Black and white illustration of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass
Start Free Trial

What are five themes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Frederick Douglass has several strong messages or themes to communicate in his narrative. He was writing to a white audience who often had misconceptions about slavery.

The first point Douglass makes is that slavery is cruel and torturous to slaves. While many white people thought the slaves were well taken...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Frederick Douglass has several strong messages or themes to communicate in his narrative. He was writing to a white audience who often had misconceptions about slavery.

The first point Douglass makes is that slavery is cruel and torturous to slaves. While many white people thought the slaves were well taken care of, Douglass shows graphically how the slaves were brutally beaten, underfed, and degraded.

Second, Douglass argues that slavery harms white people by dehumanizing them. He notes how his mistress (slave-master) in Baltimore is at first kind to him and tries to teach him to read, but as she catches on to the social division between white and black people she becomes hard and cruel.

Third, Douglass contends that Christianity makes slaveowners crueler, not kinder. Douglass recounts his owner having a conversion experience and thinking as a result he might be freed. Instead, Christian theology about how slaves must obey their masters encourages greater cruelty.

Fourth, Douglass emphasizes the importance of education, noting that whites so strictly forbid slaves from learning to read because they know the slaves could advance if given the tools.

Fifth, Douglass believes in the value of friendship, saying that is why many slaves don't run away. Nevertheless, he argues that freedom is more important.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several powerful themes that emerge from Frederick Douglass' narrative.  One such idea is the notion of change and how a young American social and political order will respond to it.  Douglass' work is quite transformative in that it demands to be heard, and that American political and social thought must recognize and adapt to such change.  The voice that emerges out of Douglass' work is not one that is apologetic or acquiescent to the Status Quo.  Rather, it seeks to challenge and redefine it.  Another theme that emerges from the work is the issue of race and identity in Modern America.  The issue of slavery and its abolition in the North coupled with its zealous defense in the South proves to be a defining element in the Civil War.  The issue of race and racial identity are critical components in the conception of America through the Civil War period and beyond, which are also central to the Narrative.  Along these lines, one can sense that the theme of growth in modernity is present in Douglass' work.  The reality in which Douglass is writing is one where America, as a young nation, will have to endure the pains of growth and engage in reflective analysis as to how to handle such growth.  I think that another theme is the empowerment which accompanies literacy.  Douglass is quite pointed about the idea that his evolution as a human being and emergence from the bondage of slavery is a direct result of learning how to read and write fluently.  Finally, the theme of social responsibility is of critical importance to Douglass' work.  This is an idea which stresses that individuals have a responsibility to both themselves and their immediate social order.  Douglass does not merely escape out of slavery and forget his previous predicament.  Rather, he fully immerses himself within and to the cause of abolition so that others may understand the joys and redemption of freedom as he did.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team