The institution of slavery that existed in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries brought great changes to the American culture. The colonialists imported slaves from Africa and used them in their agricultural plantations. Since slavery was a political, social, and economic issue, it gained significant attention among the writers.
Many great writers tried to present the issue of slavery in literature by creating different fictional stories. The fictional stories portray experiences that slaves underwent in their struggle to overcome slavery and become heroic fugitives. Since slavery was common in both the South and North, slaves struggled to escape to Canada using different routes.
While some travelled on foot, others navigated their way using a ship. Great literary writers in the 18th and 19th centuries dwelled on the issue of slavery as they tried to depict the experiences of slaves in a comprehensive manner. In this view, the essay examines literary portraits of escaping slaves depicted as heroic fugitives by comparing the portraits of Harriet Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs.
The Experiences of Slaves
The slaves went through traumatic experiences when they were under the control of their masters. The experiences compelled slaves to seek ways of escaping and attaining freedom. Since many slaves tried to escape, most of them did not manage to survive because their masters were ready to torture or kill them whenever they caught them. In this view, escaping was a heroic act, as many fugitives who dared to escape did not survive.
In her fictional book, Harriet Stowe portrays the experiences that slaves went through and refers to them as the lowest, vilest, and filthiest form of human nature. According to Stowe, slavery shows us “human nature in its lowest debasement, the slave degraded, and his owner degrading himself” (2). In her depiction, Harriet Stowe illustrates how slave masters degrade humanity in the manner they treat slaves who are under their care. Hence, slaves experienced a great ordeal, which made them to become heroic fugitives.
Like Harriet Stowe, Fredrick Douglass is another literary writer who depicts the experiences that slaves underwent during the period of slavery in the United States. Fredrick Douglass concurs with Harriet Stowe that the institution of slavery degrades humanity. Douglass asserts that slaves lived an aimless and worthless life in that their deaths during escape were better than their lives in slavery (6). This implies that the nature of suffering that slaves endured was appalling and dreadful to humanity.
Owing to such experiences, slaves decided to devise ways of escaping. To attain freedom, slaves helped one another. In some instances, they fought their masters, hid in bushes, escaped in the darkness, battled with hunting dogs, sustained gunshots, died during the escape, and eventually managed to escape as heroic slaves. While most died during the escape, those who managed to escape became heroic fugitives because they were able to overcome their powerful masters.
Unlike Harriet Stowe and Frederick Douglass who wrote fictional stories about the slavery experiences, Harriet Jacobs presents her own experiences as she worked for twenty-seven years in slavery conditions. Harriet Jacobs refers to slavery as dark, deep, and foul form of persecution and the abomination that slaves endured. In explanation of her life as a slave girl, Harriet Jacobs highlights traumatic experiences that she experienced under the hands of her master.
According to Jacobs, her life was an ordeal one because she saw her parents die in slavery when she was barely six years old, experienced sexual abuse, got married in slavery, became disabled, and ran away (150). Harriet Jacobs endured the horrendous acts because she was a young girl who was unable to defend herself. Eventually, Harriet Jacobs portrays the life of a heroic girl who managed to survive the awful experiences of slavery.
Portraits of Escaping Slaves and Heroic Fugitives
Harriet Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs portray heroic slaves in their literary works who manage to escape from slavery to safe places in search of freedom. Harriet Stowe uses Uncle Tom as character to portray the struggles underwent by slaves. Uncle Tom is a black man who lives in slavery conditions with his family.
His master dictates what to do with his children and wife, and thus he has no authority over his family (Ammons 11). When he overhears that the master is planning to sell his children to other masters, Uncle Tom decides to escape with his family. On the day of the escape, Uncle Tom makes his wife escape with his son and they manage to survive cold night, avoid hunting dogs, and eventually reach Canada, a safe haven.
On the other hand, Simon Legree, a slave owner, buys Uncle Tom and uses him in his plantation as other slaves. However, when Simon Legree commands Uncle Tom to whip his colleagues in the plantation, he refuses. As he loves fellows more than himself, Uncle Tom plans the escape of Cassy and Emmline, and agrees to die for their sake (Stowe 354). Therefore, the escape of Cassy and Emmline makes Uncle Tom a heroic slave who gives his life for the sake of freedom of fellow slaves.
Comparatively, Frederick Douglas portrays a fictional character, Madison Washington, a cook, who rescues fellow slaves. In the book, Frederick Douglass portrays how Madison Washington manages to rescue 19 slaves and make them attain freedom.
