Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Themes

  • Slavery

    Slavery is the big theme in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, since he wrote his book to convince people that slavery was wrong. For Douglass, the important thing was that everything he said about slavery was true.

    And since he had plenty to say on the subject, the book remains one of most important historical documents from that period, showing us the kinds of lives that American slaves like Douglass lived.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. What does it mean to be free?
    2. Is it possible to be free in mind while still legally enslaved? How or how not?
    3. How do slaveholders justify slavery? Do they really believe it is justified?
    4. What does slavery do to the people that own slaves?
    5. How is life different for slaves than for free people?
    6. How do the slave masters prevent slaves from revolting or running away?

    Chew on This

    In his autobiography, Douglass describes two different kinds of freedom: while legal freedom can be given or taken away by the government, personal freedom is something that comes from within.

    Douglass argues that slaves aren't the only victims of slavery. Perhaps because he's writing a book for a mostly white audience, he focuses on how slavery corrupts every American who takes part in it.

  • Education

    Frederick Douglass believed that all people are created equal. But he also believed that we weren't just born free: we have to make ourselves into who we are. S

    o education and self-improvement are incredibly important to him. The worst thing about slavery, to his mind, is that it prevents people from improving themselves through education. In fact, he argues in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that slavery and education are completely opposite things. He works towards making himself free by expanding his horizons though reading. He still has to physically escape, of course, but it's his education that gives him the strength of will to make it happen.

    Questions About Education

    1. Why do the slave masters work so hard to prevent Douglass from getting an education?
    2. What does Douglass have to do to get an education? How does he get around the rules preventing him from learning to read?
    3. Being able to read and write doesn't directly help Douglass escape, but his education clearly does help him become free. How?
    4. Does "education" mean more to Douglass than simply literacy and learning a trade? Why is it so important to him?

    Chew on This

    In order to be truly free, Douglass needs an education. He cannot escape until he has learned to read, write, and think for himself about what slavery really is.

    Since literacy and education are such an important part of Douglass's growth, the act of writing the Narrative is his final step in becoming free. In a sense, the story he tells in the book doesn't end until he's written the book itself.

  • Family

    In,The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass doesn't start out with much of a family. His father is probably his white master, or some other white rapist. He barely knows his mother: he only remembers meeting her a handful of times before she died, and he wasn't even allowed to go to her funeral.

    So when he talks about family, it's as something that slavery prevented him from ever having. Almost the only time he even mentions his cousins and grandmother, for example, is when he's telling the story about how his grandmother watched all her children and grandchildren get sold away from her, never to be seen again. And though he doesn't say much about his own marriage, he can only get married (and start his own family) after he escapes to freedom.

    Questions About Family

    1. What is a family? Is a slave part of a slave owner's family?
    2. Why is Douglass so happy to leave his family behind in Chapter 5 when his grandmother is so devastated to have her family taken away in Chapter 8?
    3. Is it possible for a slave to have a family at all?
    4. Why does Douglass tell us so little about his wife?

    Chew on This

    One of the greatest tragedies of slavery is that the slave has no family, because this loss can never be fixed. Even after Douglass becomes free, he still has no mother or father.

  • Suffering

    Part Douglass's journey throughout The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is his discovery of what slavery really is.

    When he is young, he doesn't really understand what it means to be a slave; he only starts to get it when he sees his Aunt Hester being whipped by his master. His real introduction to suffering occurs when he goes to work for Covey, and it's here that he learns to overcome suffering. When he vows to die rather than let himself be whipped again, he gains the strength of will he will eventually need for his journey north to freedom.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What about slavery causes Douglass the most suffering?
    2. Do slave owners suffer from slavery? If so, how is their suffering different from that of the slaves?
    3. Does suffering make Douglass a stronger person?
    4. What kind of suffering does he experience when he finally becomes free?

    Chew on This

    Before Douglass can become free, he has to learn the truth about slavery. Since the truth can only be found in great pain and loss, he has to survive through tremendous suffering before he can really become free. In other words, the path to freedom is through suffering.

