In The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano the author, Olaudah Equiano, develops two distinct yet complementary tones: understated yet horrified. The horrified tone reflects Equiano’s attitude toward the slave trade and the understated tone, paradoxically, emphasizes the abject and miserable conditions Equiano faced because the audience expects Equiano to describe the slave trade with overwhelming emotions but instead he describes it rationally. Thus, the contrast directs the reader’s attention to the horror. Moreover, Equiano’s tone was developed by his strategic use of diction, detail, point-of-view, organization, and syntax.
Diction is the author’s choice of words, which inherently affects the tone of a passage. Equiano chooses words that are consonant with understated yet horrified tones. Equiano’s choose words like “astonishment”, “consternation”, and “pestilential” to express his tone. The word “astonishment” was picked by Equiano to understate the horror that he witnessed and “consternation” to explain his feelings toward the life-threatening adversity he faced, which understates his actual feelings. “Consternation” and “pestilential” both describe the travail Equiano is enduring, but the rational connotation of “consternation” lessens the emotion that would be expected from descriptions of such squalor; however, “pestilential” has a pejorative connotation, however, its effect is mollified by the surrounding rational and detached words.
“This produced copious amounts of perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.” Equiano interestingly choose the word “unfit” to describe the disgusting smelling perspiration of the slave, which is prodigiously understated because the air was surely worse than “unfit” to breathe. Furthermore, Equiano chose the word loathsome because it reinforced his horrified tone, while retaining the understated tone because loathsome is slightly less emotive than repulsive or abominable. Equiano prudently chose certain words to contribute to the passage’s understated and horrified tone.
Equiano’s Use of Detail
Equiano prudently infuses detail, the descriptive substance of a story, to stoke the embers of his prose into an inferno and augment his tone, which pulls the audience into the narrative. ‘their complexions, too, differing so much from ours, their long hair, and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had heard), united to confirm me in this belief” and “I was exceedingly amazed at this account, and really thought they were spirits” are two of Equiano’s quotes that illustrate the use of detail to create his horrified yet understated tone. The lines “complexion…differing so much” and “their long hair” articulate the contrast between the slaves and whites, which confirm his fear that he has “gotten into a world of bad spirits”; thus creating that horrified tone.
The second quote from Equiano’s narrative provides details that illustrate Equiano’s thoughts, which are rational, creating an understated tone because it is unlikely that others in his situation would describe it in rational terms. The quotes “One of them held fast by the hands, and laid me across…the windlass, and tied my feet, while the other flogged me severely” and “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship” reinforce Equiano’s understated tone.
In the first quote, Equiano places each detail of his flogging into the narrative, this reinforces the horrified tone because it describes brutality, but Equiano’s details are understatements because he would be more likely to describe the pain and torture not just the process by which they flogged him. Furthermore, in the second quote, Equiano provides a description of the ghastly and abominable conditions under the deck but “the closeness of the place” and “the heat of the climate,” which are understated details because, in reality, the conditions were surely unbearable. Equiano chose details that articulate the horrors he endured but underplay the repulsive reality with understatement, which are meant to call attention to the actual conditions.
Equiano recognizes that point-of-view gives the audience the vantage point of the speaker, in regards to events and other characters; consequently, Equiano utilizes a first person perspective to make his narrative vivid, putting the audience in the story. “I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat” and “I therefore wished much to be form amongst them for I expected they would sacrifice me” are quotes depicting Equiano’s first person perspective. The first quote puts the audience in the body of the starving Equiano recreating a terrible experience for the reader, who can only begin to comprehend Equiano’s feelings.
The second quote is Equiano’s rational dissection of his desire to be killed, creating a disconcerting paradox because the audience would understand that anyone rational would not want to be killed. “I now wish for my last friend, death” and “I inquired what of these what was to be done to us?” are two first person quotations. The first emphasizes the horrified tone because he is wishing for death, he even call death a “friend”; thus we see the desperation of Equiano through his first person perspective, which would be lost form another point of view. The second quote uses first person perspective to accentuate the thought process going through his head and conveys his attitude toward “these” men who torture him; consequently Equiano prodigiously cognizant of his conditions but not overwhelmed by emotion, which contributes to the understated tone. Equiano’s first person perspective allows the audience a privy vantage point into his thoughts and the privations he suffers, which ultimately furthers his purpose by contributing to the passage’s tone.
