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Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs: Slave Narratives’ Authors


Slave narrative developed as a distinct form of written literature, characteristic of North America. The period from the early 1830s to 1865 was marked by a wave of abolitionism, which was embodied in the writings and speeches of several former slaves. They spoke eloquently and convincingly about the need to free the world from slavery, basing their point of view on their own experience. Some of the most famous narrators of this genre are Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. The common goal of both writers and speakers explains the audience for which they created their message. The two authors chose different techniques and achieved diverse levels of success. Although they were concerned with the problems of Black slaves, their narration was directed towards the White population of North America.

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Two Authors

Frederick Douglass

The most prominent examples of slave narrative in the works of the two writers are their autobiographical books. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave,” created by Douglass in 1845, not only details the ex-slave’s experiences but is also intelligent and eloquent. First of all, these features contrasted with the prevailing ideas about the intellectual abilities of Blacks, which made Douglass a revelation to the audience. He managed not only to portray the real living conditions of a slave but also to convince people of the need for equality.

Harriet Jacobs

“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was written by Jacobs in 1861 when the abolitionist movement was already strong enough. This circumstance allowed the author to draw attention to a more particular problem, namely, the inequality of women in relation to men. Moreover, Jacobs was the first female slave narrator in the US. Therefore, she appealed to a female audience and especially using the theme of motherhood.

Comparing and Contrasting


Since both authors have relatable experiences and goals, they primarily agree on what techniques they use to influence the audience. First of all, the genre framework provides some similarity in the formats of their works. Primarily, the freed slaves were expected to have detailed stories about the hardships of life in slavery and oppression by the masters and also about the irresistible desire for freedom. It was important to describe how the author acquired literacy, that is, reading and writing skills since it was often declared impossible in such circumstances. The dramatic details of the slave’s escape added a certain excitement and intensity to the narrative. Moreover, it was necessary to confirm their piety and status as true Christian, opposing themselves to hypocritical masters. Both Douglass and Jacobs have these features, making their books primarily aimed at educated White North Americans.

Such works were new to the society of the time, which had certain ideas about the Black slaves. Educated and intelligent Black, literate, and able to write a book was an interesting find for them. Moreover, both works are distinguished by the eloquence and dramatic elements, which is extremely fascinating for the reader. Douglass and Jacobs skillfully used persuasion techniques to deliver their message to the White population. There was no need to communicate in writing with other slaves, as they could do it in speeches. However, only Whites could change the situation, which is why the slave narrative writers chose this approach.


Differences in audiences and perceptions of the authors’ work reflect, for the most part, various political circumstances. For example, when Douglass published his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life,” the abolitionist movement in the US began to develop. The publication of Jacobs’s “Incidents” in 1861 coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War, which limited its success. Moreover, in contrast to Jacobs, Douglass was a well-known figure from the early days of his public speaking and writing career. Thus, Jacobs’s book was quickly forgotten and overlooked, while Douglass’s work went through nine editions in its first two years. Thus, the audience of the authors was completely different in size.

The authors also varied in the techniques they used to articulate their message. Thus, by the time of writing the first book, Douglass was already an experienced speaker who was able to develop a number of effective persuasion techniques. He also focused on his transformation from a dependent slave to a free US citizen, giving his narrative a touch of myth. The author’s works are similar to sermons, extremely eloquent and sophisticated. For example, he writes that “the songs of the slaves represent the sorrows of his hear, and are relieved of them, only as its tears relieved an aching heart” (Douglass 38). Douglass uses colorful storytelling to engage readers and skillfully builds a story.

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Jacobs, on the contrary, worked on her autobiography privately and had no such practice. Her story is more similar to the novel popular among women of the 19th century, which describes the life and characteristics of female living. She used emotional techniques in her works, conveying her personal experience and feelings associated with it. For example, she writes, “I was nothing but a slave who will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half-strong” (Jacobs 29). Thus, the narrative of Jacobs was more straightforward but more emotionally charged. If Douglass sought to influence the audience with persuasion, then she wanted to induce sympathy. Thus, the audience of the two writers differed in this respect as well, as Douglass convey his messages to the broader public. Jacobs, on the contrary, addressed her story primarily to White women.

The central difference between the two authors is the diverse attitudes towards slavery based on gender differences. Douglass himself was the hero of his stories, embodying the voice of masculinity and freedom. Thus, in his books, he describes his personal growth and the strength which he managed to acquire. Despite the society that took his loved ones away from him, he overcame difficulties and became a symbol of abolitionism. Jacobs addresses the image of a pious and obedient woman who depends on the trappings of family and society. In her narrative, she described the difficulties of both a slave and a free life for women, who also need to take care of children. She also focuses on sexual abuse by the master, which was an urgent problem for many female slaves. Such topics affected both Black and White women, who perceived the problems described by Jacobs as emotionally close. Thus, Douglass articulated more general issues which concerned a wide range of people, while Jacobs emphasized the place of women in this situation.


Although both authors had the same goals, different circumstances gave them diverse audiences. First of all, the range of problems described and the methods chosen allowed Douglass to find a response from the general public. He was convincing and eloquent so that he could impress Whites with his intelligence and literacy. On the contrary, Jacobs was unable to achieve popularity, but she managed to achieve an emotional connection with both Black and White women. She addressed problems that were close only to this group of the population, which limited her influence. Nevertheless, Douglass and Jacobs understood that only Whites could change the situation and tried to convince them with their personal experience.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Harvard University Press, 1960.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Published for the Author, 1861.

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