Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Themes

Ignorance as a means to perpetuate slavery

One of the most important ways slaves were kept in bondage was not simply the threat of physical brutality; rather, it was through deep and sustained ignorance. Slaves were not allowed to read and write and were thus generally not aware of the events outside of the plantation, could not communicate with each other well to foment rebellion or conduct escape plans, and could not attain the sense of self-sufficiency and pride that came from being lettered. Literacy brought with it an understanding of the larger world. It opened up before a slave the idea of justice and an understanding of history. Reading the Bible led to a truer comprehension of Christianity. Douglass was able to first engage with abolitionism when he attained literacy. He also became fully aware of the reality of slavery; he wrote "[Literacy] had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity" (36). Ignorance was thus a way for slaveholders to keep their slaves manageable, happy, placid, and content. Once a slave moved beyond such darkness into a world filled with understanding, he was only able to do what Douglass eventually did - attempt to escape from his bonds.


Religion weaves itself through the text in a myriad of ways. Douglass expresses that he is a spiritual man and a Christian, but takes pains to explain that his Christianity is based on the teachings of Christ, not the hypocritical perversions of the religion by slaveholders. He lambasts their pretensions to piety that conceal their corruption and evil. He chastises the Church for supporting the system of slavery, and calls the fake Christians Pharisees for their abhorrent actions and words. Importantly, he locates authentic Christianity in the black community. Douglass also alludes to the traditional religious beliefs of Africans, legitimating them alongside Christianity.


Douglass's encounter with Edward Covey, which reveals "how a slave was made a man," demonstrates that his commitment to nonviolent resistance was crucial in securing his passage to manhood and self-actualization. Douglass was a paragon of patience, endurance, and fortitude. Although passionately roused on behalf of himself and his fellow slaves, he had a remarkable ability to channel that anger into healthy forms of resistance characterized by wisdom and maturity. He did nothing spontaneous or irrationally. He did not burst out in violence or rage and jeopardize his plans to escape or to attain literacy. His anger was calm and cool. In his epochal battle with Covey, keen readers will note that he did not actually fight back; he kept Covey from whipping him and gaining the upper hand. This resistance finally broke Covey, and the fight ended with neither man essentially victorious. What resulted from the fight, however, was Douglass's realization of manhood and autonomy. Thus, resistance in the Narrative centers on nonviolence and patient endurance. It is not rash or violent. Even though Douglass makes it clear that any man who wants to beat him must be prepared to kill him, he is not aggressive for aggression's sake. His path to individuality and fullness of self is not paved with blood.

Coming of age

The Narrative is not just a harrowing tale of an escape from slavery or an indictment of the southern system of bondage and religious hypocrisy; it is also a bildungsroman, the story of a boy becoming a man. Douglass journeys on a path from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance to knowledge, from slave to free man, from object to subject. He relates his growing comprehension of the realities of slavery while a child, and charts his course through his teen years while in the hands of several slaveholders. He details how literacy broadened his mind and made him aware of the deleterious and unjust nature of slavery. His resistance against Covey secured his attainment of manhood, allowing him to finally demonstrate the physical and moral strengths that were necessary to throw off the yoke of slavery. He also undertook a physical journey to escape bondage, knowing that to be fully self-actualized he would need to be free. Finally, he married and changed his name, further cementing his status as a grown man whose life was in his own hands. Douglass thus charts his coming of age in this remarkable autobiography, but sets his work apart from others in the genre due to the heightened quality of the obstacles he faced.

The importance of friendship

Douglass takes pains to negate whites' assumptions that slaves could not make friends with one another. This is categorically untrue; Douglass wrote of his fellow slaves at Freeland's farm that they would have died for each other, that they loved each other and consulted in each other in all things. They would not leave each other in the escape attempt and pledged to each other their lives and fortunes. Separation was a greater fear than death. Douglass's promulgation of friendship also exists when he laments leaving his young friends on the Baltimore streets behind and begins a Sunday school for his fellow slaves. He was a man who was sustained by community and fraternity; it made slavery more palatable and tolerable. Friendship was so important to slaves because oftentimes they were severed from their families in an effort to dehumanize them and thus had to rely on their non-familial brethren for emotional, mental, and even physical support.

The perversity of slavery

Slavery is revealed to be an utterly loathsome, execrable system that oppressed and physically and mentally brutalized its captives, and destroyed slave and slaveholder alike. Slaves were held in a system of absolute and total oppression; they were kept in ignorance of their birthdays, severed from family and friends, endured the most savage beatings at the hands of capricious masters, were raped and pimped out, forbidden to learn their letters, and deprived of enough food, clothing, and sleep. They were not allowed to marry whom they pleased or associate with those with whom they wished. They were denied education and the pursuit of knowledge. Their masters capitalized upon their ignorance by deceitfully trying to convey to them that freedom was onerous and debauched (as in the discussion of the holidays). Slaves became used to lying about being happy with their master and situation for fear that they would be punished otherwise. Slavery also ruined slaveholders, turning them from kind and fair individuals (such as Mrs. Auld) to individuals that delighted in and abused power. Slavery ruined not only individual lives but poisoned all of southern society.

The abuse of women

There are few female figures in the autobiography. The white women depicted were the wives of slaveholders, inured to cruelty and capriciousness. The black women were slaves (except for the minor examples of freed women like Douglass's wife and Sandy Jenkins's wife) and often bore the brunt of a master's hatred and brutality. One woman, Caroline, was pimped out by Mr. Covey, forced to bear the children of a male slave. Douglass's own mother was forced to have sex with a white man, thus begetting Douglass. Other women experienced the most savage beatings. Henny, a young woman who was maimed by burns, was specifically targeted by Thomas Auld. He whipped her multiple times a day. Aunt Hester was the favored victim of choice for Captain Anthony, no doubt because he was sexually attracted to her. He beat her mercilessly and humiliated her. Douglass recounts another tale of a white mistress so heavily beating a young slave girl that the girl died. Slavery took its toll on all of its participants, but women fell prey a larger part of the abuse due to the fact that their bodily strength was less and slaveholders perceived them as weaker.