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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass- Punishment Strand
Transcript of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass- Punishment Strand
Douglass claims that the power slaveholders have over their slaves is a result of the sense of fear they create through the use of excessive and irrational punishment. As the levels of punishment, and in turn fear, fluctuate, so does the power of the slaveholders. He uses a strand of punishment to illustrate this idea, and his idea of irrational punishment aids in his overall argument that slavery is irrational, unnecessary, and cruel. “It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass” (20).
This quote uses a metaphor to liken slavery to hell, and this first comparison of the two makes it clear how awful slavery is right from the beginning of the narrative. As Douglass passes through this “blood-stained gate” for the first time, his readers do as well. This is meant to shock and prepare the audience for the horrors to come. Douglass uses chapter 1 to illustrate the intense cruelty of the slaveholders towards their slaves. This chapter foreshadows the violence to come in the rest of a novel. It outlines Douglass’s first experience with punishment, and it is most likely the readers’ first experience with this kind of awful behavior as well, considering that his audience at the time would have been Northerners who did own slaves. The readers are to follow Douglass on his journey through the horrors of slavery. “If a slave was convicted of any high misdemeanor, became unmanageable, or evinced a determination to run away, he was brought immediately here, severely whipped, put on board the sloop, carried to Baltimore, and sold to Austin Woolfolk, or some other slave trader, as a warning to all slaves remaining” (23). The sentence uses a long list to make the process of punishing a slave seem long and drawn out, as the sentence is long, so is the punishment, and this amplifies its terrible nature, which Douglass uses to show the severity to which slaves were punished, especially as a warning to other slaves. This severe warning serves to inspire fear in the other slaves, which the slaveholders then prey upon like in the following quote. “They were frequently whipped when least deserving it, and escaped whipping when most deserving it” (29).The antithesis in this sentence shows the randomness of the punishment of slaves. The order of the words in the sentence is reversed, just as the punishment standards for the slaves are somewhat reversed. It seems backwards that they would be whipped for doing nothing yet avoid punishment when they were in the wrong, and the sentence structure highlights this backwards logic. The slaveholders use of backwards logic such as this in punishing slaves makes their actions unpredictable, which is another reason the slaves fear them. “It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind” (30). The cause and effect relationship established in this sentence clarifies that since other slaves have been punished for telling the truth, slaves live in fear, and as a result of this fear, they lie about their masters. The masters have to power to make the slaves lie as a result of punishing them. Douglass does not even have to say specifically that the slaves are lying for it to be clear to his audience, since all the other examples he has given thus far show how mean the masters are normally. In chapters 2 and 3 Douglass shows that the slaves were whipped constantly on the plantations, and oftentimes for no reason. As a result, they feared punishment and their slaveholders, and because of this fear, they lied and even went so far as to say their masters were kind. Douglass makes it clear that this is the reason the slaveholders possess so much power through his use of cause and effect. On the plantations, the slaves are kept in a state of total terror, and this is what gives the slaveholders full control. By this point in the narrative, it is clear that Douglass is arguing that the behavior of the masters towards their slaves is inhumane. “To be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished; the one always following the other with immutable certainty. To escape punishment was to escape accusation; and few slaves had the fortune to do either, under the overseership of Mr. Gore” (30).“He spoke but to command, and commanded but to be obeyed; he dealt sparingly with his words and bountifully with his whip, never using the former where the latter would answer as well” (33).In both of these quotes, the parallel sentence structure uses multiple steps to show the direct relationships between two actions; first that accusation by Mr. Gore leads to punishment, and second that whenever Mr. Gore speaks, he is obeyed. These two things show the incredible amount of power that Gore has over the slaves, as they obey him every time he speaks, and are punished whenever he feels like it. “He was setting a dangerous example to the other slaves, --one which, if suffered to pass without some such demonstration on his part, would finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and order upon the plantation. He argued that if one slave refused to be corrected and escaped with his life, the other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the enslavement of the whites” (33-34). The antithesis between freedom of the slaves and enslavement of the whites is used to show the slaveholders biggest fear, that the roles will be reversed, like the sentence structure is reversed. In order to prevent this role reversal, the slaveholders make