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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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

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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.

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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.

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What is the major theme in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave?

Douglass's work has many themes, but perhaps the most important is the corrupting influence of slavery. It is important to remember that the Narrative was very much a document of the abolitionist movement, and Douglass is searing in his indictment of an institution that, he says, corrupts everyone involved. It gives nearly unlimited power to evil men like Mr. Covey, and even infects good and generous people like Sophia Auld with hate and a sense of their own superiority. It perverts Christianity, which is put into service providing ideological justifications for it. Perhaps worst of all is the effect it has on the slaves themselves. After working under the brutal Mr. Covey for a year, Douglass describes himself as a shell of a man:

I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

But Douglass's story is also a story of strength and redemption, and he resists this terrible dehumanization first by fighting back against Mr. Covey and then by running away to freedom. 

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

Douglass's primary goal in writing this book was to convey the injustice of slavery. He shares many personally painful experiences throughout the narrative, from watching his aunt be brutally beaten to explaining that he holds no particular attachments to his mother because he was never allowed to know her. He explains that he has been transferred as property from one master to the next and that he has had to learn how to survive each new situation. He has been deprived of family, education, freedom, and basic human liberties. In a nation founded on freedom for all, he has been denied a great deal.

Another theme that arises is the power of literacy. Through Mrs. Auld (and some little hungry white boys), Douglass learns enough of the basics of phonics that he is able to teach himself how to read. This opens up an entirely new world to him, one where he hears about and begins to understand abolitionism. From the moment that Mr. Auld forbids his wife from providing any further reading instruction, Douglass understands that literacy has a transforming power to change the direction of his life.

In his narrative, Douglass also makes a compelling case against the dangers of false Christianity. Douglass himself believes in God, but he often points to those who do evil in the name of God and then call themselves Christian. He notes:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Douglass witnessed numerous people living hypocritical lives which were not in accordance with the teachings of Christ, and he asserts that to love Christ is to hate slavery.

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