Is Bartleby “true genius?”

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In reading Bartleby, the Scrivener, I was interested by the narrator’s construal of Bartleby as the story’s central point of intrigue, lamenting in the end that he is “wholly unable to gratify” the reader’s curiosity about Bartleby’s past (1494). Whereas the novel’s other characters are comically inconsistent, operating on a schedule of complementary neurosis, Bartleby stays entirely consistent. He speaks essentially one phrase and adheres strictly to doing only that which he would prefer to do. After finishing the work, I found myself feeling curious not about Bartleby’s oddness or his past, as this is an unchanging constant, but about the narrator’s oscillating feelings towards Bartleby. Since Bartleby remains consistent throughout, why does the narrator change his mind so many times? Why does he ultimately feel so kindly towards Bartleby? To me, this is the story’s central mystery. 

Bartleby is a scrivener, a writer, who will not copy the works of others. He stubbornly rejects comparison. The narrator makes note of the fact that “[he] had never seen [Bartleby] reading” (1481). A writer who doesn’t read, Bartleby, one could argue, takes no inspiration or input from previous writing, instead operating entirely independently. In fact, he refuses to do the kind of writing demanded of him. Conversely, the narrator, a Wall Street lawyer, is at the behest of clients. I wonder if, in combination, Bartleby and the narrator represent the conundrum an author faces to be entirely original while appearing to popular tastes and satisfying demand. It seems that writers idealize pure originality, invention not subject to the whims of others, as the highest form of literary achievement (for example, this esteem for non-conformity, the rejection of imitation represented by Bartleby, aligns with Emerson’s conception of true genius). Thus, while the narrator is frustrated by and perhaps jealous of Bartleby’s ability to operate only on his own terms, he ultimately respects him. In a sense, he aspires to be him: the writer who does not copy others. By leaving Bartleby to die at the story’s end, however, Melville suggests that no writer can be truly original and maintain commercial success. In fact, the narrator’s perception of Bartleby as dysfunctional and even repulsive characterizes this desire for originality as parasitic, threatening to authorial achievement.

Heaven and Hell, or Something Like That

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The interplay between the two anecdotes given in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” is very obvious but there is no harm, I feel, in detailing it a bit further.  The choice of words that he uses to title them is particularly interesting to me.  Both “paradise” and “Tartarus” have powerful significance, though they come from different religions.

Paradise, as in the Paradise of Bachelors,  is generally used as a generic term for some place that is very nice to be in.  Theologically, paradise is most associated with the afterlife in Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The word itself can be traced back through Eastern Old Iranian, Greek, and Latin.  The word originally referred to a walled garden, like the kind built in Assyria.  Eventually, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word paradeisos was used to describe the Garden of Eden, the Biblical land of plenty where Adam and Eve lived before the original sin.  The Paradise of the Bachelors invokes this.  There is seemingly limitless food, spirits, and pleasant conversation.  There are no women in the Temple, which mirrors how, if Eve hadn’t been in the Garden, then she wouldn’t have been deceived and her and Adam would not have been evicted from Paradise.

Tartarus, by contrast, is the last place you would want to go.  Like paradise, the word also comes from Greek.  However, it refers to a Greek mythological term.  Tartarus is the lowest level of the Greek underworld, as well as a primordial being who is the master of the place.  It is a prison, where the Titans were banished after being defeated by the Olympians and the worst souls are trapped and punished for all of eternity.  If you’ve ever heard the story of Sisyphus, the king forced to push a rock up a hill for all of eternity for cheating death, Tartarus is where he is trapped.  Certainly, the maids at the Devil’s Dungeon paper mill would call their task Sisyphean.  All they do is shred rags and make paper, day in and day out, in the cold, with very little to show for it.  They are trapped but what crime have they commited to be put into Tartarus?