Madison Washington endures slavery to the point where he decides to escape to Canada in search of freedom. Since his friendly master enables him to escape alone from slavery, leaving his family behind, Madison Washington starts missing his family when he arrives in Canada. As he comes home to sneak his family, the master notes them escaping, and thus kills his wife. The master then sells Madison Washington to traders who took him to the South.
On the ship, Madison Washington meets other nineteen slaves and plans their escape. Madison Washington leads a rebellion on the ship, takes control of the ship, and thus sets nineteen slaves who are on board free. In this view, Washington becomes a heroic slave as he manages to rescue nineteen slaves.
As Harriet Stow and Frederick Douglass portrays the heroic acts of their fictional characters, Harriet Jacobs portrays her own experiences, which depict her as a heroine and fugitive slave who manages to escape slavery and attain freedom despite all odds. Linda (Harriet Jacobs) is born and grows in a slavery conditions and experiences many hardships, which range from child abuse to human sufferings in adulthood (Lyons 5).
Since her parents die when she is six, she relies on mistress as her mother. In the hands of her mistress, Linda grows while enduring slavery experiences in her life and in the lives of other slaves. Given that the master (Dr. Flint) compels her to engage in sex, Linda decides to date a neighbor (Mr. Sands), who eventually impregnates her and makes her give birth to two children (Jacobs 207). Hence, by outwitting her master, Linda becomes a heroine for she has the power to determine the father of her children and secures their posterity.
When Linda falls out with his master, she plans to escape with her children to prevent his master from avenging on them. Fortunately, a slave trader who happens to be a friend to Mr. Sands arrives and requests Dr. Flint to sell him the two children, which he consents (Jacobs 24).
However, Mr. Sands takes the children and brings them up under slavery conditions, and thus annoys Linda. To rescue her children, Linda plans to escape into New York City where she finds a caring family, which accepts her kids. Ultimately, Linda becomes a heroine because she manages not only to secure her freedom, but also the freedom of her children.
Family and Christianity
Harriet Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs also portray escaping slaves as people who have great responsibilities in serving their masters and their families. Harriet Stowe portrays Uncle Tom as a man with a wife and children, which means he has a great responsibility of providing their needs.
When his master wants to sell his son, Uncle Tom decides to escape with his family. Although his wife manages to escape, Uncle Tom dies after rescuing his colleagues from slavery. Comparatively, Frederick Douglas portrays Madison Washington as a man who loves his family very much. Although he manages to escape into Canada, the love for his family prompts him to come back home and rescue his wife and children from slavery.
Likewise, Linda is a girl who fights slavery throughout her life. At the tender age, Linda is wise enough to choose the father of her kids, as she prefers Mr. Sands to his master, Dr. Flint. When the children grew up, Dr. Flint decides to sell them to another owner, but Linda is smart enough because she asks a friend to their father to buy them. Eventually, Linda manages to save her children from the bondage of slavery, which portrays her as a loving and caring mother.
Harriet Stowe portrays Uncle Tom as a Christian who believes in God. In his Christian belief, Uncle Tom is determined that God is there to see him through the tribulations that he undergoes during slavery. As Uncle Tom struggles to attain freedom, he hopes that God is guiding him safely (Stowe 382).
Hence, his faith in God sustains him to overcome numerous challenges. Frederick Douglass portrays Madison Washington as a man who also believes in God because he encourages his fellow slaves to trust in God. Madison Washington attributes his successful escape with friends to the plan of God. Similarly, Harriet Jacobs portrays Linda as a woman who fears God in all what she does and believes.
Slavery was a social, political, and economic issue that the Americans grappled with during the 18th and 19th centuries. Literary writers such as Harriet Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs wrote books, which portray escaping slaves as heroic fugitives who looked for freedom using all means.
The writers present experiences of slaves, describes their heroic activities, and their convictions. Overall, the literary works portray slaves as heroic fugitives who did not only battle for their own freedom, but also freedom of their families and fellows.
Ammons, Elizabeth. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Thrilling Narrative of the Adventures of Madison Washington, in Pursuit of Liberty. New York: Wildside Press, 2012. Print.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. New York: Harvard University, 1861. Print.
Lyons, Mary. Letters from a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs. New York: Simon Pulse, 2007. Print.
Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London: John Cassel, 1852. Print.