According to Barton and Hudson's Contemporary Guide to Literary Terms, a chiasmus is a rhetorical scheme that is "particularly effective in creating irony through the reversal of accepted truths or familiar ideas" (189). Frederick Douglass uses the chiasmus throughout his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave to highlight the irony of slavery's existence in a country that was built upon the ideals of freedom. Throughout his autobiography, we find several specific instances of chiasmus that cause the reader to pause and focus on the point that Douglass is trying to make. Each chiasmus is placed in an important point of the text (and, therefore, an important point of Douglass' life) and calls attention to that passage's significance.
Let us begin with what is, perhaps, the most famous Douglass quotation: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (64). This sentence serves as the turning point, the climax, of both Douglass' narrative and his life. Up until that point, throughout his entire life, the world had been busy making him a slave. From the moment he was born to a slave mother (even though his father was white), the forces of slavery had been suffocating his humanity. When he was forcibly separated from his mother, he lost the human closeness of family. When he helplessly witnessed his aunt being brutally beaten and was subjected to repeated beatings himself, he lost the human sense of pride. And, when he was denied education and literacy, he lost the human ability to obtain knowledge. In all of these ways, society turned Frederick Douglass, a man, into a slave. But, as we know, the transformation from man to slave was not completed successfully in Douglass. When his mistress taught him to read, she sparked a fire of humanity inside him that would continue to grow until it eventually overpowered his slave qualities, and cause Douglass, the slave, to be made into a man.
The transformation from slave to man occurred both over many years and in the space of a single afternoon. The Narrative in its entirety is a story of that transformation, but the chiasmus found at the beginning of Frederick's fight with Mr. Covey emphasizes that afternoon as the setting for the metamorphosis. In the longer transformation, Douglass was made a man ultimately through his willingness to take risks for the sake of freedom. He learned to read against his master's will, taught his fellow slaves, and attempted escapes, all for the sake of freedom. A slave could not exist as a slave forever with this burning desire for freedom within him. This lifelong risk-taking for the sake of freedom led up to the climactic afternoon where the slave fought the master and regained his manhood. When Douglass fought Mr. Covey, he regained his sense of pride that had been taken away from him. Mentally and spiritually, he was free. It was only a matter of time before he would no longer be a slave physically either. Douglass uses the chiasmus to mark the beginning of this afternoon to ensure that his readers will take note of its importance.
Douglass chose to mark the afternoon when his education was halted, the afternoon that made him realize how important his education was and sparked his intellectual rebellion, with another chiasmus. Again, it draws attention to the significance of the moment in the narrator's life and also reinforces the irony of slavery. Referring to Mr. Auld, his master, Douglass wrote: "What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought" (41, italics added). With the use of absolute opposites such as "loved" and "hated", "good" and "evil", Douglass shows that the will of the master and the slave are inherently opposite of each other, specifically when it concerns the education of the slave. On this afternoon, his master's dramatic opposition to his learning to read made him realize reading's importance. Through the chiasmus he included, he not only showed us the importance of that discovery, but also led us to the same realization.
This passage of Douglass' narrative has especial irony; the realizations that he came to about the importance of education were a response to his master's forbidding his mistress' teaching in front of Frederick. The narrative does not make it seem as though he was eavesdropping on the conversation. Instead, it appears as though Mr. Auld condemned the schooling in front of Douglass, and in doing so, underestimated his intelligence, will, or both. If Mr. Auld had discreetly approached his wife and instructed her to cease the lessons without explaining why, it is likely that Douglass would never have been given the passion to learn to read. Frederick's realization that what was good for his master was inherently bad for him might not have come, and he would have remained enslaved, never escaping to write his autobiography. Certainly Douglass realized this, and the importance of that afternoon on the outcome of his life, and therefore chose to highlight its importance to us as readers through the use of the chiasmus.
A third chiasmus can be found at the beginning of Douglass' apostrophe to the ships on Chesapeake Bay. In this emotional outpouring to the personified ships on the water, he again uses the chiasmus to highlight the irony of slavery. "You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!" (63). This comparison is very powerful, as it shows us that even the ships, lifeless constructions, are freer than the slave looking out at them. The choice of the ships on the bay is especially significant since water and the ocean have always represented freedom. As Douglass sat on the shore looking out to the free ships, he realized that he was so close to freedom himself. It is difficult to imagine freedom when you are completely isolated from it, but when you see glimpses of it, it becomes a theme in your thoughts and will not be easily forgotten. These ships gave Frederick a reminder that freedom was out there. It was not a coincidence that his address to the ships came so shortly before his life-changing fight against Mr. Covey. His apostrophe, especially the chiasmus that begins it, marks another important stage in Douglass' path to rebellion: the realization that freedom was out in the world, ready for him to seize.
A final chiasmus that Douglass includes' contrasts the abundance of the free northern town of New Bedford with the poor conditions he experienced in slave-holding Baltimore. "Everything looked clean, new, and beautiful. I saw few or no dilapidated houses, with poverty-stricken inmates; no half-naked children and barefooted women" (97). After all the hardships that he endured on his path to freedom, Douglass uses this statement to express that all the effort was worth it. He shows how the free North is good and the slave-holding South is not. Although he was taught by southern slaveholders to expect "Spartan-like simplicity" from the northerners, Douglass was very pleasantly surprised when he found, instead, their great wealth (96). This realization that freedom really was worth all the effort that he had put into obtaining in was another key moment in Douglass' path. In fact, we could call it his final step. From here, he went on to aid others in their own quests for freedom, but his was completed. His journey from slave to man was complete in this passage when he realizes how promising his new life in the north looks. And so, to highlight its importance, Douglass uses a final chiasmus.
Each of these four chiasmi was deliberately inserted into the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by the author to express a specific irony, highlight an important scene, and reinforce the overarching irony of slavery existence in a free nation. Douglass marks his transformation from slave to man with a chiasmus just before his fight with Mr. Covey. He used two more to highlight events that led up to that climactic afternoon: one contrasting the will of the master and that of the slave, and other contrasting the freedom of the ships with Frederick's own bondage in slavery. Finally, Douglass uses a chiasmus to highlight the disparity between the free, near-utopian North, and the slaveholding, harsh South. His masterful use of the rhetorical tool of chiasmus allowed Frederick Douglass to expertly exhibit the irony of slavery to an entire nation.
Barton, Edwin J. and Glenda A. Hudson. A Contemporary Guide to Literary Terms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.