The Slave's Narrative

By Charles T. Davis; Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Go to book overview

The Slave Narrators and the Picaresque Mode:
Archetypes for Modern Black Personae

CHARLES H. NICHOLS

Early picaresque fiction like Lazarillo de Tormes1 and Guzman de Alfarache, have profoundly influenced the development of European fiction.It is not surprising, therefore, that there are illuminating parallels between Afro-American narrative modes and a work like Lazarillo de Tormes. In all these narrative forms we are struck by the self consciousness of the personality whose awareness seizes our attention.The early slave narratives, 2 the autobiographies of Henry Bibb, or William Wells Brown, or Frederick Douglass or Josiah Henson present personae reminiscent of the picaro, Lazarillo.Like the Spanish "rogue," the slave narrators tell their life story in retrospect, after having triumphed over the brutalizing circumstances of their youth. William W. Brown and Frederick Douglass are internationally known orators and reformers. Josiah Henson has become the founder of a refugee colony and celebrated as Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom." Lazaro tells us that at the time he is writing, he has saved money and, having become his wife's pimp and the agent of the Arch priest of San Salvador, has become the town crier. The accounts they have given us of their lives as slaves, servants and scullery boys operate, therefore, on at least two levels of consciousness. In each account the writer presents a welter of realistic detail designed to drive home the brutality and inhumanity of his experience as a victim, a commodity, a rootless, alienated soul without hope or future. His origin is obscure, his masters heartless and treacherous. The episodic march of events in the narrative, its loose disregard of causality, its frequent use of coincidence and chance dramatize the chaos and decadence of the world here depicted. With bitter irony the picaro-slave underlines his contempt for the illusions, the chivalric pretensions and the folly of the master class. Spain in the sixteenth century is in decline; the antebellum South is in crisis.The servant sees his master's nakedness and human weakness as well as his power and wealth.

The other level of consciousness is the mask which a corrupt society and desperate need force on the picaro. Lazarillo's mother has offered her favors to a black slave in return for stolen food and firewood. Laza

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