Frederick Douglass writes an autobiographical account of his experience escaping from slavery in the American South in 1838. His dense style mirrors the intensity of the experience. Although the escape is briefly accounted, Douglass focuses on the feeling he had being a free man. The haunting images of being the prey of powerful hunters predominate in this piece and are accentuated by stylistic devices and sound. Douglass’ tone seems bitter as he surrounds his chosen motto of “Trust no man!” with emotional and heart-rending images of his life as a free man.
Douglass uses a series of figurative images to portray his life as a free man. He begins with a simile in lines 14-16, comparing his escape to that of an “unarmed mariner” being rescued by a friendly ship from pirates. The analogy of himself to a sailor who has not the means to defend himself conveys the helpless feeling Douglass had had as a slave. The “pirate” symbolizes the white slave owners who were trying to catch Douglass and return him to slavery. This is an apt image for those who try to own that which is not, by any right, theirs. Pirates steal. The sea imagery continues with the rescue by a”friendly man-of-war,” the ship symbolizing those who helped Douglass in his escape. The imagery is exciting and has a happy ending, thus corroborating the excitement Douglass feels about his freedom. On the other hand, it is also a fairy-tale story, leaving open the question of what life is really like once the rescue ship lands.
The imagery darkens as the piece progresses. The next one includes an allusion. Douglass likens himself to one who has “escaped a den of hungry lions.” Here he is still excited, but the image is one in which death had been even more imminent. The lions would certainly have eaten him, had he not escaped, just as they would have eaten Daniel in the Bible had he not been rescued by God who closed the mouths of the lions. In addition, this image is one of animal versus human, the savageness of nature pitted against the helpless man.
Douglass transitions from these images of his excitement over freedom to a different feeling in line 18. The sentence divides at the semi-colon and now Douglass uses “insecurity” and “loneliness” to describe himself. He feels the fear of being recaptured. The metaphor he uses here is that of water to fire–the fear makes the fire-like enthusiasm of being free dampened and thus less.
Immediately there is another transition, marked by the initial use of “But” in line 22. Greater than the insecurity is the loneliness. The repetition of “in the midst of thousands” emphasizes the singularity Douglass feels as a newcomer to the North, even to his own people who are “children of a common Father,” a common cliche for Christian believers for whom God is their father. The sadness of Douglass’ image of himself as a child who cannot share with his siblings is poignant. He uses the conjunction “and yet” to contrast his position among many people to his loneliness in their midst.
Douglass expands the reason for the fear he feels by painting a picture of the world as he sees it with another simile. Again, he uses animal imagery. In this picture, he is the “panting fugitive,” already tired from running, and anyone out there might be the “ferocious beast” who is hunting him. The alliteration in “fugitive,” “ferocious,” and “”forest” connects the images, emphasizing the savagery. Here, in the middle of the passage, Douglass gives his motto of “Trust no man!” setting it off with a caesura and giving it emphasis with an exclamation mark. He clarifies his motto immediately, making the surprising claim that both white and colored men are included in this motto. He implies in line 29-30 that the common motive men had for turning him in was money with his “money-loving kidnappers” description. Both white and colored men could profit from his capture, thus rendering everyone untrustworthy.
Douglass sums up the situation in lines 35-37. This sentence precedes an extremely long, complex one of 21 lines, full of phrases connected and punctuated by caesuras and commas, presenting image after image; in its fragmented structure is the stress of Douglass’s situation. He adds impact to the sentence with the repetition twice of “I say,” a rather didactic tone implying that he has a voice to which others would do well to listen. The “I say” is followed with the command form “let him…” but with a slight and significant difference the second time. The first command uses the active voice and says that one who would understand Douglass should “place himself in my situation.” This allows for choice on the part of the one listening to Douglass. In the second instance, “let him be placed in this most trying situation” changes the situation to a passive verb. Here there is an outside person forcing the listener into the situation in which Douglass finds himself. Through this change in voice, Douglass dramatically increases the forcefulness of his plea. It is not enough to imagine oneself in the place of a freed slave. Force is required.
Throughout the final sentence, Douglass uses compound and parallel sentence structures and anaphora to contrast the conflicting feelings he has about being a free man. He has admitted from the start that he cannot answer the question “with any satisfaction” about how he feels. Here he listed the conditions of his situation: no home, friends, money, credit, shelter, benefactor, bread, all the while pursued by “merciless men-hunters,” the alliteration connecting the image. He contrasts his hunger to the plenty around him, his homelessness to the many homes around him, then makes analogous his fellow-men to wild beasts. Once again, Douglass returns to the animal/hunter imagery. This time he creates another metaphor for the beast metaphor to enhance their rapacious nature. These “beasts” are compared to “monsters of the deep” who “swallow up the helpless fish.” This returns the imagery to the initial sea-imagery at the beginning of the paragraph, only this time with no hint of excitement. Now he is helpless with seemingly no imminent rescue.
This powerful ending to the piece circles the imagery so that the reader is left with the picture of one who, though he escaped a terrible situation, only went from the frying pan into the fire. This state of freedom is terrifying and no resolution to the fears is apparent. Douglass went from slavery to being the prey of all men.