Douglass contrasts the “wretchedness of slavery” with the “blessedness of freedom” as well as the prospects of life and death.
Even in the freedom of the north, all of these ideas were perpetually before him. These lines establish the apprehension Douglass felt having “left [his] chains” and the accompanying excitement of a freeman’s life.
These extremes of emotion are again illustrated in the second paragraph, where Douglass compares his escape from the south to “escap[ing] a den of hungry lions.” He hadn’t, however, escaped from all of the lions. As he then describes, he was “again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness,” as he remained surrounded by the hypocritical “children of [their] common father,” who would, without hesitation, kidnap him for profit.
By differentiating the profound joy of escape from the remaining, looming fear of his surroundings, Douglass again depicts his wide scope of feeling pertaining to his newly-found freedom.
The climax of the author’s frustration at the quality of his freedom comes at the end of this passage, when he uses highly antithetical and liberally parenthetical language.
Here, he compares the “legalized kidnappers” of the north to “hideous crocodile[s],” and he juxtaposes his plentiful surroundings with his lack of funds, his “terrible gnawings of hunger,” and his homelessness. These juxtapositions, condemnations of his environment, reinforce Douglass’s surprising amount of fear experienced even after escaping to the north.
The simultaneous excitement and terror with which Douglass was able to receive his freedom, and the understanding of this spectrum of emotion, is imperative to the effectiveness of Douglass’ work as a slave narrative and as a call to action for 19th century abolitionists. The idea of a man living in such fear while amongst “children of a common father,” which amongst his very own people, must be reinforced to establish the necessity of abolishing slavery in America.
Douglass uses figures of speech such as these to do just this, to add to the sense of hypocrisy in man white Americans of the 19th century. He effectively defines all men as equal under god and, following this, dictates how he has not been treated as an equal despite his supposed escape, calling Americans to action over the unjust institution of slavery.
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