Main characteristics of a slave narrative
A slave narrative has several typical elements. First, the author’s name is subsumed in a slave type in the title. Often a picture of the author is included on the front cover. The narrative is framed by testimonials, usually by white abolitionists. The purpose of the testimonial is to authenticate the narrative, because ethnic or social prejudices may require it. The narrative is episodic, beginning with the birth of the slave and some description of their family lineage, and leading to a future realization by the individual that they are a slave and some awareness of the gravity of this role.
As the narrative continues, there is usually a quest for literacy along with a quest for freedom, which is finally gained. The style could be sentimental (such as in the case of a feminine author such as Harriet Jacobs), or it could contain more graphic violence (as in the case of Frederick Douglass), but it is always factual (although some elements could be dramatized or rearranged for effect).
The narrative can borrow rhetorical features from the novel, such as Jacobs’ tendency to address the reader directly. “Reader, if you have never been a slave, you cannot imagine the acute sensation of suffering at my heart.” (Jacobs 152)
The slave narrative uses dialogue to establish character, along with the technique of naming a character in a suggestive manner. In Harriet Jacobs’ narrative, for example, Dr. Flint was a cold, hard man and Mrs. Dodge a slippery, untrustworthy character.
Finally, the slave narrative indicates that there are several forms of freedom and several paths to it. Douglass used physical resistance, Jacobs used cunning and gave her body to someone of her own choosing.