116 Frederick Douglass: A Breath of Fresh Air

Brittany John

Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” and  Frederick Douglass’sThe Heroic Slave both focus on the escape of slaves and they depict these escapes to be quite different from one another.  Melville and Douglass really did write a completely different way than the other.  Melville was extremely difficult to understand at times, and he forced the reader to really look into the deeper meaning of what he wrote on the page.  Douglass wrote in a pretty narrative manner, which was easier for the reader to understand.

When it is said that “Melville works through irony and indirection,” it means that he uses tools such as irony to show the reader how the characters felt about the situation at hand, which was a revolt against slavery.  Melville’s use of irony and indirection, though, is a little more confusing for the reader to figure out just because they have to dig so deep into the novella.  He never says what he means flat out, and he likes to beat around the bush.  An example of this would be at the end of the novella when Melville writes, “’You are saved, Don Benito,’ cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; ‘you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?’ ‘The Negro’” (75).  A lot of readers could read this passage and honestly have no idea what Melville is trying to convey with it.  I’m still not one hundred percent sure what Melville means for Don Benito’s feelings to be in this passage.  Does Don Benito miss Babo even after Babo flipped the script and held him hostage?  Is he upset that Babo could have done this to him?  Melville is forcing the reader to truly think about the story and the characters in this passage.

On the other hand, we have Frederick Douglass with The Heroic Slave.  Douglass’s writing seems much more comprehensible in the way that he says exactly what he means, and he says exactly what he wants to say when he wants to say it.  It is said that “Douglass works more directly in articulating his themes.”  The reader can pretty much tell the character’s feelings about slavery from the clear words written on the page.  After Madison tells Mr. Listwell that it would be impossible for Madison to be sold to Listwell, Douglass writes,

“A cup of coffee was all that he could manage.  His feelings were too bitter and excited, and his heart was too full with the fate of poor Madison (whom he loved as well as admired) to relish his breakfast; and although he sat long after the company had left the table, he really did little more than change the position of his knife and fork” (39).

Douglass writes in a clear way that shows the reader exactly what the characters in the novella feel.  The reader can tell that Mr. Listwell is sad about Madison and that he does care about him.  We get that clearly with the line, “whom he loved as well as admired”.  Mr. Listwell loves and admires Madison because of everything that Madison has to go through.

Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass are two very different writers who chose two different ways to write the same thing.  Melville used irony and indirection to show the character’s feelings towards one another, and Douglass was clear in his wording to show the same thing.

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Frederick Douglass: A Breath of Fresh Air by Brittany John is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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