A Comparison of the Slave Narratives
The History of Mary Prince and
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
© Julia Weinmann
America’s history would lack a significant part without the dark chapter of slavery. The horrors and cruelties of the exploitation of blacks are written down in so-called slave narratives, being told or written by former slaves themselves. In the 19th century, both quantity and popularity of this literary form rose, for in the face of the abolitionist struggle against slavery the narratives were published as political documents, designed to increase the opposition. Slave narratives offer a striking insight into the reality of being a slave; they appeal to the readers’ hearts in order to increase their sympathy for slaves and emphasize the inhumanity of the institution and its followers. Having a didactic tone, the narratives speak for equality between whites and African Americans, which are not to be treated as the inferior race, and criticize the religious hypocrisy of the whites. Black people, on the contrary, are regarded as the true worshippers. Moreover, a certain pattern can be traced in most of these narratives as they commonly depict the slave’s growing up, the separation from family and beloved friends, years of cruel treatment, the longing for freedom and the final escape.
The characteristics mentioned above are by and large true for the two slave narratives that ought to be analyzed in the following. Both in The History of Mary Prince and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the narrators are born into slavery, separated from their families and treated cruelly as slaves. The stories also include religious, sentimental, violent and didactic characteristics. They attempt to overcome society’s prejudices about black people and to support the struggle against slavery. Most important, Prince’s History is written from a female point of view, thus emphasizing domesticity, emotions and faith, whereas Douglass’ Narrative bears the influence of male ideals such as courage, manliness and education. In the following, both similarities and differences between the two slave narratives ought to be analyzed against the background of the genre and its conventions.
The first crucial difference between The History of Mary Prince and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass becomes obvious when observing title and subtitle of Douglass’ Narrative which is fully named Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – An American Slave – Written by Himself. The latter appendix reveals the emphasis on the former slave’s literacy which indicates not his inferiority but his equality to the white race, both in terms of education and intelligence. Due to his eloquence, Douglass manages to touch the hearts of the audience and thus to provoke sympathy for the victims of slavery. Prince’s story is not written by herself but – in order to maintain the reader’s belief in authenticity – subtitled “A West Indian Slave – Related by Herself”. Although the story is narrated by Prince, the editor’s influence shaped the narration; for example experiences that did not contribute to Prince’s innocent image, such as possibly having affairs, were simply omitted. In order to further emphasize the authenticity of the text and to provoke credibility among white readers, the editor included supplements and additional supportive narratives that were in some books longer than the actual narrative of the protagonist. Also in the Narrative, Douglass includes such supplements; however the emphasis is on his story.
The book covers of the editions this analysis is based on also differ. Whereas Prince, wearing chains, kneels in a humble and begging position, Douglass’ portrait shows self-confidence and education. Here, the different points of views become obvious, that are on the one hand that of a humble female victim, and on the other hand that of an educated male hero.
Typically, slave narratives start with the birth and childhood of the protagonist. The childhood period is often described as almost paradisiacal in order to sharpen the contrast with the protagonist’s initiation to slavery. This is true for the History as Prince describes her childhood in the following way: “This was the happiest period of my life; for I was too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave” (p.7). She loves her mistress, Miss Betsey and Miss Fanny, and is also loved by them in return, so that her “heart always softens” (p.9) when she thinks of them. Whereas feelings and emotions are treated in a positive way here, they soon turn into agonies of sorrow and pain that provoke pity in the reader. Mrs. Williams’ death is the first situation that rouses Prince’s grief which is “too great to be comforted” (p.9). Further emphasis on emotions, as it is typical for the female narration, is revealed when Prince is overwhelmed by her feelings when sold: “Oh, that was a sad time! [...] Oh dear! I cannot bear to think of that day, – it is too much. – It recalls the great grief that filled my heart” (p.9-10). She repeatedly recalls unbearable memories that provoke pity in the reader.
