The following 5-page entry is one student's analysis of a research project. The paper has many flaws; it somewhat misinterprets the idea of morality and the reference to S. T. Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. However, this student does analyze one passage very well, including dictionary definitions and then synthesizing that information into more extensive interpretation. The student worked hard on understanding the meaning and connections between words and the power language has to convey a metaphoric world.
The Slave Dancer: Words and Moonlight
"I thought I saw pale giant sails suspended off the starboard side like a curtain dropped from heaven, but the moonlight lurched forward again, and the sails vanished as had the small boats." (105)
This passage seems to reflect what happens throughout most of the book, which ismore than just one topic. Through looking at the wording carefully many images can be brought about concerning nature, the morality of the world, and good and evil intentions. For example, it shadows what happened to Jesse throughout the book, which is how he gets shaken up after he has gotten accustomed to a certain situation. He is accustomed to his home, and without a warning is taken out of it and put in a situation where he is not stable. Jesse states, "There was no one to save me--and I didn't evenknow from what I needed to be saved"(20). This indicates he is in an unwanted and unknown position. Also, there is another excerpt that states, "But the ship and its crew,among whom I once imagined I had taken root, learning each man like a newlanguage...had become as remote from my understanding as were the lands that laybeneath the ocean" (71 ). This shows that he is again taken off balance as before when he was first kidnapped. In the previous passage Jesse is once again let down when he seesthe "giant sails ... like a curtain dropped from heaven"(105) disappear. When he states the sails were "like a curtain dropped from heaven" that implies he was hoping for themto succeed. This is hope is shown by a previous statement saying, "I began . . . pleading with the small boats to catch up with us." Jesse says he "thought" he saw the sails. According to the Oxford English Dictionary thought can mean "mental anticipation or expectation," which implies the state of mind Jesse was in at the time. He is anticipating and hoping for them to be caught so he can be rescued.
Another viewpoint concerns the part of the passage stating, "like a curtain dropped from heaven." Again, the denotative meaning of curtain suggests "anything that covers or hides." This implies that the giant ship is being hidden from the Moonlight, which protects it from the evils on the ship, Moonlight. Also earlier in the passage there is the word "pale." Pale can mean "aboundary or a restriction." These two observations seem to work together, since the pale prevents the evilness from the Moonlight from entering their domain, and the curtains protect them from seeing their evilness. The other part stating "dropped from heaven" had a couple of meanings. "Heaven" can mean "a place of supreme bliss or the region of the atmosphere in which the clouds float, the winds blowand the birds fly." The first meaning implies the curtain to be from a positive source where there will be good feeling, which implies it is a serene, peaceful, harmonious atmosphere. The second definition, implying a freedom unlike that on the Moonlight, speaks of birds, clouds and the wind, which are all part of nature and therefore free. This definition is completely contrary to the atmosphere on the slave ship: the ship is involved in slave trade, which is full of evil purpose and suffering. Both of these views have one thing in common. They both have suggest a place a place full of bliss. The second has harmony of nature, in which all creatures are free.
We need to consider another observation about the word "like" in the beginning of this passage. Llike can mean "resembling," which implies it is not the real thing. It could implies that the giant ship is not what it seems to be. The ship symbolizes our attempt to be pure in a world that isn't as moral as we think. After all the sails are pale, which implies a only a small tint of color, "lacking intensity of depth or color." Sails are made of canvas, which is unbleached. To bleach can mean"to free from stain or to purify" so unbleached can mean to not be pure. At least the giant ship has pale sails, which indicates it is purer than the Moonlight's sails. TheMoonlight can symbolize a world where people have let evil and negative humancharacteristics take over.