What is most interesting about this juxtaposition is that the Paradise of the Bachelors creates the Tartarus of Maids.  The owner of the Devil’s Dungeon paper mill is a man called Old Bach, which is short for bachelor.  For him to continue living his bachelor’s lifestyle, he has the maids work endlessly.   But the maids are no different from him, save from being women.  Melville seems to be implying that for one group of people to do no work, it must come at the expense of another group doing far more.  In essence, any true Paradise will make its own true Tartarus.

The Humorous Relationship of Bartleby and the Narrator.

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I thought that Bartleby, the Scrivener was an ironic, witty, and funny story of a man conflicted with his morals. The contrast of the characters plays a nice role to highlight the effects of Bartleby on the narrator. The coworkers, Turkey and Nippers have an amusing dynamic that is explosive compared to Ginger Nut, whose character is based solely on the words, “I’d rather not.” Turkey is described as ‘too energetic’ and ‘reckless’ past twelve o’clock while being “a most valuable person to me [the narrator].” In contradiction, Nippers, a man who didn’t know what he wanted, yet was labeled ambitious. Parallel to Turkey he dealt with indigestion in the morning and was quite mild in the afternoon, proving erratic characteristics throughout the day. While I believe Bartleby to be almost a constant variable of the two; even though he is eccentric he is also simply quiet. 

The whole idea of the character Bartleby is quite humorous due to his ability to disarm the narrator with a simple phrase. As stated on page 1476, “there was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me,”  he feels these emotions through only one phrase. It is the absence of words that influences the narrator not only into submission but also action from pity. Bartleby never once offers any evidence of pitying characteristics, however, the narrator assumes so through his own inner dialogue. I would have to assume that this Bartleby character has taken some sort of psych class to be so good at manipulation. The narrator’s acceptance of Bartleby’s presence and lack of sound or motion is determined by the very thing. While the narrator goes back and forth on whether or not to rid himself of Bartleby, Bartleby is simply sticking to his gumption. This leads to a hilarious power dynamic between the worker and the boss. Bartleby refuses to do work, turns away the narrator from his own office, and even refuses to move from the building all while his boss complies. When Bartleby refuses to do work, the narrator does it himself, when the narrator is turned away from his own office he grows concerned for his employee’s welfare. And most likely the most humorous event is the narrator moving buildings instead of physically removing Bartleby. 

As time goes on the narrator attempts to befriend Bartleby even though the character only states, “I’d prefer not to.” On page 1478 the narrator states, “Poor fellow! Thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentrics are involuntary,” which is an ironic statement in itself. While Bartleby means no harm by literally not acting on any ill will, his lack of action and words are want to create mischief. In a way, the narrator is being selfish in his pursuit of friendship because he can, “cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval,” which means his relationship with Bartleby is driven by what he receives from the friendship. We can see at the end that once Bartleby becomes harmful to the narrator’s reputation, he no longer wants to aid his friend. Yet to keep his moral scruples, the narrator moves out of the building to avoid physical removal and jailing of Bartleby. Even in the end, his efforts to console Bartleby are to assess his own needs. In the end, I must conclude that the narrator is also manipulative. Therefore the question of who was more to blame arises, or if both used each other to a means equally.


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Although the story is subtitled “A Story of Wall-Street,” the reader is exposed to outside perspectives once on pg 1486. In the passage, the narrator reels as he realizes he had imagined that everyone around him on Broadway was also thinking about and talking about whether or not Bartleby would still be at his office. In contrast to the “success or non-success of some candidate for the mayoralty,” something that is in all likelihood highly impactful to his job as a scrivener, Bartleby’s simple refusal appears small. 


Yet, it is not small for the narrator, such that he feels he is driven to a worse mental state because of the stress. Even if just for a moment, it feels appropriate to the narrator for this to be something others are taking bets on and deeply invested in. Although he moves on from the event, the narrator’s slip shows how internalized his “Wall-Street” values are. He prioritizes this inconvenience to the point that he believes it’s the center of the world.

