A Major Theme of Slavery in The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1663 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: Oct 2, 2020

Words: 1663|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Oct 2, 2020

Table of contents

  1. Violence and the Preservation of Slavery
  2. The Negative Impacts of Slavery
  3. Differing Experiences of Slavery: Baltimore vs. Maryland
  4. Surprises and Triumphs of Frederick Douglass
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

Frederick Douglass's narrative, aptly titled "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," is a powerful account of the inhumane experiences endured by enslaved African Americans in the United States during the 19th century. Douglass's narrative not only sheds light on the brutality and dehumanization that characterized slavery but also highlights the resilience and determination of individuals who sought to escape its clutches. This essay will delve deeper into Douglass's narrative, exploring themes such as violence, the preservation of slavery, the negative impacts of slavery, and Douglass's personal journey to freedom.

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Violence and the Preservation of Slavery

Central to Douglass's narrative is the theme of violence, both physical and psychological, as a means to preserve the institution of slavery. Douglass reveals that slavery was not merely an economic system but also a brutal regime of domination. The white slaveholders exercised near-total control over the lives of enslaved individuals. They inflicted physical beatings, mental torture, and emotional abuse to keep slaves subservient and prevent rebellion.

Douglass recounts the horrifying treatment his family and fellow slaves endured. He describes how he was awakened by the "heart-rending shrieks" of his aunt being beaten by Captain Anthony, highlighting the constant fear and violence that permeated the lives of enslaved individuals. This depiction of violence serves to illustrate the profound suffering experienced by slaves and the lengths to which their oppressors went to maintain control.

Moreover, Douglass underscores the role of education as a potential tool for liberation. He recognized that knowledge was a path to freedom, but the masters intentionally denied education to slaves, fearing that an educated slave population would be harder to subjugate. Douglass's journey to literacy, achieved against all odds, becomes a symbol of resistance to the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

Douglass's narrative exposes the stark contrast between the idealized image of slavery perpetuated by white slaveholders and the grim reality endured by slaves. Slavery was not a benevolent system, as some tried to portray it; it was built on the brutal exploitation and dehumanization of a people.

The Negative Impacts of Slavery

Douglass's narrative vividly portrays how slavery corroded the moral fabric of society, affecting both slaves and slaveholders. He decries how slavery hardened individuals, teaching them to hate and perpetrating harm instead of fostering respect and love for fellow human beings. One example is Mr. Plummer, whom Douglass describes as a "miserable drunkard and a savage monster." The dehumanizing effects of slavery extended not only to the enslaved but also to those who held power.

Slavery not only physically and emotionally scarred the enslaved but also undermined the moral integrity of the slaveholders. Douglass criticizes slaveholders who used Christianity to justify the bondage of enslaved people, pointing to the hypocrisy of professing faith while perpetuating such cruelty. Slavery's corrosive impact on slaveholders is evident in Douglass's assertion that "slavery is the enemy of both the slave and the slaveholder." It poisoned the very souls of those who participated in it.

Furthermore, Douglass emphasizes the role of religion in perpetuating the institution of slavery. Enslaved individuals were often forced to adopt the religion of their masters, and their religious songs were seen as prayers. The narrative illustrates how religion was exploited as a means of control, further highlighting the insidious nature of slavery.

Differing Experiences of Slavery: Baltimore vs. Maryland

One compelling aspect of Douglass's narrative is his exploration of the varying experiences of slavery in different locations. He vividly contrasts his life in Baltimore with that in rural Maryland, revealing that slavery's cruelty took different forms depending on the geographical context.

In Baltimore, Douglass lived with Hugh Auld, and here, the treatment of slaves was notably different from that in rural areas. Slaves in Baltimore had access to better housing, food, and clothing. The urban environment allowed for a closer approximation to freedom. The masters in Baltimore were often more concerned with their reputations and, therefore, refrained from the extreme physical abuse that was common in rural areas.

Douglass spent seven years with Hugh Auld in Baltimore, and it was here that he embarked on his remarkable journey to literacy. Douglass learned to read and write, not through formal education, but through his determination and resourcefulness. He made friends with poor white children, offering them bread in exchange for lessons in reading and writing. This transformation was pivotal in his eventual escape from slavery.

However, despite the relatively better conditions in Baltimore, Douglass encountered prejudice and discrimination in his calking business and job prospects, revealing that even in the urban North, racism was deeply entrenched.

Surprises and Triumphs of Frederick Douglass

Douglass's narrative is filled with surprises and triumphs. One of the most striking revelations is how he managed to learn to read and write despite the oppressive circumstances of slavery. His ability to persuade poor white children to assist him, his resourcefulness in studying the young Thomas Auld's copybooks, and his engagement with the "Columbian Orator" all reflect his relentless pursuit of knowledge and freedom.

Additionally, Douglass's account of his planned escape with four colleagues in 1836, even though it ultimately led to their arrest for two years, showcases his unwavering determination to break free from the chains of slavery. This episode underscores the high stakes involved in attempting to escape bondage and the severe consequences that could follow.

Moreover, Douglass's narrative challenges preconceived notions about the North. When he first arrived in New Bedford, he was surprised by the stark contrast between his expectations and reality. He initially assumed that people in the North, free from the institution of slavery, would all be wealthy and comfortable. However, he found that New Bedford had its own struggles and prejudices. It was a place of hard work, industry, and intelligence, but it was not devoid of discrimination. This nuanced portrayal of the North adds depth to Douglass's narrative and highlights the complexity of the antebellum United States.


In conclusion, Frederick Douglass's narrative is a powerful and eye-opening account of the horrors of slavery and the indomitable human spirit's quest for freedom. Through his narrative, Douglass exposes the violence and dehumanization inherent in slavery, reflects on its negative impacts on both the enslaved and the slaveholders, and illuminates the differences in slavery experiences between urban and rural settings. His journey from illiteracy to literacy and eventual escape serves as a testament to the transformative power of education and determination.

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Douglass's narrative challenges the idealized image of slavery, shedding light on its true, abhorrent nature. It is a call to confront the injustices of the past and serves as a reminder of the resilience and courage of those who fought for their freedom. As we reflect on Douglass's narrative, we must remember the enduring significance of his story in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.


  1. Douglass, F. (1845). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Dover Publications.
  2. McFeely, W. S. (1991). Frederick Douglass. W. W. Norton & Company.
  3. Oakes, J. (2012). The Scorpion's Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War. W. W. Norton & Company.
  4. Foner, E. (1988). Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Harper & Row.
  5. Stauffer, J. (2008). Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Twelve.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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A Major Theme Of Slavery In The Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from
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