The Longest Memory

The Longest Memory Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What role do the fictionalized editorials taken from The Virginian play in The Longest Memory?

    The chapter comprising anonymous Virginian editorials conveys mainstream pro-slavery attitudes in Virginia in the early 1800s, contributing significantly to the novel's thematic concern with hollow justifications of slavery. The editorial writer's justifications for continuing slavery often reduce down to the white writer's belief that Africans are "not our equal nor derived from our race." He is also able to convince himself that Christianity is not incompatible with slave ownership by arguing that it is possible to instruct a slave in Christianity without nullifying the master/slave dichotomy, writing that the arrangement has to remain so, because "otherwise, Christianity could not spread. ... The African would be deemed our equal simply because he shared our faith in one God and the Afterlife. We know both of the above to be false because of the evidence of how Africans live in their primitive land." Ultimately, although the editorial writer purports to entertain pro-abolition or workers' rights arguments, he swiftly dismisses those arguments with facile, racist logic, thereby exposing his and other slave owners' hypocrisy as they seek to justify ethnic and economic power.

  2. 2

    What is the effect of D'Aguiar's choice to narrate The Longest Memory through a multiplicity of voices?

    By narrating the novel through so many different voices and perspectives, D'Aguiar is able to present a cross-section of the lives affected by the institution of slavery in the early 1800s in Virginia. Through inhabiting different voices, D'Aguiar lets the reader into the minds of an obedient slave, a female slave raped by a white man, a rebellious mixed-race young slave, a would-be progressive Christian plantation owner and her educated abolitionist daughter, vicious overseers who managed the slaves with whips, and the unnamed writer of newspaper editorials that seek to justify slavery with flimsy arguments. This multiplicity of voices presents the full complexity of slavery, showing to what degree characters have assimilated pro- or anti-slavery ideology with vastly different levels of self-awareness. Additionally, writing through first-person voices and internal monologues serves to further distinguish the characters from each other.

  3. 3

    What is the significance of the novel's title?

    By choosing the title The Longest Memory, D'Aguiar foregrounds the book's thematic preoccupation with the consequences of memory. The principal memory in the novel is Whitechapel's memory of witnessing his only son being lashed to death as a result of Whitechapel betraying the boy to his master. The traumatic event leads Whitechapel to seek to erase his memory, his history, and his name. However, the memory persists beyond Whitechapel's control, and in his dying moments he is full of regret. He says that memory is little more than "pain trying to resurrect itself" and that "memory is longer than time," a line that speaks to how memory is recreated with every recollection, necessitating images and associated emotions to be dredged up anew. This characteristic of memory suggests that while time may pass, the nature of memory means it is trapped in an ongoing present. But while the novel's title reflects Whitechapel's struggle with memory, the title also references the lasting effects of slavery itself. While the institution of slavery in the United States was abolished in 1865, the memory of the historic injustice persists as a mass trauma rooted in the American collective conscience.

  4. 4

    What is notable about D'Aguiar's treatment of the subject of abolition in The Longest Memory?

    Although the movement for the abolition of the slave trade is one of the novel's major themes, the subject is directly addressed only twice in the entire book. Abolition first arises in The Longest Memory when Sanders Senior writes in his diary about him and Mr. Whitechapel going to purchase a new slave. On the way back from the auction block, Mr. Whitechapel comments on "the clamor of the Abolitionists reaching new heights." Abolitionism doesn't arise again until forty pages later when one of the fellow plantation owners mocks Mr. Whitechapel's lenient treatment of his slaves by accusing Mr. Whitechapel of being an abolitionist. D'Aguiar's decision to leave the question of abolition lingering in the background establishes the movement as an ambient presence; in making this choice, D'Aguiar illustrates how there were vocal opponents to the slave trade in the South many years before slavery's official abolition in 1865. However, their voices were quashed and their activism was either ignored, mocked, or actively fought against by people with greater economic and political power.

  5. 5

    Why does Whitechapel betray Chapel by telling Mr. Whitechapel about Chapel's escape route?

    Throughout the novel, Whitechapel presents fragments that amount to an argument for why he betrayed Chapel by going to his master. Whitechapel convinces himself that he betrayed Chapel in order to protect Chapel's life, believing that Chapel would live longer if he stayed as a slave on the plantation rather than trying to escape to freedom. However, Whitechapel's perspective on his own motivations is limited. Whitechapel is unable to see the extent to which his internalization of hierarchical thinking dictates his attitude toward Chapel's desire for freedom. Whitechapel believes that Chapel wants to be free because half of his blood is white and therefore desirous and worthy of freedom. In this belief, Whitechapel reveals that he has so thoroughly assimilated the notion that Africans are biologically inferior to white people that he is unable to comprehend a slave wanting freedom regardless of whether they are mixed race. Whitechapel has such a low opinion of himself that he seeks to bring the idealistic Chapel down to his level and teach him a lesson about humility. But whatever his justifications, the deeper truth is that Whitechapel is unable not to defer to the authority of the white people. Even when he knows Sanders is beating his own half-brother to death, Whitechapel remains silent, as Sanders is acting on behalf of his master and therefore must be followed.