The Ending of The Scarlet Letter

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     While I very much enjoyed my second read of this novel, I found the conclusion to be a little confusing and sudden. After Dimmesdale’s dramatic reveal to the crowd and subsequent death, it appeared that Hester and Pearl would be able to move on from their troublesome past once abroad. Hester, however, returns back to the community years later to resume her estranged life and wear her scarlet A again. I found myself wondering why she would return to a community that shunned her for so many years. Was her guilt too much to bear? Does she need to wear the A to feel alive? Hawthorne states “here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence.” Yet, I still cannot seem to understand why so many years of public embarrassment and shame were not enough.

     The novel leaves us with an image of the shared gravestone of Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne stating “on a field, sable, the letter A, gules.” I thought that this was an interesting final image because it can be interpreted in a few different ways. At first glance it seems like a sad ending, as Hester is forced to forever “rest” in a place where she faced so much adversity and trauma. When I thought about it more, I realized that the fact that they are buried together could insinuate that they have reached some form of forgiveness and may be recognized together. I thought a little bit about Cora and Uncas during this ending. While the circumstances of their death were problematic and they were not supposed to be together in either case, they are seemingly able to continue their love in the afterlife.

Sin in the Long Run

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The Scarlet Letter is set in a puritan society with rigid social rules. Hester Prynne was found guilty of the considerable crime of adultery. The start of the novel mostly leaves the reader thinking Hester Prynne is the one who committed the greatest sin of all and is the only guilty one. The back half of the novel leaves the reader wondering which character’s wrongdoings really have the most impact on their own lives and the lives of others.

While Hester is clearly guilty of the crime she is convicted of, she admits to her mistakes and does not run away from them. This is seen early in the novel when Hester has the option to move far away from the town she is ostracized from, but she chooses to stay. This is also seen later on in the novel when Hester is talking to Chillingsworth and is trying to convince him to stop tormenting Dimmesdale. Chillingsworth realizes his downfall and says he is a “fiend” and asks, “who made me so?” (520). Hester responds by saying, “It was myself!” (520). Whether she takes responsibility for Chillingsworth’s downfall because she wants him not to torture Dimmesdale or because she genuinely believes it, she still takes responsibility. Unlike any other character in the story, Hester admits her mistakes and sins, and in the end, she seems to be better off for it. 

At the conclusion of the novel, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingsworth both meet their demise, both literally and figuratively. Dimmesdale sinned both by participating in the act of adultery but also by abandoning Hester and Pearl. Chillingsworth treats Dimmesdale so horribly to the point where he almost kills him, which tortures not only Dimmesdale but also Hester. He is only interested in revenge and actively seeks to hurt others. 

In this puritan society, Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth put on fronts to maintain their positive public appearance, which leads them to deny these sins. In the end, Dimmesdale drives himself mad, and he feels so guilty that he makes himself physically ill. Dimmesdale does eventually confess to his mistakes, however, it is too late. Once Dimmesdale has died, Chillingsworth no longer has a victim to torture, and his death can be attributed to the ugliness of his character. 

However, the original sinner, Hester Prynne, after all is said and done, is still standing. She returns to New England, still wearing the “A,” and continues her charity work. Although Hester endured isolation from her community and comments from the townspeople, she persevered to change the meaning of the scarlet letter. The first step in doing so was admitting she had committed a sin. Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth, however, hide behind their sins, which leads them to be the cause of their own unhappiness. This points to the idea that conforming to society’s expectations to avoid punishment in the short term can actually lead to detrimental effects in the long term. 

Guilt and Healing

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The latter half of The Scarlet Letter sees a large growth in Hester Prynne’s character, which is emphasized by Arthur Dimmesdale’s ultimate mortal fall to his guilt. I found it really interesting how Hawthorne grappled with the themes of human guilt and how to reconcile and heal from mistakes. The scarlet A itself represents the weight of guilt that Hester feels, but even without the symbolic representation, I think Hawthorne has something of value to say about healing from mistakes. 

