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Rhetoric in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”


During the legally forced labor in America, which took place between 1830 and 1865 when towards the end of the civil war, African American narrators intensified one of the country’s truly aboriginal kinds of published texts. The narrative by Douglass examines the North American slave story. Just like all other slave narratives, the narrator analyzes the tensions between slaves and slave owners resulting from the conflict between the two entities. Douglass takes the roles of both the protagonist and narrator in the story. He makes progress from being an oppressed and illiterate slave to become a respected commentator on politics. However, he does not detach himself from the suffering of the slaves.

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Through dramatization, Douglass makes a clear distinction between the experienced person he was after growing up and the naïve person he was when young. Douglass is a rational and reasonable individual who is capable of analyzing issues from different perspectives including the issue of slavery. He does not present excuses regarding slave owners but shows his compassion and deep feelings for his fellow slaves. His narrative is a portrayal of the suffering the slaves went through and goes ahead to dramatize his tears. Although Douglass occasionally appears alienated and isolated, he is an optimistic representative of the slaves who is ready to help them.

Analysis of Ethos in the Narrative of Douglass

In the narrative, Douglass applies ethos in bringing out some of the astonishing revelations that determined his entire life. He moved to the biggest city of Maryland, an act that changed his entire life. It is the opportunity to move into another city that gave Douglass a chance to escape slavery. In chapter one, Douglass recounts how he was immediately separated from his mother after birth by his master. He says that he never enjoyed the soothing presence and tender care of his mother. As a result, the death of his mother did not evoke major emotions in him since she was almost like a stranger to him. In this passage which is derived from chapter one of the narrative, Douglass was separated from his mother by his master immediately after birth to prevent him from developing any familial attachment with his mother (Schubert 50).

Douglass uses a considerable section of the narrative in explaining the making of slavery. For some readers who existed during his time, it might have appeared quite normal for blacks to live in slavery. However, he disputes this view by explaining how unnatural slavery was. He explains the methods of breaking family ties that were used by slave owners to acquire slaves. This was a process that started at birth as Douglass describes the introduction to slavery in the first chapter. Slave owners began by taking the child away from the immediate family members. Douglass explains how this denied the child a chance of having a history of its own. The explanation he gives is of high credibility since he starts by giving a tangible example of how his master separated him from his mother at birth. As such, the manner in which Douglass explains how slavery began presents him as a person who had a deep knowledge of slavery and one who was a voice for the slaves who suffered in silence.

Douglass includes adjectives such as tender and soothing to imaginatively picture the kind of life he would have lived as a child if his mother had been there. He employs creative imagination to show the difference between how he grew up as opposed to how a normal child is expected to grow up. This comparison presented by Douglas portrays the difference between the two developmental circumstances and focuses on the injustice that was responsible for creating the difference. The injustice was of course slavery and his imaginative recreation is used to castigate those who supported slavery.

Despite the fact that Douglass uses a restrained and somehow dry style in the passage, he uses the ethos of experience to emphasize family structure and the disturbing moment he went through after the death of his mother. This style fills the narrative with sentimentality, which was a convention of the narratives written in the nineteenth century. During this period, families were respected as they offered solace when in trouble. Serious problems in families were not encouraged since they signified moral decadence. The destruction of the family set up was believed to be an indicator of social injustice.

Imagery is an effective literary device that is used by authors to communicate effectively with the readers. Douglas uses imagery effectively in his narrative in order to pass across critical information. Although women are not frequently mentioned in his narrative, whenever they are mentioned they are images representing suffering. The mention of a woman in the narrative is an image representing a group of people suffering. Perhaps due to the reason that in the nineteenth-century women were supposed to be protected from harm, Douglass describes the disturbing sights of women slaves being seriously abused and beaten. It was a common thing for women slaves to be raped by their masters (Douglass, 35). At some point, Douglass witnessed women being beaten by their masters and associated such incidences with his earlier thoughts on slavery. He recounts how this scene traumatized him as a young person and uses it to give a detailed account of how slavery operated.

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His pain did not only lie in his witnessing of the whipping but also in his inability to stop the act. This particular incidence helps the reader understand how Douglass presents slavery. He presents it not just as a kind of physical control but also mental. Slaves were made to participate in brutality because they were conditioned to be afraid of their security too much such that they could not stop the brutality. Douglass points out that apart from inflicting physical pain, slavery left the victims psychologically affected (Sparknotes 5).

Douglass uses instances in which women slaves were abused to prove that slave owners were inhuman. The images of mistreated women used by Douglass create a minor theme n the narrative. The theme has an emotional effect on the readers as opposed to a logic-based debate on the ills of slavery. By using images of women in the narrative, Douglass creates a gap between the humiliated slaves and himself.

Douglass distances himself from slavery by commenting on the slave songs. He says ‘I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.’ (Sparknotes 3). From this comment, Douglass provides an explanation in relation to the misconception that slaves were singing out of happiness. Instead, he points out that the songs that were sung by slaves were evidence of their suffering and deep unhappiness. He distinguishes between the deep and literal messages communicated in the songs by saying that it was difficult for outsiders to understand the songs but the slaves did.

Douglass presents an implication that the deep meaning of the songs could only be understood by somebody who was an outsider since he understood the songs after becoming an outsider. He creates a distance that shows his authority in particular instances of the narrative. Apart from experiencing life as a slave, Douglass could interpret aspects of slavery as an outsider.


Douglass’s narrative is considered one of the greatest productions in American literature. It is a story that enables readers to vividly understand the pains and suffering that people were exposed to due to slavery. The narrative is reflective of the pains that all the slaves went through in the arms of their masters. Douglass uses ethos and pathos to present detailed accounts of his personal experiences as a slave and his struggle to liberate himself and end slavery in general. He takes an authoritative position in the narrative that enables him to tell the story both as a person who experienced slavery first hand and as an outsider. His style of narration makes it easy for the readers to identify with the feelings and sufferings of the slaves. It is important for an effective narrator to use communication styles that would help his readers identify with the story easily, something that Douglass succeeds in doing.

Works Cited

Douglass, Fredrick. Narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglass, an American slave. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Schubert, Nicole. The Role of Rhetoric in the Abolition Movement: A Study of Voice and Power in Narrative, Speech, and Letters, 2003.

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Sparknotes. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 2012.

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"Rhetoric in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”." StudyCorgi, 5 May 2021,

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StudyCorgi. "Rhetoric in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”." May 5, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Rhetoric in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”." May 5, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Rhetoric in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”'. 5 May.

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