Major Themes of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a memoir and treatise on abolition written by former slave Frederick Douglass.

Sense of Dignity

Douglass’s narrative encourages the reader to be courageous enough to fight the circumstances. He became exemplary and taught others to be self-reliant in the face of misfortune. At the house of Auld, Douglass was exposed to education but it is soon halted. However, he started educating himself despite receiving no benefits from his master. His pathos reflected in the narrative shows that he had deep regard and understanding for human life. Inherently every human being desires basic human respectability, which treats him/her in the same regards as others of the respectable circle. Douglass’s deep sense of frustration stems from the gap that he was unable to bridge for a long period of time. But this did not hamper his spirit and he fought the circumstances.

Role of Education

Education and awareness play a great role in one’s life. In the case of Frederick Douglass and hundreds of other slaves like him, education served as a means of self-awareness which led them towards the path of freedom. Without education, the mere thought of the journey towards freedom, could not have been possible. It is in Chapter 6 and Chapter 7, that the reader witnesses the growth of the protagonist because of education. Just like other basic rights, the slaves were forbidden to get any education. They were not supposed to be capable of reading and writing as the masters feared that it would enhance their mental capabilities and the power of reasoning, hence making them unmanageable. Douglass’s keenness on educating himself deepened his understanding of the evils of slavery. He understood that slavery not only harms the slave but the slaveholder as well. It corrupts them and strips them of their humanity. Through the aid of education and learning that he managed to receive, he started regretting his condition. He became aware of his pathetic condition and started hating his masters. This landed him in utter despair and he started feeling suicidal. It was his will and determination that lead him to express his deep feelings through words, thus leading him to his emancipation.

Inhumane Treatment

Throughout the narrative, the writer recounts multiple incidents that made an indelible mark on his psyche. Such was the harrowing events that induced paralyzing fear at the time and when he thought about those events in retrospect he was moved to tears. In the first chapter, he saw his aunt getting stripped to the waist for slight disobedience for which she was whipped brutally. A vivid description is given which encapsulated the horrors of punishment. The brutality was normalized to such an extent that slaves regarded their respective masters as good-natured if they were less violent than their ‘crueller’ counterparts. This inhuman treatment was common in rural as well as cities. Sophie Auld is one such example who was kind initially to Douglass initially but transformed into a cruel slave-holder.

Physical Slavery vis-à-vis Mental Slavery

Slavery was not just physical but mental as well, and both are interlinked in an absolute subjugation of the blacks. The most common was dehumanizing the slaves by punishing them with severe whipping even in cases where faults were insignificant or out of their immediate control. During the time of annual distribution of clothes and ration, the slaves were provided with scanty resources and were fed like farm animals. They were subjected to excruciating labour and often tolerated severe weather conditions as long as they were alive. In chapter IV, a slave named Demby was killed when he refused to come out of the creek despite Mr Gore’s command. When asked for the reason behind such behaviour, Mr Gore simply replied that Demby was setting a bad example for other slaves. In chapter III, there is another event that shows how mental slavery was practised. The slaves were punished heartlessly for petty matters. No matter how outrageous the accusations were, the slaves were not supposed to question the motives and complain. Colonel Lloyd always insisted on submissive behaviour on part of the slaves. He wanted them to stay silent and receive punishment without uttering a word. This is evidence of how mental slavery along with physical, sets out to work.

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