Throughout the course of the novel, Hester Prynne has a remarkable growth in who she is and how she comes to term with her adultery. She begins in a place of ostracized embarrassment, and journeys holistically to a place of near acceptance of her lonely life. Through decorating the A and helping the poor and sick, Hester twisted what was supposed to be a subjugating punishment into as much of a meaningful life as she could lead. In a way, having the entire town know of her past allows Hester to come to terms with it more efficiently. Hawthorne writes “Such a spiritual seer might have conceived, that, after sustaining the gaze of the multitude through seven miserable years as a necessity, a penance, and something which it was a stern religion to endure, she now, for one last time more, encountered it freely and voluntarily, in order to convert what had so long been agony into a kind of triumph” (549). While it certainly speaks to the sexism of the times that Hester has to come to terms with something that should not be punished, we can look past this to see what it means about making “mistakes.” Hawthorne is suggesting that facing your past and learning to live with it is healthier than the alternative, which is what we see Dimmesdale do.

Dimmesdale grows physically ill through the years as he hides a soul-eating secret. I think it is interesting that Hawthorne includes Dimmesdale in the sin with Hester, perhaps making it a less mysogynistic portrayal, and more focused on adultery from both parties.  Nevertheless, we see Dimmesdale spiral to the point of death from not facing his past. Hawthorne writes that “It must needs be better for the sufferer to be free to show his pain, as this poor woman Hester is, then to cover it all up in his heart” (500). I think this also speaks to the close-knit community and small town roots that is thematic throughout the text and emphasized in the introduction because it points to the social tendency of humanity. Humans are naturally very social people and hiding a secret that is so painful is detrimental to a human’s nature. In The Scarlet Letter, it could perhaps be argued that Dimmesdale had a more miserable life than Hester because he was not able to emotionally and spiritually come to terms with himself; which Hester was at least somewhat able to do. In reading The Scarlet Letter, I am now thinking more about how humans heal from mistakes and grapple with guilt, and how important the social consequences are to serious actions. 

“The Custom-House”

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At the end of last class, we talked about how the introduction to The Scarlet Letter was so long and to think about why Nathaniel Hawthorne would include such a lengthy introduction to his novel. I read The Scarlet Letter letter in high school. To be honest, I don’t remember much about it besides the fact that we did not have to read “The Custom House,” and we skipped straight to the first chapter. So when reading “The Custom House,” the first 15-ish pages felt especially long. While the things the nameless narrator in the introduction is important, the writing felt a little long and overdone. This may have to do with the fact that Hawthorne could be trying to establish a level of credibility through his writing. 

The introduction, however, does serve to provide context for the actual story. The narrator talks about the history of Salem, which is an important connection to the setting of The Scarlet Letter in Boston. This background can be seen as a way for Hawthorne to connect the time at which the novel is being written to the time that the novel is actually set in and to make the point that the story being told is still relevant. This also connects to the idea of notions of fictionality we were asked to take notice of throughout the introduction. 

The introduction for me really became more interesting once he started talking about how he found the package containing the letter. What I found especially interesting about this section was on page 444 when the narrator is explaining how the story of The Scarlet Letter is factual but also somewhat not. He says, “… and it should be borne carefully in mind, that the main facts of that story are authorized and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue” (444). He then continues to say that, “… I have allowed myself, as to such points, nearly or altogether as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention” (444). I think the words “nearly or altogether” are somewhat ironic in explaining how the story’s facts may be entirely up to his own invention. It kind of makes the reader question which one it is, “nearly or altogether.” He finishes this paragraph by saying, “what I contend for is the authenticity of the outline” (444). This section makes it feel like he is almost trying to prove to the reader that the story he is going to be telling is real even though he is acknowledging he may have made up certain parts. This could potentially be another way Hawthorne is trying to establish credibility for the story, but the explanation to me seems a bit contradictory, which I think is interesting. 