Equiano’s Organizational Choices
Equiano utilizes a specific organization to his narrative so he can shape the way his audience perceives his messages. The passage begins with a separate segment of text that is contextual material, which prepares the audience for the narrative; he then describes his first ascension to the deck and his abominable treatment and interactions with whites in the first two paragraphs. Equiano arranges this part first because it articulates his astonishment and culture shock he experience with his interaction with the whites.
The passage opens with the contextual preface to provide the audience with background information that will cause them to relate and sympathize with Equiano more, and the descriptions of his first interaction and hunger follow to show the contrast with his past to his present condition. The middle of the passage consists of two paragraphs describing the horrid conditions beneath deck and the illness, floggings, and torture of his fellow Africans. Equiano puts this part in the middle to show that it is the substance of the story and to emphasize the horrors of the slave trade. Equiano desires to highlight the importance that not only he but manifold of Africans are being tortured by the slave trade and by putting it in the middle he is indirectly stating that he feels it is the most important part of the passage and deserves the most text.
The conclusion is a brief aside that summarizes the rest of Equiano’s voyage, which then leads into the concluding paragraph that describes Equiano and his fellow Africans being sold into slavery and relays Equiano’s feelings on slavery. Equiano segues to the concluding paragraph with the aside to draw a close on the horrifying description of the Middle passage and highlight the importance of the next component of the disgusting slave trade. Equiano puts his thoughts on the slave trade at the end of the narrative to leave an impression on the reader, which will help further his message. Equiano utilizes organizational strategies to further his assertions, which create his tone because the audience can see what information Equiano regards as important.
Syntax is the way an author constructs a sentence and is used to imply certain messages and also contributes to the tone of a passage; Equiano utilizes syntax masterfully throughout the passage. Equiano begins the passage with very complex sentences that are divided by myriad commas; parenthetical phrases, semi-colons, and even rhyme permeate the earlier paragraphs of Equiano’s narrative. The syntax is very effective because it expertly conveys Equiano’s ideas and engages the audience into the passage by creating Equiano’s tone and voice. Equiano utilizes an abundance of punctuations marks because he desires to understate the horror of his experience; therefore he constructs complex, compound sentences.
In the middle of the passage Equiano begins to utilize ellipses and still retains his long complex sentence structures. The effect of the ellipses is profound because the omitted information actually attracts the audience’s mind and makes them think deeply about Equiano’s messages. Equiano utilizes the long sentences again to create the understated tone and the ellipses are to call attention to the horrors he does not mention or alludes to; thus the audience must think of the tribulations of all the salve aboard the ship.
The last paragraph contains an exclamatory sentence (short in length), an apostrophe, hyphen, and ellipsis. Equiano alters his syntax slightly in the conclusion, which effectively illustrates his thoughts about the horrific nature of the slave trade. Because Equiano decides to drill his message into his audience in his finale he uses an exclamatory sentence that is also a direct address to an audience not present to him (called an apostrophe); he is literally provoking his audience and exposing the hypocrisy of Europeans and European-Americans in the slave trade. Thus, Equiano uses syntax to construct sentences that guide the thoughts of the audience, helps create the tone of the passage, and brings the audience into the story.
Equiano creates a horrified yet understated tone by prudently strategizing the substance of the passage; without this careful construction of the prose it would lose its meaning and impact. Equiano created a horrified yet understated tone because he understood it would strongly impact his audience; similarly, he utilized specific literary components to create those poignant tones. Equiano’s audience could in no way deny the message Equiano conveyed because of the projected tone that is prodigiously poignant and impossible to ignore; thus effective.
- Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Hanover Historical Texts Project. http://history.hanover.edu/texts/equiano/equiano_contents.html
This article was originally published at suite101.com.