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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2006
Literary Themes for Students: Race and Prejudice
Publisher: Gale
Series: Literary Themes for Students
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The history of slavery testifies not only to the economic benefits it provides the enslavers, but also to the credence that certain people are innately inferior to others. Whether it is chattel slavery—absolute ownership of a person—or indentured servitude with the promise of eventual freedom, slavery has occurred in some form in every part of the inhabited world. Literature about slavery reveals the physical, emotional, and spiritual legacy left by this institution on both individuals and societies.

Conditions under Slavery

The conditions a slave must endure are typically harsh and oppressive, resulting from the belief that the slave belongs to a group of people that are inferior by birth or circumstance. Many novels about slavery expose its inhumane nature and the squalid conditions in which slaves are forced to suffer. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) to draw attention to such conditions in the American South. Alarmed by what she considered the un-Christian nature of owning another human as property, Stowe wrote the novel as an appeal to women and mothers to stand up against slavery and prevent families from being separated. As Tom, the main character, is bought and sold several times, he encounters both compassionate and harsh masters. He faces the loss of his family, routine beatings, and the indignity of being treated like an Page 570  |  Top of Article
An engraving of a slave auction, Charleston, South Carolina, 1861 An engraving of a slave auction, Charleston, South Carolina, 1861 Archive Photos / Getty Images animal at auction. Despite Tom's kind and patient nature, his owner Legree treats him with hate and contempt and decides to beat Tom to death simply because he can: "I hate him! And isn't he MINE? Can't I do what I like with him?" Stowe's novel is considered one spark that ignited the national debate over slavery, a factor that led to the Civil War.

Gone with the Wind (1936), by Margaret Mitchell, presents a radically different perspective than Uncle Tom's Cabin. Written by a Southerner during a time when the antebellum era was highly romanticized, Gone with the Wind presents an idealized image of slavery. Though the novel is largely set on a Georgia plantation during and after the Civil War, the institution of slavery is at most a background issue. Main slave characters such as Mammy, Pork, and Prissy appear devoted to the O'Hara family and never utter a complaint or indicate a desire to be free. They are depicted as if, given the choice, they would choose slavery. Though the protagonist Scarlett loves Mammy like a second mother, she also expects her to obey and follow orders. They are never equals. In Gone with the Wind, slave masters are depicted as kind and benevolent and slaves' conditions as comfortable and fair. In fact, after the war, Scarlett even thinks "the Yankees have poisoned [former slaves] against us," suggesting that Northerners have brainwashed freed slaves into thinking slavery was evil and wrong. Mitchell and Stowe write from distinctly different backgrounds and time periods, which results in contrasting views on slavery and its effects.

Occasionally, a slave arrangement may exist that is not inherently oppressive. Anthropologist Amitav Ghosh examines one such relationship in In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale (1992). In this book, which is part fiction, part historical fact, and part anthropological study, Ghosh presents an unexpected master/slave relationship. In the era before colonialism, the area between Spain, North Africa, and India was a harmonious world without borders where Arabs, Jews, and Indians could move freely. In In an Antique Land, Ghosh presents a twelfth-century Tunisian Jew who travels to Page 571  |  Top of ArticleIndia and obtains a slave. Unlike the hard work that slaves must perform in Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind, the Tunisian has his slave make business arrangements and even travel overseas on his behalf. Unlike Mammy and Scarlett, the Tunisian and his slave appear to have genuine respect for one another. Slavery as depicted in In an Antique Land is an apprenticeship, a gateway to opportunities and a higher social class. Ghosh's story about this unconventional relationship contributes a largely unknown perspective on the institution of slavery and the dynamics between master and slave.


Though the main slave characters in Mitchell, Stowe, and Ghosh's work do not seek freedom from their bondage, literature is filled with stories of escape, rebellion, and liberty ultimately achieved.

Mark Twain's landmark novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) is the story of an unlikely friendship between a young boy and a runaway slave on the Mississippi River in the 1840s. When Jim learns that his master is going to sell him down to New Orleans, he escapes and sets up camp on an island in the river, where he eventually meets Huck. Jim considers that he is rich now that he has escaped, because as a slave he was valued at eight hundred dollars: "I's rich now, come to look at it. I own myself, en I's wuth eight hund'd dollars." When Jim and Huck encounter people along their journey who want to turn Jim in for a forty-dollar bounty, Huck must decide whether to turn Jim in or to follow his instincts and help Jim escape. Huck feels guilty about his compassion for Jim, but he thinks the flaw is in himself, rather than in his society. He agonizes over the stigma he would have if anyone found out that "Huck Finn helped a nigger to get to his freedom," yet he cannot bring himself to return his friend to a life of slavery. Twain's novel explores the bravery required to stand up for a moral right over a legal one. It also illustrates the freedom that both a slave and a free man can feel by refusing to abide by an oppressive institution.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrates the obstacles that a single escaped slave faces in his journey toward freedom. Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl (2002), by Kate McCafferty, shows the power of the masses when slaves revolt against their bondage. In the seventeenth century, the British government forced thousands of English and Irish citizens into indentured servitude on plantations in the Caribbean. Most were never able to buy their freedom and essentially became slaves for the rest of their lives. Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl is the story of Cot, a ten-year-old girl kidnapped from Ireland and forced to work on a sugar plantation in Barbados. After participating in a mixed-race slave revolt, Cot is imprisoned. There, she gives her testimony to a government official evaluating how various races of slaves perform in the fields. The truth that McCafferty's novel underscores is that anyone can be exploited as a slave; there is no "better" skin color or ethnicity in a system that treats people as property.