Instinct in Hawthorne

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I wrote my first essay on instinct and spontaneity in Emerson and Poe’s works, so when reading Hawthorne, I was slightly more alert to that sort of language. I found more references than I had expected to – though I read this book in high school, I remembered very little about it. I was really interested in the way that Hawthorne occasionally uses instinct or impulse to represent something supernatural. He claims he had a “prophetic instinct” that change would come when it was necessary, Pearl understands her condition as an outcast by “instinct,” Hester has a mother’s “instinctive knowledge” of her child imbued in her by God, and Pearl detects who her father is by “spiritual instinct.” Emerson describes instinct as a sort of infallible perception, and Hawthorne claims the scarlet letter imbues Hester Prynne with a “new sense” to detect people’s sins, one that she doesn’t appear to be able to control but which does present her always with the truth. 

To me, this seems like a great blend of Poe and Emerson’s attitudes. Poe has a darker picture of human nature, painting instinct and impulse as susceptible to corruption. Instincts in Poe’s works seem almost paranormal, especially as so many of his stories are ghost stories. Emerson connects instinct to God and nature, making the claim that because of that connection, they are perfect and infallible. Hawthorne synthesizes these two perspectives by portraying instincts as inherently connected to God and therefore giving information that could never be normally acquired, giving them a Poe-ian paranormal feel but still allowing them to be correct.


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This is my first time reading The Scarlet Letter or any literature written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was an interesting experience to finally read one of the works written by an author I had previously researched about. In one of my first-year classes, we had to research a famous American author, and I got assigned to research Hawthorne. Through my research, I learned that The Scarlet Letter was one of his most famous works. While reading The Scarlet Letter, I noticed that irony was a common literary technique used in the novel’s first half. 

The novel is written in a third-person point of view, where the narrator can analyze and portray details to the readers about information the characters are unaware of. In addition to the third-person point of view, the narrator writes in very long sentences instead of writing the main point in a few words. However, as I was reading through the novel, I saw that using a third-person point of view as a narrator allowed Hawthorne to develop irony.

One such example is Rogers Chilingworth. Chillingworth is characterized as a cold-blooded man, as he stands below the scaffold, looking at Prynne as she stands on the scaffold, and is criticized by the audience. We, the reader, can tell that Chillington is her husband by describing his figure. Hester recalled that “this figure of the study and the cloister… was slightly deformed, with the left shoulder a trifle higher than the right” (458). Then, looking at the man in the audience, “one of this man’s shoulder rose higher than the other” (459). Through this description, the reader can connect to the point that Chillington is Pyrnne’s husband, who refuses to be recognized. But, what is ironic about Chillingworth is his desire for his identity to be hidden while also possessing a need to find the man Prynne had fallen in love with. As he interviews Prynne, he tells Prynne, “Believe me, Hester, there are few things… few things hidden from the man, who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery” (467). This sentence is ironic, as Chillingworth condemns Hester for lying and protecting the man when he lies about his identity. 

Another irony present is the action of Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected reverend, whom Prynne was a part of his congregation. He is forced to interrogate Prynne and discover the identity of the man she had adultery with. At the platform, he states, “Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place… What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him – yea, compel him, as it were – to add hypocrisy to sin?” (463). As we read the novel, we learn that a connection exists between Pearl, Prynne, and Dimmensdale. “Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him, and taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it” (489). From this action of Pearl, whose world rotates around her mother, we notice a hidden connection between Pearl and Dimmensdale. The reader can connect that the father may be Dimmensdale. Hence, it is ironic that although he is trying to hide his connection with Prynne, he is also trying to pry out information on the father of the child. 

As a result, as you read through the novel, many hidden meanings can be tied throughout the story, which can be ironic. The reader must be careful to details and look back to determine which part of the story is ironic, as irony is a literary technique that Hawthorne commonly uses. 




