Masterplots II: African American Literature Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself Analysis
To write autobiography is to assess the significance of one’s life. Douglass’s journey from “the peculiar institution” of slavery to freedom has both individual and societal importance. His narrative details the “dehumanizing” and “soul-killing” effects of slavery in language that is both formal and dispassionate.
As others have observed, the first page of the Narrative is replete with negatives: The slave narrator does not know his age; he is not allowed to ask about it; all he knows about his father is that he is white. This lack of identifying data is undoubtedly dehumanizing.
The brutality of the slaveholders provides other examples of the dehumanization of slavery. The beating of Aunt Hester by Aaron Anthony sets the stage for the many whippings to which Douglass is to be witness. Among the first of these is the incident of the two Barneys, father and son. They take care of Colonel Lloyd’s horses, but it is clear that the horses are more valued than they are; their master whips them frequently and arbitrarily. Later, in the incident with Covey, the “nigger-breaker,” Douglass decides that he has had enough. He fights Covey and declares that the encounter marks “the turning-point in my career as a slave.”
The sexual nature of these beatings has been pointed out. In the case of Aunt Hester, this aspect is fairly explicit. Captain Anthony is enraged not so much because Aunt Hester has disobeyed him and gone out in the evening, but rather because she has been with Ned Roberts, another slave. Miscegenation is, of course, rife between slaveholders and their female slaves. The slaveholder who is both master and father to his slave is quite common. Conversely, where both beater and beaten are males, homosexuality has been suggested.
While such physical abuse undoubtedly leaves psychological scars, the custom of separating the slave infant from his mother is perhaps even more emotionally damaging. Douglass several times refers to this unnatural procedure. In fact, he receives the news of his own mother’s death “with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”
The slave narrator, however, is no stranger to religion. References to it become increasingly specific. Early in the Narrative, the death of a cruel overseer is “regarded by the slaves as the result of a merciful providence.” Similarly, Frederick Douglass describes his move to Baltimore as “a special interposition of divine Providence.” Later, slaveholders such as Thomas Auld use religion to “sanction and support” their “slaveholding cruelty.” Also, the final portion of the Narrative concerns itself with the incompatibility of Christianity and slavery. Douglass, therefore, by examining one life addresses issues that affect society as a whole.
The slave’s sense of community is referred to at crucial points in the Narrative. Douglass plans his aborted escape with other slaves, and his autobiography ends with the hope that the book will increase awareness about “the American slave system.” Such knowledge will, the slave narrator hopes, lead to emancipation. Similarly, when Douglass imagines his grandmother, it is her isolation that pains him most. She has been put out to pasture in utter loneliness.
The passage in which Douglass imagines his grandmother’s loneliness is perhaps the most poignant in the Narrative, perhaps because Douglass is angry at himself for not being there when she needs him. Whatever the reason, the passage’s tone is unlike the tone of the rest of the autobiography. “Dispassionate,” “matter-of-fact,” “detached” are words that come to mind when the tone of the Narrative is considered. Such distanced narration could be the detachment of the erudite adult abolitionist looking back; it might also be that the dehumanizing and soul-killing institution has taken its toll. Occasionally in the Narrative , Frederick Douglass mentions his inability to write down his feelings. Is the...
(The entire section is 1,067 words.)