Empathy and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

October 6, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, is an autobiography written by the abolitionist writer Olaudah Equiano. He wrote the narrative to tell the truths of the conditions of slaves, specifically during the process of the slave trade. Throughout his narrative, Equiano uses empathy; the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, in his writing for dramatic impact, and to make him more relatable to his audience. He wants the audience to know the truth through his own shoes, as the result of the separation of his family, by his traveling conditions throughout being traded, and his climbing of the social ladder.

Equiano’s family life is one of the first instances in his autobiography that the audience has a chance to empathize with his life story. In this narrative, he is writing as if he was born in Africa, however, scholars are pretty certain that he was indeed not, and instead born in South Carolina. Reason for this change of detail could have been for dramatic impact when telling a story of a slave, and have the audience more invested. That being the only difference in his story, he was born into a domestic home and what might have been called during the 1700’s a normal family. He lived with his father, mother, and siblings; he was very close with his only sister. In chapter 2 he writes, “…in a moment seized us both, and, without giving us time to cry out, or make resistance, they stopped our mouths, and ran off with us into the nearest wood” (Equiano 516).

Here Equiano describes how he and his sister were taken from their family. This scene makes readers think about how they would feel if something similar would happen to them. Parents might picture losing their children, and have no idea where they are, this would create some kind of relation between the readers and the author. Generating some way that the audience can relate to Equiano’s life brings them to empathize with him, and become more immerged into his story. When his sister is separated from him, it is a moment of sadness and another part that he wants to draw the audience in to empathize. “…the wretchedness of my situation was redoubled by my anxiety after her fate…” (Equiano 519). He explains how worried he is about his sister, and thinks that because they are separated she will be sexually exploited. Also, when writing about this he changes the way he is writing to second person instead of first. It is almost as if he is writing to his sister. This small detail which some may not have noticed adds a sentimental touch. It lets the readers in about how Equiano feels about his sister being taken away and how much he loves her.

A good portion of Equiano’s autobiography is written about his experiences within slave trading. He was taken through different parts of Africa, sailed to Barbados, North America, and England. Throughout his travels, he experienced brutal treatment from many people and lived through horrid conditions. When explaining how he felt about this time of his life he writes, “…an element I had never before beheld, and till then had no idea of, and wherein such instances of hardship and cruelty continually occurred, as I can never reflect on but with horror” (Equiano 520). Being scared is an emotion that everyone has felt at least once in their life.

When he writes about how horrifying his experiences were, it is another point that he wants empathy to strike in the readers. He wants them to understand how truly terrible the lives of slaves were and …. Equiano was scared, especially when arriving at a slave ship. He describes the white people as if they were aliens, “Their complexions, too, differing so much from ours…” (Equiano 521). This uncertainty he is experiencing is about not knowing what is about to happen to him, or if he is going to die would be scary for anyone. He also uses the word “cargo” to refer to slaves getting put on the slave ship, this is another way that he wants people to get a real understanding of how slaves were handled. In this case, they are being compared to cargo being thrown onto the ship as if they were nothing. Throughout these parts of his narrative, he does a great job at describing the conditions even though he was never actually on a slave ship being transported as a slave. He did work on a slave ship, but only on the deck not down below. He saw the conditions that the slaves who were actually on the ship had to experience first-hand. However, to make it more believable he wrote it in first person.

Although Equiano wants his readers to feel empathetic toward his story so that they realize the reality of conditions of slaves, they might not be as empathetic because of some of his circumstances. Even though at the beginning of his autobiography he is treated terribly, later he receives many privileges that most slaves would have never been able to experience. In the beginning of chapter four he writes, “Shortly after my arrival, he sent me to wait upon the Miss Guerins, who had treated me with much kindness when I was there before; and they sent me to school” (Equiano 527). Being educated back then was a privilege, and this makes Equiano stand out from what was considered the normal slave life treatment and experience. This is an example of flipping the cultural norms of then, that black people are not intelligent or educated. Readers may have wondered how he could write such a narrative if he himself did not even have the same experience as most slaves. However, it also makes them able to relate and picture themselves in his position, because his story is about how he climbs the social ladder and makes someone of himself.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is one of the earliest autobiographical accounts written by a black person. He wanted to end slavery and let people know the truth about slave’s conditions, he did so by using empathy. This allowed for people to look at the situation through his shoes and being able to relate to his readers. His book sold very well in both England and the United States. Equiano did not get to live to see the end of slavery, but while he was alive he did all that he could in the abolitionist movement.


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