To Salem

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In Hawthorne’s “Introductory to ‘The Scarlet Letter,’” he emphasizes how Salem, a once gloried port, remains somewhat cast aside at the time of his writing. Previously, before ports like New York and Boston monopolized ocean trade, “Salem was a port by itself; not scorned, as she is now, by her own merchants and ship-owners, who permit her wharves to crumble to ruin” (427). In describing the seaport’s decline, Hawthorne speaks of Salem as a feminine being, a mother of sorts abandoned by the very children she raised. She cherished the rise of ‘her merchants and ship-owners’ and they allowed the force of her energy to fade in time.

A seaport in its very nature provides a constant home to movement, allowing flurries of trade and transfer to pass through the foundations of its permanence. The port holds the heart of the ocean in its embrace, loving the tides that bring tumultuous farewell over and over again. The sea runs as the earth remains. The land raises its offspring with an inherited love of the sea, which nurtures sailors with salt air and frothing currents before it carries them away into unpredictable mystery. Hawthorne describes his family’s ancestry in Salem as centuries-long, for “From father to son, for above a hundred years, they followed the sea” (431).  With every departure, the shore watches, and refrains from placing heavy expectation on any return; this farewell represents a show of faith, or one of despair. For, over time, Salem’s shores seem to have relinquished their attachment to the sea, and the meaning they found in its eddies and flows.

The seaside town of Salem reflects the search for true understanding that Hawthorne seems to inescapably quest after. He opens his “Introductory” explaining that with the creation of their work, a writer “addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and lifemates” (426).  If the majority of readers scorn his work, but one or two finds meaningful truth, Hawthorne as an author will have in turn found meaning. The seafaring essence that powered Salem in the peak of its glory, that which brought it prosperity and utility, seems lost. Nevertheless, its inhabitants and visitors once found understanding and purpose in the ideals and ways of life that the port represented. Ultimately, Hawthorne seems to believe that if the capacity for understanding exists, that existence matters more than the lack of individuals who can access that understanding. The town of Salem lies sleeping for a moment in time, but perhaps not forever.


Hawthorne’s Leech

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I first read The Scarlet Letter sometime in high school, either in 9th or 10th grade.  I remember being confused by its structure.  I didn’t understand how we moved from the story of Hester Prynne to something that, to me, seemed completely unrelated.  Going back and rereading it, I have no idea how I came to this conclusion.  Somehow, I had forgotten about the character that links the two halves of the story together: Roger Chillingworth.

Chillingworth is a strange character.  He appears at the beginning, where we learn that he is a highly skilled doctor, that he was once Hester’s husband, and that he has plans to find out who Pearl’s father is.  After that, he disappears for several chapters.  I think this is deliberate so that the reader will forget about him a bit so that when he returns, it has a greater impact.

From the beginning, Chillingworth comes off as sinister.  He wants to find out who his wife cheated on him with, and while he claims he “shall contrive aught against his life, no, nor against his fame,” it calls into question what he is really after if not revenge (467).  When he appears again in conjunction with Reverend Dimmsdale, this implies that he has reason to suspect something of him.

In fiction, deformity is frequently associated with villainy.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example, relies on this idea heavily, albeit for the sake of subverting it by having Quasimodo be a misunderstood individual due to his appearance.  We get the slightest hint of this here since it is stated that one of Chillingworth’s shoulders is higher than the other.  This trait seems to be purposefully downplayed, though, because there is a far clearer indicator of his intentions in his appearance.

“At first, his expression had been calm, meditative, scholar-like. Now, there was something ugly and evil in his face, which they had not previously noticed, and which grew still the more obvious to sight, the oftener they looked upon him” (496).  This is how Hawthorne describes the changes occurring to Chillingworth as he stays with Reverend Dimmsdale.  His malevolence is articulated through his physicality, yes, but not through his deformity.  It is his own face that betrays his wickedness.

