Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave has a legitimate look and feel that describes a life in captivity like no other narrative. It’s harsh tones and themes paint a dark and powerful picture of the necessary change in society. It manages to keep a calm pace so that Douglass can communicate with both sides of slavery and spread his ideas. Toni Morrison’s Beloved tells the story of a woman, Sethe, who has recently escaped slavery. Morrison uses a modern touch to describe the feelings between all characters and does not hold back in any way to portray darkness, even after slavery was seemingly over.
While Douglass’ narrative and Morrison’s novel share themes and motifs, the deeper meanings behind them are altered and sometimes inverted to show the different ideas behind each work. With themes such as motherhood, racism, and gender roles; Morrison focuses on reconstruction to show how racism that had existed in Douglass’ time continued even after slavery was abolished. Motherhood is defined in separate ways in the two works of literature. Douglass’ narrative describes motherly love as a natural. A prime example of this is the first friendly character in Douglass’ story, Mrs. Auld.
Douglass describes how “she did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face… her face was made of heavenly smiles, and her voice of tranquil music” (337). Being a white woman; there was no need for Mrs. Auld to care for, what would seem to her, a less-than-human baby. This unrewarding, caring, natural act of motherhood is what drove Douglass to seek a freedom for more than just himself; and her corruption was the tip of the iceberg. As a child, his mother was taken away from him and was “placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor” (Douglass 316).
The requirement of mother to child is a theme also displayed in Morrison’s Beloved. Sethe, throughout the novel, is protective and cares for her children. When asked if she would produce another, she replies that “needing to be good enough, alert enough, strong enough, that caring –again. Having to stay alive just that much longer. O Lord, she thought, deliver me. Unless carefree, motherlove was a killer” (Morrison 155). Some would say her response can be explained by fatigue. Looking closer, her use of the words, “having to stay alive for that much longer” expose a different explanation for the overprotectiveness of her children.
Using these words; Sethe claims that, like the replacement mother in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, her motherhood is a required necessity rather than an instinct. Terry Caesar, a professor of English at Clarion University writes “[Sethe] can conceivably kill a child in order to protect her own self-possession, because she feels enslaved by her, and not only because she would save the child from slavery” (113). Douglass believes that even though mothers are taken away and replaced, the instinct of motherhood remains in all women. Morrison argues the opposite.
Sethe’s actions and motivations are mechanical and are not driven by any form of motherly love. She protects and cares for her children not because of want or love, but because protection is a necessity. In comparison to Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Beloved has reversed gender roles. Douglass describes his life as a male slave in his story. He infers that the life of a female slave is very different and produces different issues. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl is a slave narrative that offers a different view of slavery.
Winifred Morgan, a lecturer in English at Pennsylvania State College, believes that different genders have different objectives for obtaining freedom. He believes that a male slave requires education whereas a female slave requires relationships with others. Morgan further explains that “The slave narratives written by men emphasize their desire to be “men” in their society, to take a “man’s” role…female slave narrators have to convince their readers that they were neither the victims nor the fallen women that stereotypes have labeled them” (90).
As described in slave narratives; men desire to take a dominating stand, whether it be from intelligence or masculinity. Females desire to be treated as human as a result of previously being treated like animals. On the other hand, Morrison believes the effects of slavery cause gender smudging beyond repair. Gender roles merge into one as men become more compassionate and women become stronger. Hira Ali, a professor at the University of Sargodha, argues that “Sethe, kills her daughter to keep her away from the slavery.
Gender smudging is also due to slavery. It forces the genders to adopt opposite characteristics” (3). Sethe has become a hardened version of her formal self just as Paul D becomes more compassionate and emotionally dependent. Sethe and Paul D mesh traits so that they have equal amounts of everything whereas Douglass and Jacobs go their own ways. A common theme in Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is the theme of education. Douglass stresses that the key to a slave’s freedom is to educate himself or herself.
Douglass notes that the idea was sparked when Mr. Auld said that “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. ” (Frederick 338) From then, Douglass believes from that point, Mr. Auld had given him his freedom. On the other hand, Morrison believes that the key to freedom is ignorance. Freedom is relative to the person. A freedom can mean a document or relaxation. Morrison shows this idea when slaves refused to learn how to read even though they had the option because they believed that “nothing important to them could be put down on paper. (Morrison 147)
Not only does this show how Douglass’ freedom is different than another slave’s freedom, but it also shows that sometimes it is better to stay ignorant than to truly understand how unmoral slavery is. This agrees with Morrison’s theme of memory. Sethe is constantly trying to forget the past. Sethe hates that her memories “stays, not just in [her] rememory, but out there, in the world. ” (Morrison 43) Douglass the reader how innocence can be corrupted in white but does not have benevolent characters like those in Beloved.
Although he does this with caution, Douglass implies that even the most “angelic face gave place to that of a demon. ” (Frederick 338) Morrison includes both sides of the racism spectrum. Heather Humann, a former professor at the University of Alabama and the Shelton State Community College, states that “In Beloved, racism remains sanctioned because society offers little or no protection for enslaved African Americans, seen only as chattel by the legal system of the time. In fact, the law permits Schoolteacher and his nephews to behave as they do.
Their racist attitudes and behavior rely upon hegemonic assumptions of African Americans and it relies upon institutional racism. ” (Humann 63) Because Beloved takes place over the span of many years, there are examples of white benevolence and white oppression. The slaves at Sweet Home could go as far as to “correct [their master], even defy him. ” (Morrison 147) There is an apparent contrast of racism in Beloved whereas there is non in Douglass’ narrative. In the time Beloved was published, it was a time of reflection. Morrison is trying to raise a point about modern racism as apposed to Douglass’ goal of ending slavery in general.
At the time, Beloved was acting as a rememory in itself: a look to the past to help the present. Rose Lucas, a poet, author, and professor at Lexington University, writes that “The legacies of these past experiences cannot be eradicated by Sethe, Paul D and Denver, however hard they try; for each of them, in both interconnected and separate ways, such seeds have taken root in the hidden places of the self, and will inevitably grow until such time as they can be ignored no longer but must be delivered up by memory into the harsh light of the present day. (Lucas 39)
Like slavery itself is in need to pass on just as Sethe, Paul D and Denver’s histories do. Beloved was released in 1987 with no significance to the current times. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was released in 1845, 16 years before the American Civil War. Douglass’ Narrative had to account for the readers who disagreed with his ideas. Douglass had to tone down the kind of grit and reality that Beloved included. Beloved and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave both had different meanings behind their themes because they were trying to proposed new ideas to different people.
Douglass did not include benevolent whites because he did not want excuses for racism. Morrison chose to include benevolent whites because she was writing for a modern age where most people were not racist. At eye level, the two works appear to include the same ideas because both are about escaped slaves. What each book is trying to prove is completely different to the other. Morrison tries to end what would be considered abnormal whereas Douglass is trying to end what would be considered normal.