Frederick Douglass and Reasons for Usage of Theme

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Throughout the centuries of time, American literature has been characterized and shaped by the writers of the then present time. Each century seemed to have its own rules of what the concept of literature was. In the early years of American writing, the literature standards were strict; focusing more on the structure and content. This strict way of writing soon gave way to a type of literature that was allowed a looser form and focused on the individual and their feelings rather than the social aspect of life. This time period of literature came to be known as the Age of Romanticism. Throughout the Age of romanticism many new literary elements were introduced. One such element was Theme. Writers that typically used theme to their advantage during the age of Romanticism were the abolitionists. Writers, such as Frederick Douglass, used theme in their works to express to the reader how they felt during slavery. By using certain structure and points of view, the author plays to the readers emotions by giving them a picture through the first person point of view. From a formal standpoint, Romanticism experienced a steady loosening of the rules of artistic expression that were saturated during the earlier times. The high-flown language of the previous generation’s poets was replaced with a more natural intonation and verbiage.

First Reason For Theme

Frederick Douglass was a 19th century abolitionist and writer whom’s narratives played an important role during the Age of Romanticism. One of Frederick Douglass’s most famously known narratives is Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. As I mentioned before, theme played an important part in his narratives. Douglass uses theme as a part of his narratives for a couple of reasons. One of these is to counter the idyllic depictions of slavery that often came from slaveholder. Slaveholders had interests of their own in mind. They wanted to portray to the world that, life as a slave was a happy one. Many times white southern writers portrayed their slaves in a way that romanticized and defended the institution of slavery.

One such writer was Caroline Lee Hentz, a white Southern writer, published the novel The Planter’s Northern Bride. She quotes an elderly enslaved woman speaking about her master: ‘Oh!’ said she, her eyes swimming with tears, and her voice choking with emotion, ‘I loved my master and mistress like my own soul. If I could have died in their stead, I would gladly done it…. All on us black folks would ‘ave laid down our lives for ’em at any minute [sic](Hentz, Caroline Lee.).’ Douglass, on the other hand, details the cruel, heartless and true, interactions between the slaveholders and the slaves. In the first chapter of his narrative he depicts the following scene to the reader:

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“I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose [sic]” ( Douglass’ Narrative). Douglass’s purpose in using scenes such as this one is to bring to the reader’s attention the demeaning and dangerous conditions that slaves faced.

Second Reason For Theme

Another reason Douglass uses theme in his works is to show the outside world how white slaveholders control slavery by keeping the slaves ignorant. During the time Douglass wrote this narrative, the majority of society believed that slavery was natural. Many of the people had not ever known slavery not to exist. From a young age, whites were taught that blacks were incapable of learning and engaging with the civil society. In chapters five through seven, Douglass narrates his experience as a recipient of this kind of thinking. At the young age of eight, he was moved to the home of a new family and placed under the care of the mistress. Upon arrival he describes Mrs. Auld as “ a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings”. During the start of his new life with the Auld’s he is taught by the mistress the basics of reading and writing. This soon comes to an end as Mr. Auld finds out and in his words states that, ‘Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world… if you teach that nigger… how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’

This brings about Douglass’s point that he is trying to make to the reader. Douglass knows that knowledge is power, as do the slaveholders.. Most importantly, by keeping slaves illiterate, Southern slaveholders maintain authority over what the rest of America knows about slavery. If slaves cannot write, their side of the slavery story cannot be told. Douglass uses the structure of his narrative to bring this concept into the light. The following quote from Mr. Auld sums up in a sentence of what Douglass is trying to portray. “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do”.

Conclusion

Writers during the Age of Romanticism focused on using elements to help further their works for the better. Writers wanted to enhance one’s creative potential. They loosened the rules of former literature to bring about their own take on it which was by creating a sense of fantasy. Some focused on adding literary elements to their works to use as an advantage to the their view. Writers such as Frederick Douglass used elements like theme to portray to the world the truth of slavery.

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