Chillingworth is the bridge between the two principle figures in this story, Hester and Reverend Dimmsdale.  The fact that he connects the two of them implies that there is another link between them, but I won’t say here for the sake of the reveal.  This story makes far more sense now that I’m looking at it with more intentionality, and Chillingworth is the key to seeing that bigger picture.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

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In the back half of “The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass,” there is an apparent shift in Douglass’s character, which correlates with his time spent with Mr. Covey. For the first time, Douglass finds himself experiencing the “bitterest dregs of slavery” that he had found a way to avoid in the past (1999). Throughout the first six months of staying with Mr. Covey, he says, “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit” (1999). Douglas lost his want to read and learn new things, and his belief in the possibility of freedom started to dwindle. After Douglass describes the horrors of his life during the beginning of his stay with Mr. Covey, he says, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” (1200). This line serves as a turning point in the plot of the story. Douglass and Mr. Covey then battles it out, and Douglass ends up coming out on top, which is a “turning point in [his] career as a slave” (1203). 

Not only does this moment shift Douglass’s character and career as a slave, but it also feels like his writing has also shifted. The tone feels more confident than it once had. The following paragraphs talk about the days off given between Christmas and New Year’s that serve as the holidays for slaves. This off is given to slaves by their masters as a gift, and some slaves spend it preparing for the coming season of work, but most spend that time dancing, drinking, and having a good time. This is how slave masters want them to spend this time, as Douglass believes for the slaveholders, the holidays serve in “keeping down the spirit of insurrection” (1204). Slaveholders do not give this time off to slaves out of the goodness of their hearts; they do so because it would be “unsafe” not to (1205). Giving slaves a taste of freedom not only keeps them manageable for the rest of the year but by encouraging them to spend that time drunk; it intends to manipulate slaves and make that freedom seem undesirable. 

While Douglass talks about the holidays using “we” and “us” pronouns as if he is also affected by the tactics of using the holidays that slaveholders use, there is a certain sense that he is removed from the “we” or “us” and he would not fall for this trick slaveholders use. Granted, Douglass is more educated than others at this point, but the confidence in which he tells the point of the holidays, I think, partly sparks from the turning point of the fight he had with Mr. Covey. 

Fredrick Douglass and education as a tool of change

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While I read “The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass,” I came to noticed that Douglass was trying to explain the truth about what slavery is and how many slaves do not know how outrageous their living conditions were. The ignorance was a factor and a tool that owners took advantage to have control of the slaves and this is a main point discussed throughout his narrative. Education or writing and reading in this case, is the tool that allowed change,  public opinion, and awareness of the reality and truth of slavery. Writing and reading was and is a powerful tool that permitted to take this step to end many injustices that occurred during this period of time. 

Last semester, I took a class about race and identity of Spain during the XV-XVIII centuries. One thing we discussed was, do slaves or other groups that are being oppressed truly know the situation or morals behind this oppression? Or in other words, can they understand the truth and reality behind their situation. As I read this narrative, I started noticing connections and similarities between how slaves were treated in America during the 19th century and how jews and muslims, were treated during the reconquering of Spain. Douglass addresses that learning how to read and write allowed him to view the secrets and the “truth” behind slavery. He says, “As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out” (pg. 1189). Although this was a cruel truth, he had to share this with the rest of the slaves, but in order to do that he established that he must educate people about this oppression. Throughout different methods such as talking, or forming “learning groups”, participating in movements and talks, and let’s not forget through his writing, he wanted to inform the people, more specifically the slaves, about the reality of their situation. Slaves had heavy restrictions on their freedom and were not allowed to educated or learn anything because it could jeopardize the power of dominion that the owners had on them.

