The Significance of Stereotypes in Frederick Douglass “The Heroic Slave”
Frederick Douglass’s African American novella and only work of fiction “The Heroic Slave”, was published in 1852. The story is based on a slave revolt on board theCreoleand Douglass invents the prehistory for the leader Madison Washington, who sailed the ship to Nassau, where all the slaves were set free. His main goal was to evoke awareness of the socio-historical circumstances during the 19th century. As the story was originally intended for white readers Douglass features many stereotypes in his novella to make the main character and hero of the story, Madison Washington, more appealing to his white audience and their white ideal. In the course of my argument I will reveal how Douglass used stereotypes of African American’s as well as whites to create sympathy for a certain race, what it means to belong to a specific group and how it effects one’s actions. Furthermore I will illustrate the significance of nature and how Douglass used it to emphasize each of Madison’s experiences. To achieve this, I have divided my paper into four main sections; each part equates to Douglass’s experience’s in the novella.
THE FIRST ENCOUNTER IN THE WOODS OF VIRGINIA
Douglass commences his novella in the southern state of Virginia in the United States. The first character of the story that we encounter is Mr Listwell, who is a northern traveller, riding through the woods of Virginia. The woods function as a magical place of freedom that no church can provide and where our traveller accidentally overhears a soliloquy of a male’s voice. The story really begins when he hears this voice echoing in the woods (Hyde 486). As the moral anchor of the story, Listwell “listens well” to the man’s voice, whose name is Madison, while he is having his soliloquy. The traveller wonders, “To whom can he be speaking?” and guesses that he might be alone (Douglass 1255). He tries to get a little closer to the speaker to catch a glimpse of him and “he then distinctly heard the following soliloquy” (Douglass 1256), which begins with “What then is life to me? …” and ends with the testimony “My resolution is fixed,I shall be free” (Douglass 256). This segment offers one of the most extensive descriptions on Madison’s character and his thoughts and feelings that we will get in the novella (Hyde 486). It also becomes the mission statement of the story. Although having no audience, his speech is eloquent as well as vivid and the natural backdrop seems to function well as a stage.
As Douglass’s story was intended for white nineteenth century readers, Madison and his speech are portrayed according to the idea that white people then had about African Americans. Thus Madison finds himself located in a psychological trap. He is aware of the risks of fleeing from slavery by which means he might loose his life and due to his self- image he initially says that he cannot flee “But what is freedom to me or I to it? I am aslave, born a slave, an abject slave, even before I made part of this breathing world, the scourge was plaited for my back; the fetters were forged for my limbs” (Douglass 1256). The philosophical problem of people being slaves or who were slaves is their idea of having limited perspectives as well as their double consciousness. It seems as if the options of his escape “were two internal, opposing factions of a debate” (Wilson 457).
In his speech he also makes clear that slaves were property and had neither life nor the chance of speaking out for their own wishes and needs by saying “How mean a thing am I That accursed and crawling snake, that miserable reptile, that has just glided into its slimy home, is freer and better off than I” (Douglass 1256). It demonstrates the inhumanity of slavery in general, not just Madison’s particular situation. As a consequence, our knowledge of Madison’s character is too general. Within the course of his speech it becomes clear that he is caught in a moral trap, whether to flee or not “If I am caught I shall only be a slave. If I am shot, I shall only lose a life which is a burden and a curse. If I get clear, as something tells me I shall, liberty, the inalienable birth-right of every man, precious and priceless, will be mine. My resolution is fixed. I shall befree” (Douglass 1256).
The depiction of Madison through Listwell follows his soliloquy; he is almost beside himself with excitement when he finally catches a glimpse of the “unsuspecting speaker” (Douglass 1256). He highlights Madison’s stereotypically Afro American characteristics, emphasises his black maleness and how black man were thought about at the time. Moreover he describes his perfect shape, symmetrical and physical composition, and depicts Madison’s strength as “Herculean” appending that he is! (Douglass 1256-1257). His ambiguity is going back and forth whether to escape from slavery or to stay with his master, yet he soon declares that he has a loving wife and asks himself “what can she do when I am gone?” (Douglass 1257). He knows that he would have to deal with the sentimental and practical gaps of the separation from his wife resulting from his escape. Furthermore it becomes clear, that he is a human being with complex emotional responsibilities, unlike his description of himself earlier in his soliloquy. Nevertheless, being cut off from his wife would also mean a need to fight for the rights that are denied to African Americans by law and this seems to be a meaningful goal. He takes the courageous decision to flee with the hope that he “might devise the means to rescue her” (Douglass 1257). After Madison has finished his speech Mr Listwell “remained in motionless silence, meditating on the extraordinary revelations to which had listened” (Douglass 1257). It becomes clear that he has been enlightened. It is the key moment as the American Protestant converts to Abolitionism.
The reason for his conversion is that he sees Madison as a “child of God”, who is free of sins and has committed no crime (Douglass 1258). He recognizes that slavery is authorised by the bible and therefore “shuns the church” (Douglass 1258). The social evil of slavery is overlaid with religious connotations through pointers in the language. Listwell, who possesses every white male characteristic, comes to the conclusion that he has to be the one to turn society around “I have seen enough and heard enough, and I shall go to my home in Ohio resolved to atone for my past indifference to this ill-starred race, by making such exertions as I shall be able to do, for the speedy emancipation of every slave in the land”.