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Slave Narratives and F. Douglass: Compare & Contrast

Slavery was a difficult and cruel period in American history that affected the lives of millions of black people and their destinies. The slave narratives are interesting primary autobiographical documents that depict the life of an ordinary person from a slave point of view. The narratives Incident of the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass depict life troubles and hardship faced by slaves and their understanding of freedom and social equality. These are unique sources that portray the life struggles and desire for freedom of African-American people. Acts of insubordination, such as running away, were motivated by the slave’s desire to be with their family, to escape from the violent treatment of an owner, and to run away permanently from his oppression. Thesis For Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass freedom means real life and future hopes they are deprived of all their life.

For both Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, the upsetting aspects of slavery were physical oppression and psychological tension. Psychologically, for Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, freedom means the absence of cohesion and oppression. The example of Harriet Jacobs shows that slaves were caught and returned to their owners but Harriet Jacobs tried to escape this destiny. The slave knew this, but the act itself, a compelling impulse to remove herself from the plantations forced upon her in bondage, could not be contained. Douglass portrays that without property, and with prejudices against white men, slaves were vulnerable to kidnappers and traders who sought a profit in human lives. Even those who had acquired some land or property were not safe being picked up and jailed if they attempted to travel from one geographical region to another. She writes: “I had been three weeks on the plantation when I planned a visit home. It must be at night after everybody was in bed. I was six miles from town, and the road was very dreary” (Jacobs 537). Even free people who acquired large fields, owned slaves, boasted white “protectors,” and accepted the credo of the slaveholding class were sometimes mistaken for slaves. The remarkable feature of Douglass’s narrative is an emotional appeal and dramatic descriptions. Whatever intensity is achieved must be an intensity of the illusion that genuine life has been presented. To give dramatic descriptions with intensity, to make the imagined picture of reality glow with more than dim light, requires the artist’s finest compositional powers. Douglass describes his masters as: ‘Mr. Hopkins was even worse than Mr. Weeden. His chief boast was his ability to manage slaves. The peculiar feature of his government was that of whipping slaves in advance of deserving it” (Douglass 399). Douglass showed to millions of slaves that they should have paved the way in their lives and fought against slavery and oppression. The historical and social context of his works helps to imagine a picture of the general idea of slavery and crying injustice.

For Douglass, slavery means the absence of freedom and personal development while for Jacobs slavery means the absence of a family and separation from her children. Physically, for Harriet Jacobs freedom means the absence of beating and handwork. Harriet Jacobs sought to maintain warm relations with other people who could vouch for them and they worked to fashion their own social and family networks for black people’s protection. Similar to other slaves, Harriet Jacobs possessed similar personality traits. At this time, there was diversity, but most slaves demonstrated self-confidence, self-assurance, self-possession, the strength of mind, and independence. They were resourceful, stubborn, focused, and firm. Some of them were quick-witted, crafty, and intelligent, while the majority were deceptive and calculating, and not a few were double-dealing and scheming when it came to dealing with the white population. Possibly the most salient characteristic of the slave, was courage, in particular for those who ran away more than once despite cruel punishments. Very few among such slaves appeared curt, morose, or sullen. For this reason, escape from slavery means to Linda personal freedom and real life in contrast to mere existence in slavery In contrast to Jacobs, Douglass supposes that control of powerful feelings intensifies emotional appeal and adds dramatic effects. In his works, Frederick Douglass vividly depicts the struggle and injustice of life faced by a common slave.

Both Jacobs and Douglass find some happy moments during slave life. Douglass explains that he sings for both sorrow and happy moments while Jacobs feels happy when meeting her children. The problem with Jacobs’ stance is not that her preferred notion of adulthood entails a repudiation of a certain aspect of the issue: the self-sacrifice and subjugation of women. The problem is that Jacobs attempted to maintain too coherent of a feminist position that did admit some of the exclusions on which it was dependent (for example, the self-sacrificing black woman) but that also neglected to recognize its link with strains of thought. The narrative is not only mirrored changes and struggles that were occurring in the nineteenth century but it unveiled the way in which black women were deeply entrenched in the varieties of equal rights thinking of her own time and freedom. Jacobs describes: “I think she saw something unusual was the matter with me. … She knows there is no security for her children. After they have entered their teens she lives in daily expectation of trouble” (Jacobs 503). Douglass explains that happiness signifies the great number of women’s “voices” he incorporated and collected to fight for rights. Scholars have argued that by the end of the nineteenth century, ideas of freedom were giving way either to the antislavery movements or to the more secular-oriented groups (free-thought) movements). “I should have today, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and the happiness of home, writing this Narrative” (Douglass 362). Not only do such tactics confirm the creativity, intellect, and agency of the black population, they also offer new, open-ended possibilities for black people coping with that traditional oppression issues.

Douglass and Jacobs agree that slavery had a negative impact on the white population and created a social class of masters and owners in opposition to low-class slaves and laborers. In “The Narrative” Douglass expresses what liberty means dreaming about the absence of restrictions and compulsions, and in correlation with the idea of will, he sees it as the opportunity to act as would be desirable. Under the slogan of freedom, they could voice criticisms of the present community and imagine a new society that they no doubt could not have done as simply black women. The desire of black women to escape slavery served not only to overturn the negative popular image of the black population but also to put new power and image in black women’s hands, functioning as a means of linking their concerns with those of the white population. The importance and value of the sources are that Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass demonstrate that slaves did resist being enslaved but they had no opportunities to escape from slavery.

In sum, the slave narratives vividly portray that without freedom, life is aimless and meaningless. Psychological and physical freedom allows a person to choose her life path and build her life. The black people, in turn, continue to pose as his adoring servants, and they display little subjectivity or self-reflection. What Jacobs accomplishes in her vision is to forge an imaginary space for the owners, white women — one that is superior to the black people (perceived as ignorant, irrational, and laboring) underclass but not quite on a par with educated white men.


Douglass, D. “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”. In H. L. Gates The classic slave narratives. pp. 323-436.

Jacobs, H. “Incident of the Life of a Slave Girl” In H. L. Gates The classic slave narratives, pp.437-667.


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