Rhetorical Devices Analysis of the Narrative of "The Life of Frederick Douglass"

Frederick Douglass' memoir "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" has long been praised not only for its revelation of the immorality of slavery, but for its illustration of Douglass' superior skill with rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Published in 1845, two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, the book is a brutally honest portrayal of slavery's dehumanizing capabilities. By clearly establishing his credibility and connecting with his audience, Douglass uses numerous rhetorical devices to argue for the immorality of slavery.


Ethos is the establishment of authors' credibility and authority to write about a topic. According to teaching resources developed by Nicole Schubert of the Yale National Initiative, Douglass' narrative was a groundbreaking work because slaves had never been able to speak about their experiences. For example, Douglass begins to build his ethos in the opening of chapter one when he says that he doesn't know his birthday, unlike white citizens, who know all the details of their lives. Beginning with this fact establishes that Douglass can be trusted because of his direct personal experience.


Pathos is the author's appeal to the audience's emotions. The writing resource site Writing Commons states that emotional appeal uses language in a way that helps audiences empathize with the author. Throughout the narrative, Douglass describes his experiences in a way that lets audiences feel the indignity of being owned by another person. For example, Douglass recounts the experience of watching the slaveholder whip his aunt until she was covered in blood and the pleasure the slaveholder seemed to take in it. The graphic description of her abuse makes readers feel the same anger Douglass must have experienced.


An anecdote is a brief story often used in argumentative texts to prove a point. As a narrative, Douglass' memoir weaves multiple anecdotes together, each illustrating a different aspect of slavery's immorality. For example, in chapter eight, Douglass' elderly grandmother is expelled from the plantation because she is too old to work anymore. Despite her faithful service, even caring for her master when he was a child, the plantation owners cast her into the woods to live alone. This anecdote demonstrates that slavery places a person's value purely on their physical ability without consideration of their humanity.


Irony is a rhetorical device that reveals the disparity between reality and what is expected. In arguments, it often reveals the unfairness or fallacies of a particular situation. Douglass often uses irony to reveal the flaws in the logic of slavery. For example, in chapter three, Douglass describes the obsessive attention his former master, Colonel Lloyd, paid to his horses. If the slaves in charge of caring for the horses made any mistakes, Lloyd would beat them. Douglass uses irony here to show that Lloyd treats his animals better than he treats the human slaves.

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