Whitechapel, the novel's protagonist, uses as a first name the surname of the family who owns the plantation and Whitechapel himself. Although Whitechapel lived the first ten years of his life in Africa before being abducted and sold into slavery, he is reluctant to discuss his early memories, and at no point in the book does he disclose his original name. Whitechapel's name therefore serves as both an overt and symbolic representation of his status as a slave—overt in that there is no question to whom Whitechapel belongs, and symbolic in that Whitechapel's name obscures his pre-slave identity and reifies his identity as a bonded servant of the Whitechapel family. Whitechapel's name carries even more symbolic weight when one considers how he renounces his name at the beginning of the novel. Having become traumatized by witnessing his son's death, for which Whitechapel was responsible, Whitechapel seeks to forget his painful memories and in so doing renounces the name that ties him to his life as an obedient slave.
Shifting Perspective (Motif)
Nearly every chapter of The Longest Memory is told from the perspective of a different character. In doing so, D'Aguiar collects a multiplicity of voices and points of view to tell the story of Chapel's murder. The result is a cross-section of the different lives affected by the institution of slavery in the early 1800s in Virginia. Moving through the minds of an obedient slave, a female slave raped by a white man, a rebellious mixed-race young slave, a self-deceiving Christian slave-master and his educated abolitionist daughter, the overseers who keep the slaves in line with whips and threats, and a newspaper editorial writer who justifies slavery with weak arguments, D'Aguiar uses the motif of shifting perspective to juxtapose the perspectives of the people who seek to end and the people who seek to prolong slavery and its concomitant injustices.
Because the Whitechapel family does not allow their slaves to read, literacy in The Longest Memory come to symbolize the right to education and its emancipatory power. By enforcing a policy that keeps slaves illiterate, slave owners like the Whitechapels simultaneously reveal an understanding of the power of literacy and their fear of letting that power fall into their slaves' hands. When Lydia goes against the wishes of her father and teaches Chapel how to read, she discovers that the separation between her and Chapel has been socially constructed, and she subsequently falls in love with the sound of Chapel's reading voice. The threat that reading poses to the Whitechapels is captured when Mr. Whitechapel beats Chapel when he catches him reading aloud to Lydia; Mr. Whitechapel can see how Chapel's intelligence blurs the boundary between master and slave. Chapel's mother also sees her son reading aloud, but she is unable to conjure feelings of disdain for him because her feeling of pride overwhelms her, because he is skilled at something of which she has only known white masters capable.
The Virginian Editorials (Symbol)
"The Virginian" chapter of The Longest Memory comprises unattributed editorials published in a Virginia newspaper. Taken in total, the editorials symbolize the many specious, self-serving justifications for continuing the American slave trade in the early 1800s. The editorial subjects and topics, affirmations and responses, assertions and denials all contribute to a far-ranging perspective of slavery that goes beyond simple, unadorned, uninformed racism. In the face of a robust abolitionist movement, the slave owners who write the editorials bolster unfounded prejudice by delivering seemingly rational validation for supporting slavery. The editorial writers find ways around the hypocrisy of calling oneself a Christian while owning slaves, equivocate about using violence to punish slaves, reject the idea that accounts written by slaves or free black people should be included in the paper, and outright dismiss Miss L. (a likely pen name for Lydia) as being irrational because her views suggest she loves black people. Ultimately, the editorials symbolize the extent to which slaveowners must contort their own thinking in order to justify their status and convince themselves that they were right to continue to abuse and exploit other human beings.
The Whip (Symbol)
The whip used on the Whitechapel plantation is a violent symbol for the stark power imbalance between slaves and the people hired to oversee them. Through Whitechapel's voice, D'Aguiar personifies the whip as being insatiably hungry for Chapel's flesh: each lash is another bite from Chapel's back, but the whip never gets full. This perspective obscures the fact that Sanders Junior is the one doling out violence in an attempt to re-establish the slaveholders' dominance over the slaves. Because Whitechapel has so thoroughly assimilated the ideology of the slave owners, he is less likely to perceive the whip as an instrument of violence to assert the power imbalance between him and his overseers; instead, he sees the whip as an entity in itself, further contributing to the whip's symbolic weight as an extension of race-based authority that Whitechapel perceives as belonging more to a natural order than a social construct.
The Longest Memory Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Longest Memory is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.