Though the rebellion in Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl does not bring freedom, the rebellion that Madison Smartt Bell fictionalizes in All Souls' Rising (1995) resulted in an entirely free nation. All Souls' Rising is set in the late eighteenth century, in the wake of the French Revolution and its "Declaration of the Rights of Man" in 1789. The principles set forth in the declaration had a strong effect on the French colony of Haiti in the Caribbean, and the slaves were determined to assert their human rights. The rebellion, which engulfed the entire island for over a decade, was led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, a former slave and one of the main characters of Bell's novel. The rebellion effectively ended white rule in Haiti, as all slaves Page 572  |  Top of Article
Slaves working in a cotton field Slaves working in a cotton field W.A. Walker / Corbis were liberated. The novel is a reminder that freedom from slavery carries a high cost.

Personal Narratives

Slave narratives allow readers to glimpse into the lives of individuals who endured horrific conditions and lived to share the tale. The aim of a slave narrative is not only to tell the individual's own story, but also to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.

During the seventeenth century, North African slave traders routinely captured Europeans at sea and in the coastal villages of France, Italy, England, and Spain for slave markets in North Africa. Eleven-year-old Englishman Thomas Pellow was captured on a boat in the Mediterranean and became the Sultan of Morocco's personal servant. He was held as the Sultan's slave for twenty-three years before escaping and making his way back to London. Upon his return, he published stories about his experience in the English newspapers. The stories were immensely popular, though they were likely embellished in order to make them more dramatic. Giles Milton writes about Pellow, his narratives, and the European slave trade in White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves (2005).

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass (1845), may be the most well-known of slave narratives. In it, Douglass recounts his story as an American slave born to a slave woman and a white man. Introduced to reading, writing, and the abolitionist movement while working in Baltimore shipyards, he recalls his thoughts as he began planning his escape in 1836: "Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I'll try it." He was jailed when his plan was discovered but eventually escaped to the North in 1838. Douglass was drawn to the anti-slavery movement in hopes of helping other slaves still in bonds. As he reflects on his calling as a reformer, which began with speaking at an anti-slavery meeting in Massachusetts in 1841, "I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren—with what success, and with what devotion, I leave those acquainted with my labors to decide." His devotion and success is unquestionable. In the Page 573  |  Top of Article
A slave or former slave whose back is severely scarred from whip lashes A slave or former slave whose back is severely scarred from whip lashes National Archives and Records Administration years leading up to the Civil War, Douglass's slave narrative gave a personal face to the institution of slavery and helped to humanize slaves in the minds of free citizens.

Slavery is by no means a relic of less-enlightened times. Slavery continues to exist in many parts of the world, often undetected or unreported. For this reason, slave narratives such as Mende Nazer's Slave: A Modern Account of Slavery (2002) take on even greater significance, as they inform the public of brutal slave practices that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Twelve-year-old Nazer was kidnapped from her Sudanese tribal home by Arab raiders in 1994. She was sent to the capital, Khartoum, and became a maid for a wealthy, cruel family. As their unpaid servant, she was physically and sexually abused, worked harshly, and made to sleep in the shed. After several years she was sent to London to work—again, unpaid—for a Sudanese diplomat. With the help of several Sudanese families in London, she was able to escape in 2000. Just as Douglass's narrative helped raise awareness about pre-Civil War slavery, Nazer's narrative is helping raise awareness about modern slavery in Africa, which occurs not only in Sudan, but also in Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast.


Literature about slavery ranges from books that oppose the institution to those that defend it and contains many narrative accounts from those who have lived through it themselves. It is full of unforgettable characters, heartbreaking situations, and stark examples of racism, hatred, and oppression. But there is also the hope that future generations will not know the pain and oppression of slavery and the hope that slavery will someday exist only in books.


Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, Pocket Books Enriched Classics, 2004, pp. 90, 91, 141, originally published in 1845.

Mitchell, Margaret, Gone with the Wind, Warner Books, 1936, p. 641.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Pocket Books Enriched Classics, 2004, p. 499, originally published in 1852.

Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in A Case Study in Critical Controversy: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 201, 202, originally published in 1885.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2661800063