112 Douglass: Heroic or Cowardly?

Paige Schoppmann

After having read Benito Cereno and The Heroic Slave, I can identify the differences between the novellas. It is arguable that Melville and Douglass are both trying to bring the same point across; that slavery is not a good thing, and showing black rebellion as a direct consequence of slavery. Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville are bringing up the same point, but in very different ways.

Herman Melville more focuses on the idea of black resistance than anything. The black resistance then is shown through Babo’s later freedom, but the majority of the story didn’t reside around freedom, when instead it was residing around the rebellion. It’s very possible that this is because it’s from the point of view of someone who is not a slave, but that was done for a reason, to be able to show the rebellion in full force. Frederick Douglass focuses on showing the horrors of slavery through making it more accessible from showing a story in a slave’s perspective. This change of lens and point of view makes it clear that the goal was always freedom, not rebellion. In this way, it shows that the rebellion is a part of the freedom. You can’t be freed without rebelling, and the point of view being from a slave’s perspective, allows the readers to feel allegiance and excitement for the slaves as they become free.

Herman Melville shows the black resistance through irony and indirection, which I think is what the editors were trying to state in their introduction. Because we saw the storyline through Delano’s point of view, there were a lot of pieces missing. Babo of course is not going to make it clear that he plans to take over the ship, so we see it through somebody else’s eyes and it’s a misdirection that is surprising to us. This misdirection shows something very different than it being clear.

On the opposing side, Frederick Douglass shows the struggles, the planning, the emotions that parallel the decision to leave your family for freedom. Douglass works harder in showing the themes throughout the novel, which then allows for the novel to be that much stronger. His themes are the letters, the poems/excerpts in the beginning of chapters, the character shifts, freedom, and friendship. These themes characterize it more similar to that of a novel. The literary themes throughout the novel make it easier to stay connected to the storyline, and connect with the characters. In this way, his themes move along the point of the story, therefore the readers still are left with an understanding of slavery on a deeper level. The character Mr. Listwell also allows the reader to feel connected to the novel, with being able to identify with him if they are of white descent. Because the novel is from the point of view of a slave – former slave – we see the whole thought process of what Madison Washington went through, and we are rooting for him to gain his freedom. He shows his true dedication to it very early on, when he shows it through his exclamations. “Liberty I will have, or die in the attempt to gain it. This working that others may live in idleness! This cringing submission to insolence and curses! […] I will stand it no longer” (Douglass, 6). We become cheerleaders of sorts for Washington, which is a very different notion of how we react to Babo.

In a broader statement, I get the notion that black resistance was a heroic act to the slaves, and justifiably so. I learned that people perceive it in different ways, in regards to their race. If they are a slave, they see it as bettering the world, freedom, liberation. If they are a white person, however – aka, benefitting from the capitalist slave systematic oppression – then they’re going to see black resistance as a negative act, as cowardly, and a problem with the country. They’re going to see it as the majority of the characters in Melville’s novella, or as the majority of characters in Douglass’s novella. Both novellas, however, point the reader to the clear answer: black resistance was necessary, and it’s awesome that we have literature to show that more in depth.

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Douglass: Heroic or Cowardly? by Paige Schoppmann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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