examples of the slaves and punish them for no reason to keep them submissive. In this chapter, the slaveholders are shown as having something to fear as well, so the reasoning behind their excessive punishment of the slaves is not only to maintain power over the slaves, but also because they fear what would happen if this balance of power shifted. It is unfair that the slaveholders can alleviate their fear by punishing the slaves, which is exactly what causes the slaves to be afraid and takes away any power and dignity they may have, and the injustice of this cycle is one of Douglass’s main arguments against slavery. “I was seldom whipped by my old master, and suffered little from any thing else than hunger and cold” (36).This is really the only reference to punishment in the chapter. Douglass omits examples of punishment as he describes his journey to Baltimore. His tone is joyful and happy in comparison to his tone in previous chapters, he even says, “they were three of the happiest days I ever enjoyed” (37). For the first time in the narrative, there is a sense of hope. Douglass uses this to prove that even a short time free from punishment can change a slave’s perspective on life. Readers get a glimpse of the potential for a slave who is not being influenced by fear to be free emotionally, and Douglass’s argument must now shift to account for this potential to be happy. He makes it seem as though only without punishment can slaves be joyful, and the fact that slaveholders are robbing this ability to be happy from their slaves becomes one of his main arguments against slavery. “I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty –to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man” (41).This relatively short sentence in comparison to many of Douglass’s others throughout the narrative is purposeful. It conveys Douglass’s revelation as something simple and uncomplicated, something rather basic, which Douglass has finally come to understand. The simple sentence structure mirrors the meaning of the sentence. “In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress, I acknowledge the benefit of both” (41).The use of the word “acknowledge” in this sentence is critical in understanding its tone. Douglass does not say anything about being grateful for their contributions to his learning, nor about appreciating it. Rather, he acknowledges its benefit, which is essentially saying that while he does not agree with the manner his master and mistress went about “helping” him learn to read, he cannot deny that they are the reason he ended up learning to read. He distances himself from their “aid”, and his tone is cool and detached. He is not afraid of them, and this lack of fear is important in his overall argument. When Douglass first arrives in Baltimore, his mistress does not punish him. Instead she is kind and teaches him to read. This incredibly short time period without punishment is enough to spark a passion for learning in Douglass, one that he never would have been able to follow in the strict and oppressive environment of the plantation. Douglass says that the whites’ power to enslave the blacks came from prohibiting learning, which is essentially a more psychological form of punishment. When Douglass is not being punished, he also does not fear his masters. In fact, he acknowledges that his master had benefitted him. He didn’t live in fear of his masters even after his mistress stopped teaching him to read, he began to pursue his desire to read and eventually this lead to his escape from slavery. He uses these examples to show how a master does not have any power over a slave who does not fear him. He argues that this lack of fear has the potential to undermine the institution of slavery, which is why the masters punish their slaves so severely to prevent it on the plantations. “There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty, so commonly enacted upon the plantation” (42).In Baltimore, the masters cannot punish the slaves as severely because they themselves live in fear of getting a bad reputation from their neighbors. When the masters fear the social punishment they in turn lose their power over the slaves. In these chapters Douglass begins to outline that there is more than just physical punishment that can cause fear. Also, the slaves are not the only ones who end up fearing punishment, whether master or slave, this fear of punishment takes away the power. Since Douglass refers to the fear of a bad reputation as coming from a “vestige of decency” it is obvious that he believes the decent thing to do is to look down upon slaveholders, and he argues that it is good for the slaveholders to lose power and be judged for their horrible acts. “She stands –she sits –she staggers –she falls –she groans –she dies –and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains” (52). The use of asyndeton in this quote serves to place more emphasis on each action that befalls Douglass’s poor grandmother, which makes her plight seem sadder because there is more focus on each individual pathetic action of this woman’s last moments in life. In this chapter Douglass returns to the plantation and the sharp contrast between the treatment of slaves in Baltimore and the treatment of slaves on the plantation is highlighted. On the plantation the slaveholders truly have no regard for the slaves and they punish even the most dedicated until death. Douglass plays upon the emotions of his readers in this chapter with the sad example of his grandmother, and he really drives home his argument that slavery is inhumane because of the way in which innocent slaves are punished. “He