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In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Douglass documents his life as a slave and eventual escape. Although he does not offer a timeline or name the people involved in his escape, he describes his feelings regarding the subject. Douglass conveys his attempt to escape from bondage in the face of evil and almost certain death by using rhetorical strategies to ensure that readers can identify with his story. While most readers cannot relate to Douglass’ struggle – which is beyond full comprehension for 21st-century readers- he makes it accessible by providing clear images and widely known anecdotes. Douglass argues that an escape from slavery is a terrifying, and dangerous feat that greatly lacks certainty of success, but he would still prefer to take on these obstacles than remain hopelessly enslaved.
Douglass argues that escaping slavery creates a multitude of fears and obstacles that seem impossible to overcome. He vividly describes the obstacles he and his fellow slaves must face in order to attain freedom. He writes, “Now it was starvation, causing us to eat our own flesh;—now we were contending with the waves, and were drowned;—now we were overtaken, and torn to pieces by the fangs of the terrible bloodhound.” He uses powerful imagery to clearly describe the frightening and unappealing consequences of a failed escape from slavery. He goes beyond simply offering starvation as a possibility, but asserts that escaping slaves would reach a point where they would “eat their own flesh” from lack of sustenance. This detailed depiction offers a truly terrifying image, which appeals to the audience’s humanity and demands empathy because no human should have to endure this gruesome experience. He uses dashes to create a pause in reading, so the previous line resonates with the reader before starting the next. The repetition of the word “now” builds each horrifying possibility upon the last, ensuring that the reader anticipates an even more terrifying option. The repetition creates a list of obstacles, as though they must overcome one obstacle after another, in order to succeed. The tone of hopelessness and impossibility supports the assertion that slaves attempting to escape bondage would likely confront a dreadful reality. He asserts that, “this picture sometimes appalled us, and made us / ‘rather bear those ills we had, /Than fly to others, that we knew not of.’” Douglass invokes Shakespeare’s language from Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which he expresses that humans would rather live in misery than face the unknown. These words reflect Douglass’s choice to either accept his current state of enslavement or risk his life by contending with the possible consequences of escaping, including death. By invoking Shakespeare, Douglass presents his uncertainty in a manner that creates a universal understanding, even among people who otherwise would be unable to relate. Douglass drives home the point that no matter what one’s circumstances, the fear of the unknown can supersede all other fears. Most people would rather suffer with what they know than risk the comfort of familiarity – however awful – for the unknown. By writing that the reality of death “sometimes” appalled him and other slaves, he concedes that stories of the terror slaves experience in their attempts to escape were sometimes powerful enough to quell notions of escape.
In addition to associating possible escape with sheer fright, Douglass argues that a successful escape is extremely doubtful, but that he prefers to harbor a minuscule amount of hope that he’ll reach freedom. He believes that possible reward is one worth dying for. He states, “There stood slavery, a stern reality, glaring frightfully upon us, —its robes already crimsoned with the blood of millions, and even now feasting itself greedily upon our own flesh. On the other hand, away back in the dim distance, under the flickering light of the north star, behind some craggy hill or snow-covered mountain, stood a doubtful freedom—half frozen—beckoning us to come and share its hospitality.” By personifying slavery, Douglass underscores the power and presence of slavery. He proves the doubtfulness of freedom by the contrasting a “very stern” slavery that exists very prominently in his reality with the “dim distance” at which freedom stands. His use of the repetition of prepositions “away”, “under”, and “behind”, demonstrates the extreme difficulty one must endure to reach freedom. He shows that the distance to freedom is further than any person has ever traveled, and therefore almost impossible as he states that it lies beneath the North Star. He calls into question the possibility of ever reaching it. He further describes freedom as “half-frozen,” proclaiming that even upon reaching freedom, it may not be accessible. That is, if an escaped slave reaches a free state, doubt remains if they would ever have the opportunity to live according to the freedoms afforded to them because in reality they could be returned to bondage or remain treated as inferior. Overall, the succession of prepositions emphasizes the doubtfulness of a successful escape because each prepositional phrase after the other shows how many obstacles stand in the way. Ultimately, he believes that even after describing the challenges involved with attaining freedom, its promise still tantalizes him. The personification of beckoning freedom proves how real freedom still is to him like its reaching out to him, even in the context of doubt.
Douglass then continues on to describe how, “In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death.  With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.” Douglass uses allusion in his reference to Patrick Henry’s famous speech, “give me liberty or give me death”, which provides a powerful similarity and contrast. The words “liberty” and “death” carry an equal possibility in the case of Henry; one would realize either liberty or death. One the other hand, Douglass offers a less feasible option of “liberty” and a more plausible alternative of “death” by adding the words “doubtful” and “certain”, underscoring the vast unlikelihood of a successful escape. He asserts that a successful escape is unlikely by using patriotic rhetoric and comparing his plight to that of arguably the greatest underdogs in American history. Although, he proposes the contrast to that with his own situation by making his chances of success seem even less possible. He again uses this reference to create a universal understanding about the gravity of his situation, so people can relate and better understand his struggle. Despite his previous declaration that he sometimes would rather remain in his current misery than face the fear of the unknown, Douglass ultimately concludes he would rather struggle to gain his freedom with no certainty it would become a reality than continue to live according to the certain terms that slavery promises.
Through the use of verbal rhetoric, Douglass expresses both the emotional and physical challenges he face confronts when considering an escape from slavery. He offers imagery to help readers resonate with his plight. His vivid descriptions speak to the terror of escape and the horrors of physical human bondage. He implicitly depicts the cruelty of slavery through his decision to face an uncertain and possibly worse future than remain enslaved. Even when he declared that he preferred remaining in his current and certain state of misery because the fear and terror of escape was too horrifying, by the end of the passage he ultimately proves that slavery is too great of a misery to endure. Douglass shows that when faced with unthinkable challenges, people often prove their will to live and defiance against those who seek to inspire fear. Douglass’s story exemplifies that the refusal to surrender one’s dignity and refusal to sacrifice one’s dignity is worth dying for. In the end, his faith in freedom overcomes his crippling fear.
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