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Sample Close Reading: Prose

For my prose analysis, I've chosen a passage from Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Douglass' Narrative was an immensely popular example of the slave narrative genre, written to encourage Americans to support abolition in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Step 1: Choose your passage.

I chose this passage because it is a turning point in the narrative. It's emotionally compelling and beautifully written. This is one of the most famous parts of this very famous text.

Step 2: Read and summarize.

This passage is about Douglass' fight with his overseer, Covey. After two hours, Covey stops fighting, telling Douglass that he has whipped him heartily, but, in reality, Douglass won the fight. This altercation is a turning point in Douglass' experience of slavery, when he realizes that though his body is enslaved, his self, his spirit, never will be again.

Step 3: Re-read and annotate.

  • Highlight, circle, or underline word choices that stand out.

“our own battle,” “drawn no blood,” “rekindled,” “embers,” “bloody arm of slavery,” “glorious resurrection,” “tomb,” “spirit,” “killing me”

  • Identify the mood of the passage. How does it make you feel?

This passage is told with great emotional force. Douglass' anger in the first paragraph is palpable; his feelings of triumph are even stronger in paragraph two.

  • Write any questions that come to mind about the author's choices in the margins.

Why mix the image of fire with the biblical allusions? Why end with the reference to being killed?

  • Identify any literary elements that you notice in the passage.

Douglass uses fire (“few expiring embers”) as a metaphor for his spirits and desire for freedom. The personification of slavery as a “bloody arm” conveys how slavery oppresses through violence. He alludes to the Christian narrative of salvation by referring to his “glorious resurrection,” from “the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.” The parallel structure of this sentence is especially effective: “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”

  • Identify the author's tone.

This passage is passionate, defiant, and forthright.

  • Note any patterns that you see, in punctuation, word choice, sentence structure, etc.

Douglass repeats the same sentence structure several times (“It rekindled,” “It recalled,” “It was a glorious resurrection”). This makes clear how Douglass is struggling to find language adequate to describe the enormity of this particular moment as well as to convey his feelings to someone who hasn't experienced the horrors of slavery.

Step 4: Prioritize and unpack.

I find the use of allusion in the second paragraph to be especially interesting. Douglass draws on the biblical narrative of salvation-- death and resurrection-- but he changes its meaning by relating it to slavery because slavery is a “tomb” only metaphorically. I'm intrigued that Douglass pairs this biblical allusion with images of violence, not something we commonly associate with Jesus Christ.

Step 5: Putting it all together.

In this passage from Frederick Douglass' Narrative, Douglass narrates the turning point in his experience of slavery, the moment when he realized that he could resist the power of his master and that he, in fact, owned himself. To explain the importance of this moment, Douglass alludes to the biblical narrative of salvation. Slavery is a “tomb” from which Douglass experiences a “glorious resurrection” to the “heaven of freedom.” Referring to slavery as a “tomb” offers readers who haven't themselves experienced slavery a strong sense of how awful it really is: to be a slave is like being dead. In the eyes of the outside world, a slave does not exist as a living person, an agent capable of deciding his/her own destiny. Comparing the achievement of mental freedom (if not physical freedom) to “resurrection” in turn conveys how intense of a moment this is for Douglass: it is the equivalent of rising from the dead, the foundation moment of Christianity. And the comparison of mental freedom to heaven reinforces the horror of slavery. For Douglass and those like him, achieving freedom-- a state his readers already enjoy-- will be like heaven, the ultimate paradise. By comparing the change he experiences to Christ's resurrection, Douglass figures it as miraculous. However, Douglass diverges from the image of himself as Christ-like in the depiction of his violent actions. To defend himself from Covey's maliciousness, he fights him for two hours, drawing blood from the “bloody arm” of slavery, as personified by his overseer. Douglass' diversion here from the submission we associate with the Christian narrative of salvation revises the biblical story, highlighting that for the slave, turning the other cheek means metaphorical death, not eternal life. Advising slaves to submit to their masters, Douglass implies, means advising them to submit to their own deaths. Douglass' salvation in this passage isn't achieved through Christ's actions, but through his own: through his own agency, he creates his own miracle. This focus on his own power is the ultimate challenge he presents to slavery: he is a slave who insists he is also a person.