was a slaveholder without the ability to hold slaves” (55).Again Douglass employs antithesis using the actual reversal of words in the sentence to indicate a reversal of what the normal situation would have been, it was strange that this slaveholder could not hold slaves, and the antithesis encompasses this backwardness. He was unable to hold his slaves because he did not know how to punish them in a way that made them fear him, which is why the slaves called him Captain Auld rather than master. Since the slaves did not fear his punishment, he had no power over them, and was ineffective as a slaveholder. “I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drop; and in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture –“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes” (57). Douglass quotes the actual biblical passage in this quote not to agree with the justification of the slaveholders actions, but to point out how absolutely awful it was that they were able to twist religion to meet their own bloody purposes. In this chapter Douglass emphasizes the change in his master after he found justification for his cruel actions. He became a man who now had the power to command slaves after he found this twisted form of religion. Douglass’s argument in this chapter is against this religious justification. He argues that it is the wrong way to go about religion, and his use of antithesis earlier in the chapter resonates with the idea of a reversed or backwards idea of religion, as if the slaveholders are going about it the opposite way from how religion is supposed to be interpreted. “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute” (63).Douglass’s use of balanced and parallel verb tenses draws a connection between the actions in this sentences, and emphasizes the idea that truly everything that was strong about his spirit was being shut down. The metaphor of the dark night of slavery indicates that slavery in its worst form, like under the harsh treatment of Covey, crushes everything that is light, or good, about a slave. “My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me” (69).The asyndeton in the first clause of this quote functions to make very clear and distinct assertions about the changes that Douglass is experiencing. He is getting a clear idea of who is his, so the presentation of each change is separate, yet they are still connected into one idea. His tone in this quote is certain and strong, and it goes well with the meaning of the quote that he will no longer be taken advantage of. The shift in tone here accompanies the shift in power that happens as Douglass for the first time sheds the fear of his oppressive master Covey, and stands up against the punishment. “That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me –a boy about sixteen years old –to the public whipping post, his reputation would have been lost; so to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished” (70).The word “reputation” is repeated three times in this one line. This is because it was on the forefront of Covey’s mind as he made the decision to not punish Douglass. His fear of ruining his reputation overruled his fear of losing control over his slave. He chose to protect himself against the greater fear; therefore, he lost what power he had previously had over Douglass because he did not end up punishing him. In fact, but causing Covey this fear of losing his reputation, Douglass ends up being the one with power over Covey, and he uses this power to keep himself from ever being whipped again. In chapter 10 Douglass combines both ends of the punishment spectrum. In the beginning he is punished more severely than ever before, and as a result becomes a completely submissive being to the power of his master. Then, when he finally decides to stop fearing his master and stand up for himself, Douglass ends up having a slavery experience free of this physical punishment, and in turn gains power over his master. Douglass’s argument in this chapter is that as the levels of punishment fluctuate, so do the levels of control the master has over the slave and vice versa. Slavery in its truest form cannot exist without this punishment, and Douglass makes it clear that this inhumane punishment has the effect of crushing the spirit of the slaves; therefore slavery does the same and should not be tolerated. Chapter 11 “I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey” (89).The vivid language used in this quote aids Douglass in painting a clear picture of the terror he wants the slaveholders to experience. It is similar to the vivid language he had used previously in the narrative to describe the awful punishments the slaveholders performed, and this comparison is interesting because it seems as though the tables have turned. “I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on” (97).
This simple sentence sums up perhaps the most powerful claim that Douglass makes in his narrative. No one is being punished, there is no evidence of slavery, yet life is functioning normally and all the work that needed to be done is performed. Slavery is totally and completely and unnecessary evil.
In this chapter Douglass reverses the stakes, by escaping and leaving the potential for escape he leaves the slaveholders in fear, which contrasts the fear of punishment they had been using on slave throughout the narrative. He makes his final and most powerful argument about slavery in this chapter as well. It is unnecessary. Slavery is not needed for daily life to function, and it is inherently cruel; therefore, slavery should be abolished. This is the overall goal of Douglass’s narrative.