What's the theme of The Heroic Slave from Frederick Douglass?

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The theme in Douglass's The Heroic Slave is an obvious one—heroism and bravery. The story focuses on the pursuits and triumphs of a slave who undertakes all sorts of acts of bravery to liberate himself and those around him. Douglass's point in the story is to embolden slaves to take...

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The theme in Douglass's The Heroic Slave is an obvious one—heroism and bravery. The story focuses on the pursuits and triumphs of a slave who undertakes all sorts of acts of bravery to liberate himself and those around him. Douglass's point in the story is to embolden slaves to take charge and act bravely to thrust off the shackles of slavery and also to enshrine these brave slaves as people to respect and revere, hoping to stir up abolitionist ideas throughout the nation.

Madison Washington is the main character of Douglass's story, and he is the titular heroic slave—doing miraculous and brave feats. First, he escapes from his master and flees to Canada. Having left his wife in slavery, he returns back to the plantation to rescue her, staging a daring escape. Unfortunately, his wife is shot and killed, and he is captured and enslaved once more.

Returning to his fellow slaves, he is sent on a slave ship, on which he stages a mutiny. The slaves on board overthrow the crew and reroute the ship so they can take it to a place of freedom, arriving in Nassau. Washington is the epitome of the heroic slave as Douglass displays.

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The main theme in "The Heroic Slave" is one of heroism and bravery. Douglass constructs a narrative of the intrepid Madison Washington, a slave and cook who simply could not accept his life as it was under the conditions of institutionalized slavery. Having escaped to Canada once, Washington returns to the US to rescue his wife. They make an attempt at escape, but Washington's wife is shot dead and he is returned to bondage. Bound for the South for re-sale on the slave ship Creole, Washington frees the slaves and overthrows the crew, re-routing the ship to Nassau.

Where many men would have simply stayed in Canada, he returns to the heart of danger to rescue his wife. Where most men would have lost heart and given up when their wife was killed, he still fought for the freedoms of slaves who were complete strangers. Madison Washington completely embodied the theme of selfless bravery, and no doubt was a great hero to Fredrick Douglass

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Another theme in "The Heroic Slave" is revealed in its title: heroism. Douglass casts Madison Washington, a real-life historical figure who led a revolt on-board the Creole in November 1841, as a figure of insurmountable strength and great character. It is significant, too, that a white man, Mr. Listwell, informs the reader of Washington's strengths. For the reader of the time, the decision to use Listwell's voice to inform the reader about Washington validates him in a way in which even Douglass's voice cannot. Listwell reveals the following about his first encounter with Washington:

Madison was of manly form. . . . His whole appearance betokened Herculean strength; yet there was nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect. A child might play in his arms, or dance on his shoulders. A giant's strength, but not a giant's heart was in him. . . . He was just the man you would choose when hardships were to be endured, or danger to be encountered,—intelligent and brave. He had the head to conceive, and the hand to execute.

This description of Washington undermines prevailing notions of black men as beastly or savage—notice how Douglass constantly asserts Washington's manliness and says that "there was nothing savage" about him. It also undermines notions of black docility and feeble-mindedness, which were among the justifications for slavery.

Both Madison Washington's true history, and the one that Douglass creates for him, place him in the tradition of other great American heroes, particularly the Founding Fathers. He is named after both James Madison and George Washington. Douglass's affirmation of Washington's sharp wit places him alongside Madison in his understanding of the country's values, and his physical prowess and courage place him alongside George Washington.

For further discussion of the story's themes of heroism and parallelism with the Founding Fathers, consult Russ Castronovo's essay "Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom." You can find the essay for free online.

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Douglass' short story reveals the theme that those who are enslaved do have power and can exercise some level of autonomy over their condition.  Madison, the protagonist in the story, is not one who acquiesces to the condition of slavery.  He actively partakes in resistance, and seeks to broaden his own sense of fulfillment to others.  Once escaped, he goes back for his family, and then he leads the rebellion aboard the slave ship.  Douglass makes the critical decision of ensuring that his story about slavery will be one that voices activism, resistance, and solidarity.  These three elements are not normally associated with the idea of slavery and are ones that Douglass understood can help bring about the end of slavery.  This theme of abolitionism is something that drives the short story.

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