The next observations have to do with the last part of the passage, which states,"The Moonlight lurched forward again, and the sails vanished as had the small boats."According to Oxford to lurch can mean "to lean suddenly over to one side, to defraud,or to cheat. If the Moonlight lurched forward it didn't move in a straight way. It movedsideways in a crooked way. This seems to agree with the other definition of lurch, whichis "to cheat or defraud." They agree since they both have the element of wrong doing,which is a part of evilness. In other words, they reinforce the view that the Moonlight isa thing of evil in every way, even the way it moves. When it is stated that the giant sails vanished it seems to imply two things. First it implies that their struggle to be moral makes them weaker than the Moonlight whose strength is in its evilness. The Moonlightis stronger since it lurches "again" and passes the giant sails just as it "had the smallboats." Secondly, this seems to imply that even those with pure intentions can becheated because the world is not always a moral place. This can be linked to a poem by Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In this poem the main two themes are to respect nature and that the world may not be as moral a place as we would like it to be. Also a previously mentioned passage where Jesse states, "the ship and its crew, among whom I once imagined I had taken root . . . had become as remote from my understanding as were the lands that lay beneath the ocean. I became cautious." This is linked to the Rime in the way that Jesse learns that the world is not as moral as he thought it was, just as the mariner discovered it also. The mariner shot the albatross unawares, and Jesse played his music unawares. He becomes cautious, which shows he doesn't trust anyone as before, when he thought the world was a moral and logical place. Also, he states that he can understand the men as much as he understands "the lands that lay beneath the ocean." The lands seem to represent the world, which is a complicated place that he can't understand. He seems to see it as a mysterious place since he says it is underneath the ocean and hidden. He can't understand its complexity because he expects it to be either black or white, or good or evil. He sees things, as the Mariner does, in binary oppositions. He does not see that they are both part of each other, which suggests he doesn't know himself very well since he needs to accept himself in every way.
Another observation concerned the role cotton played in this book. Cotton grows on plants, which are organic and part of the cyle of nature. When we destroy the natural order in nature, perhaps we incur punishment and support evil. When cotton is taken out of the plants and woven into thread it is then out of nature. Jesse is also out of his natural place. Just as an insect knows only one life, so does Jesse know only one life until he is roughly taken out of it. This is shown by an earlier passage in the novelstating, "As quickly as my mother's sharp scissors cut a thread, snip! I had been cut off from the only life I knew" (20). He is then taken out of his natural place. Many items on the ship are made of man-made materials, all supported by the hideous practices involved in the slave trade. The sail, for example, is made of canvas and the canvas is made of cotton.
Alienation, solitariness, and perpetual repetition: these are the actions that are incurred when we disrupt the harmonious order in nature. Using human beings as commodies, as items considered as things, is also considered an affront to the laws of harmony in Nature. Yet, when used for a purpose that isn't causing suffering and pain for self benefit, cotton may benefit a person.. For example, Jesse uses rags to wrap around his feet to get through the woods (121 ). Here the cotton protects him on his journey, and he is causing no one any pain or suffering. In the of the Rime, the mariner is punished when he kills the albatross. He is partly saved when he sees the snakes and unconsciously loves and blesses them, or so it seems. This shows that "all things great and small," according to the ancient mariner, are to be respected because they all come from the same source. Thomas's crime is that he does nothing so he suffers a similar fate as the ancient mariner. He is punished for his lack of action. For example, he sees the slaves in the market, but says and does nothing, yet when he takes action and helps the black boy he is saved with theother boy. Not taking action against a wrong action is as bad as committing that action.
Another observation was all the words relating to cotton can go both ways in meaning. Cotton can mean to prosper, understand, and harmonize. Yet, it can also mean to beat, flog and thrash. Canvas can mean what sails are made of, which is positive in the sense that it is useful in many ways. Yet, it can also mean to buffet, beat, and batter. Nap can mean the woolly substance removed from the surface of cloth by the process of shearing, which can be positive in the sense that it is a pleasing substance to touch since it's woolly. Yet, it can also mean to receive severe punishment. All these words relating to cotton and the word cotton itself contain polarities. In fact, we could say that cotton in this novel becomes a multistable image, having multiple, simultaneous meanings. This is linked to the way the book is written. These images of cotton are threaded throughout the whole book. Cotton symbolizes nature and it symbolizes the triangular slave trade, and the money and profit gained by people engaged in the commerse of buying and selling people. Whatever purpose it is used for is the same response the user will get back.
Through carefully analyzing the wording in this passage, and how this passage weaves into significance throughout the novel, we can gain a better understanding of the layers of meaning in this powerful novel. We can see how Jesse learns an important lesson in the nature of evil as we watch him suffer and witness horrors over which he has no control.