After describing the childhood, the slave narrative commonly depicts a loss of innocence, that is the protagonist’s confrontation with the cruelties of slavery. An abrupt separation from the family is the first cruel step. Prince cries bitterly when she is sold and has to leave her home and family, so again there is an emphasis on feelings: “I thought my young heart would break, it pained me so.” (p.8). Later, she describes the separation in the following emotional words: “It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing [...] I mourned and grieved with a young heart for those whom I loved” (p.12-13). This illustration, mean and pitiful as it might seem to the whites, describes a regular treatment and underlines the remorselessness of slaveholders even against children.
Also in Douglass’ Narrative, separation from the beloved ones is described as one of the cruelest characteristics of slavery. Douglass was separated from his mother when he was but an infant “as it is a common custom [...] to part children from their mothers at a very early age” (p.40). In this statement, he explicitly makes clear to the reader that this separation was common usage and not just a mere incident in his life. He further affirms that there is nothing slaves can do about this malice as they do not have a voice but fully depend on the white slaveholders. Thus blacks are deprived of the human right of having a free will and of influencing their destiny.
“Our fate for life was now to be decided. [...] A single word from the white men was enough – against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties – to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings.” (p.64)
Douglass repeatedly underlines the division of family and friends for the pain can also be comprehended and felt by the white readers. On the whole, separation is one of the biggest fears throughout the story. When his first attempt to escape fails, Douglass is afraid of being divided from his fellow-slaves as his heart cannot bear another parting.
“Our greatest concern was about separation. We dreaded that more than any thing this side of death. [...] I was ready for any thing rather than separation.” (p.89-90)
In addition to separation, his initiation to the reality of slavery is shown by a further cruel example in the Narrative; that is when Douglass’ grandmother is taken to the woods and left to die. The corresponding scene that leads to Prince’s loss of innocence is the cruel beating up of Aunt Hetty, her beloved fellow-slave. The scene is so powerful because of the master’s incredible ruthlessness as regards Hetty’s pregnancy, and her consequential death due to her body’s bursting. Whereas Prince reacts with great sorrow, Douglass’s reaction is that of anger due to so much ingratitude.
Both the History and the Narrative aim at provoking sympathy and understanding in the reader. Whereas Prince achieves this by means of typically female emotions, however, Douglas does so by means of cruel descriptions, facts and arguments, never forgetting his manliness. Therefore, he refers to the importance of courage and nobility, a trait which can be found in his fellow-slaves who “were noble souls” (p.85). One of his masters, on the contrary, contradicts the manly image of nobility, as we can suggest from Douglass’ utterance: “I do not know of one single noble act ever performed by him. The leading trait in his character was meanness” (p.68). Here, the comparison of black and white people becomes obvious – whereas blacks are honestly noble, white masters are characterized by hypocrisy.
To return once more to the introduction of the novels, one can state that in contrast to Prince’s History, the Narrative totally omits a peaceful introduction and starts in the midst of a pitiful situation, as Douglass never knew his age and thus was never allowed to have an identity. Consequently he is not sad when he has to leave his first master’s house for “the ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. [...] My home was charmless; it was not home to me” (p.55). As he was separated from his mother at an early age, he does not even feel more than he “should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (p.40) when his mother dies. This negative beginning might derive from Douglass’ being the author himself and wanting to concentrate only on the reality and cruelties of slavery; thus he manages to arouse sympathy from the beginning. The reader sees the slave being reduced to a brute, an animal, when Douglass compares his situation as a child to that of a horse, which does not know his age either. And throughout the novel, the comparison of slaves with cattle stays observable. During the slave auctions, for example, Douglass and his fellow-slaves are presented amidst cattle, thus being positioned on the same level with animals as “there were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and [...] all subjected to the same narrow examination” (p.64). Slaves’ being even inferior to animals becomes evident in master Loyd’s behavior as he wants his horses to be taken better care of than his slaves. If there is only the slightest mistake, slaves face “severest punishment” (p.48) as to the master horses are worth more than blacks, who are thus dehumanized.
- Quote paper
- Julia Deitermann (Author), 2004, A Comparison of the Slave Narratives "The History of Mary Prince" and "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/61096