Again, this made me think about the oppression of jews and muslims in Spain and there were many similarities between them. For example, jews and muslims were not allowed to write or read in another language other than Spanish for some time, could not practice their own religion, could only get low quality jobs, no power, and were constantly oppressed by other rules and the owners of the land “Spain”. These people like Douglass did, had to form secret groups or meet in certain places in order to learn and educate themselves, and they also did not truly understand their situation and thought it was normal behavior since it was the territory of other people. But, similar to what Douglass did, thankfully some educated jews and muslims started to spread the “truth” through poems, essays, journeys, songs, etc. This reminded me once again, of how Douglass also started expressing his opinion in public and to the owners about this whole situation and took one of the first steps to end slavery. In the narrative, when he confronted Covey about how he was being treated as an animal and he finally expressed and stood up for himself this is where the first step to finish this whole slavery situation came to place. Similarly, once the cycle is broken, and people start learning, and educating themselves about  situations and morals, this will make an impact. They will start to express and oppose opinions and organize to make movements, this is where changes will happen. I liked reading Fredrick Douglass’ narrative mainly because it made me realize that writing and reading, is a tool that although is common in modern society, it is still very powerful and influential if we want to make people aware of something or if we want to learn about truths behind a topic. 

Hints of Plato in Douglas’ Narrative

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Throughout the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave, Douglas points to the idea that slaves themselves do not have a full conception of what slavery is until, and if, they are educated or become free. I see large parallels between Douglas’ idea and Plato’s notion of the allegory of the cave. While I can never speak to Douglas’ statement, I believe in the power of education and reflective awareness of humanity, and Plato’s theory helps me understand Douglas’ perception of slavery. 

Plato highly valued education and the search for real, human truth. He theorized the world in two distinct realms, naming them the visible and the intelligible. The invisible realm is everything we think we know through imagery, our experiences, and our perceptions, such as sight, smell, touch, etc. The intelligible realm is where the truth of every form lies and is only accessible through rational wisdom and intelligence. To help him be understood, he created the “allegory of the cave.” He paints a picture of humans chained to a wall in a cave their whole lives, watching shadows dance on the walls that are projected from a fire behind them. Only a few of these humans venture out of the cave and into daylight, where they see real objects and realize the sources of the shadows they believed to be their only reality. This story is symbolic of people using curiosity, reason, and education to discover truth and reality. Plato was very keen on discovering honest truths and valued education and intelligence, as emphasized in his cave allegory. 

I see essences of Plato’s ideology in Douglas’ beliefs. Douglas relates that it is only through reading, education, and finally becoming free that he realizes the extent of the truths and horrors of slavery, and emphasizes that this ignorance is a key to the machinery of the slave system. When Douglas learns how to read, he reflects that he almost wishes he had not, as he writes that reading “had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity” (1189). Here, it is clear that Douglas is not condemning other enslaved people for “stupidity,” rather he is sympathizing that their situation is preventing them from reaching enlightenment. Douglas also suggests that he is jealous of slaves that are ignorant of the fully reality of their situation. He then refers to slavery as creating a “mental darkness” (1208), and that “it is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason” (1216). These passages are where I see connections to Plato, especially with the phrases “mental darkness” and “power of reason.” Enslaved people are in the ignorant cave of the hands of slavery. Yet, diverging from Plato’s reasoning, Douglas seems to believe that ignorance might be less painful. 

In considering Douglas’ belief more, it seems both beautiful and constricting to envy ignorance of the reality of slavery. It brings up a moral question of whether it is better to be aware of the entirety of one’s pain, or be unaware. Perhaps having full knowledge of slavery as an enslaved person would only give one a taste of what they are prohibited from attaining. It certainly seemed that Douglas thought that way, but that also brings into consideration if he would have had as much desire to escape if he was not aware of the full atrocities of slavery. All of this being said, there is no doubt that enslaved people knew that slavery was wrong, unnatural, and an unspeakable grievance to their lives. Perhaps Douglas’ core message is that it is sometimes worse as an enslaved person to be aware of how terrible slavery is because it makes the situation even more unbearable.