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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Themes



Education is critical to Douglass's development. Learning how to read and write opens up the world to Douglass and helps him articulate his thoughts. Douglass strives to give this same power to his fellow slaves. With education, his fellow slaves will free their minds, even if their bodies remain chained.

Ironically, Douglass learns about the importance of education from Hugh Auld, who says it ruins slaves. Hugh Auld's attitude is common among slaveholders who strive to keep their slaves uneducated. An educated slave, according to Auld, is a discontented slave. This becomes true for Douglass, but his education also compels him to action that empowers him.

Education becomes Douglass's life's work. He first gets involved with education when he creates a Sunday school (Chapter 10). His work as an abolitionist and as the writer of the Narrative also serve educational purposes. Douglass is striving to educate people about the horrors of slavery and why it must be abolished.


Throughout the book, Douglass points out the hypocrisy of religious slaveholders. He says, "For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst." Douglass condemns those who claim to be religious and yet treat their slaves with extreme cruelty. Thomas Auld, who is discussed extensively in Chapter 9, is the prime example of someone who claims to be religious but treats his slaves terribly. Mr. Covey is another example. Mr. Freeland, who Douglass says is his best master other than himself, "made no pretensions to, or profession of, religion."

Douglass ends the Narrative with an appendix that explains that he does not despise religion. In fact, he is a Christian himself. Indeed, religion has proven to be a lifeline for Douglass. He consistently refers to "divine providence" in discussing his series of fortunate outcomes.

However, he points out that there are many people in the South who claim to be religious but who are not real Christians.


Douglass's Narrative is not simply an autobiography whose purpose is to tell a man's life story. Douglass's purpose is to educate people about the horrors of slavery. He also emphasizes the distorted mentality that accompanies the institution of slavery. Twisted thinking afflicts both the enforcers and victims of slavery. Douglass expresses this explicitly and implicitly.

One example of Douglass's explicit instruction is when he discusses slaves and their singing in Chapter 2. Douglass notes that some people in the North think that because slaves sing, they are content and happy. Douglass explains otherwise, noting, "It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake."

Douglass implicitly tries to teach his readers about slavery throughout the book. There are times, particularly in the first few chapters, that Douglass's personal story is barely touched upon. Instead, he focuses on sharing other horrors of slavery with his readers. One such instance is when he discusses Colonel Lloyd's treatment of the slaves who care for his horses. Colonel Lloyd is excessively concerned about the horses and beats his slaves for little reason. Douglass allows his readers to draw their own conclusions about Colonel Lloyd's behavior.

At the end of Chapter 11, Douglass explains that, in the present day, he often gives speeches as part of his role in the abolitionist movement. His Narrative is clearly an extension of those speeches and has the same goal: to educate people about the horrors of slavery and to convince them that it must be abolished.

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