Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself
Narrative of the Life of
Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself: Themes
An Argument Against Slavery
One of the most explicit themes of the Narrative is the oppressive
effect of institutionalized racism in the form of slavery in the southern
United States. Throughout the narrative, Douglass provides striking examples of
how slaves are brutalized, mentally and physically, by the slaveholding system.
His narrative provides numerous examples that add up to a powerful indictment
of the dehumanizing effects of slavery. These include the physical abuse of
women, as in the treatment of Douglass’ Aunt Hester, and the separation of
families. Douglass points out that slavery is not only harmful to slaves but
affects slaveholders too. His greatest example of the damaging effects of
slavery on slaveholders is that of Sophia Auld. Auld had never been a
slaveholder and is at first kind to Douglass. By owning him, she retracts her
generosity of spirit. As Douglass notes, ”The fatal poison of irresponsible
power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work.
False versus True Christianity
Another theme that runs throughout the Narrative is what it means to be
a Christian in the South when slavery is at its core immoral. Douglass
ingeniously sets up a dichotomy between two kinds of Christianity, as noted by
scholars Keith Miller and Ruth Ellen Kocher in Shattering Kidnapper’s
Heavenly Union: Interargumentation in Douglass’s Oratory”: He constantly
pits True Christianity, which he explicitly embraces, against the False
Christianity of racism and slavery. This theme is found in the depictions of
cruel masters. These masters beat their slaves to near death but appear pious
by attending church regularly, giving to charities, and becoming ministers. The
appendix reveals how Christianity, as practiced in the South, has slavery as
its ugly accomplice. By juxtaposing images of slavery with religious piety,
Douglass reveals how the two cannot be separated. ”The slave auctioneer’ s
bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries
of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious
Importance of Literacy to the
Concept of Freedom
As a young boy, Douglass is taught the alphabet by his mistress, Sophia Auld.
After she is prohibited to continue by her husband, Douglass finds ways to
continue his education by interacting with Anglos. Literacy leads Douglass to
see freedom as a goal that can be attained. For example, his purchase of The
Columbian Orator, a book of political speeches written by ancient orators
and Enlightenment thinkers, introduces him to the art of oration. He uses this
skill later in life as an abolitionist activist. Reading such books makes him
wonder why he was excluded from those rights granted to his white master. ”The
reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the
arguments brought forward to sustain slavery…. Douglass’ education
contributes to his understanding of the injustices done to him and all slaves.
It fosters a desire in him for freedom. His education leads to a restlessness
that will not be quieted by physical beatings or hard labor. Eventually, his
education leads him to escape slavery.
In many ways, the Narrative is a coming-of-age story that depicts
Douglass achieving his freedom and acquiring a sense of self. One of the most
powerful lines in the Narrative comes in chapter ten before the showdown
between Douglass and Mr. Covey. Douglass directly addresses the relationship
between slavery and the denial of manhood when he says, ”You have seen how a
man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man. Because
slavery was bound up in denying full selfhood to both men and women, many
slaves were denied the ability to perceive themselves as full human beings.
Douglass’ narrative shows how attaining control of one’s life through freedom
is necessary to achieving selfhood, or, in Douglass’ case, manhood.
Source: Nonfiction Classics for Students,
©2012 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.Full
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