Black and white illustration of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Themes

The main themes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave are the argument against slavery, false versus true Christianity, and the importance of literacy to the concept of freedom.

  • The argument against slavery: Through his personal experiences, Douglass provides a powerful indictment of the dehumanizing effects of slavery.
  • False versus true Christianity: Douglass sets up a dichotomy between two kinds of Christianity, true Christianity and the false Christianity of racism and slavery.
  • Importance of literacy to the concept of freedom: Literacy leads Douglass to see freedom as a goal that can be attained and fosters a desire in him for freedom.


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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 master.’’

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.

Achieving Selfhood
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.

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