  • Visions of America

    The American constitution was amended after the Civil War, but in the original version, not only was slavery legal, but a slave was counted as precisely three-fifths of a person. So Frederick Douglass puts a lot of time and energy in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass arguing that slaves are Americans, too.

    In fact, when he mentions American hero Patrick Henry, he's even making the case that the slaves who fight for their freedom are at least as American as founding fathers like Henry, since they're just as willing to die for their freedom as he was.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Why do both Douglass and Garrison mention Patrick Henry?
    2. Does Douglass think America is "The Land of the Free"?
    3. During Douglass's time, the American government considered slaves to be three-fifths of a person. So how does Douglass make the argument that slaves should be considered Americans?
    4. Is the South part of America during Douglass's time? Does Douglass think it is?

    Chew on This

    By comparing escaped slaves to Patrick Henry, Douglass suggests that slaves fighting for their freedom are the true patriots.

    Since Douglass believes that a slaveholding nation cannot truly live up to the ideals of the Constitution, he believes that the South is unfaithful to the American spirit.

  • Friendship

    When Frederick Douglass is deciding whether to risk running away to freedom, he finds it hard to leave behind his friends. Many slaves, in fact, preferred to stay enslaved rather than leave their communities for a strange new place.

    Even though Douglass values friendship, he also wants to remind us in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that leaving friends behind and striking out on our own is sometimes the right decision.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Why is friendship so important to slaves? Why would some slaves prefer to remain in slavery rather than escape to freedom and leave their friends behind?
    2. Does Douglass have any close friends? Why or why not?
    3. What kinds of white people is Douglass able to make friends with? How?
    4. How do Douglass's friends in the North help him once he is free?

    Chew on This

    In the South, friends are a problem. When Douglass tries to escape with his friends, one of them betrays the group and prevents the others from escaping. And many slaves never want to escape to the North at all, since they would have to leave their friends behind.

    Even though escaped slaves have finally won their independence, ironically they are all the more in need of friends in the North. Without help, they would never be able to hold on to that hard-won freedom.

  • Religion

    Frederick Douglass's friends in the abolitionist movement were all extremely faithful Christians, but, in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass has some really harsh criticisms for slave owners who claim to be Christians. (Douglass believes that a person can't both be a Christian and a slave owner.)

    Not only does Douglass hate hypocrites, but he also tells us that religious slave owners are even worse than those who don't pretend to be religious. This sometimes got Douglass in trouble with Christians who thought he was attacking them instead of religious imposters. (That's why he wrote an entire appendix just to explain that he was against religious hypocrisy, not religion itself.)

    Questions About Religion

    1. Are the slave masters religious? Can slavery co-exist with Christianity?
    2. Is Douglass religious? Does religion help him?
    3. How does Douglass reconcile the fact that slavery exists with his belief in God?
    4. Are the religious slave masters better or worse than the ones who are not religious?
    5. What does Douglass think of Sandy's root? Does he believe in superstition as a kind of religion?

    Chew on This

    For Douglass, religion isn't about what you do on Sunday; it's what you do the rest of the week that counts. Slaveholders who go to church, he believes, are not real Christians.

  • Truth

    Frederick Douglass makes a big deal of the fact that The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is true, and so do Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison in their prefaces.

    They all did this because they knew that people rarely argued in favor of slavery as it actually was; instead, people who were pro-slavery imagined a version of slavery where Black people were happy being slaves. Slavery, according to Douglass, was synonymous with deception, so it's no surprise that people like Mr. Covey are master deceivers. But in a way, this makes Douglass's job easier: all he had to do was truthfully describe the things he had seen and experienced as a slave.

    Questions About Truth

    1. What obstacles get in the way of Douglass telling the truth about what has happened to him in his life? What sorts of things can't he talk about?
    2. How does slavery feed off deception? Why is Mr. Covey, for example, such a master deceiver?
    3. Why do Douglass, Garrison, and Phillips have so much faith in the power of truth to defeat slavery?
    4. Why is it important that slaves be able to tell their own stories about slavery? Is that kind of story more true?

    Chew on This

    Slavery can only exist when people don't know how bad it really is. This is why slave owners tried to prevent Douglass from telling his story.

    Slavery can only work when the slaves themselves are tricked into misunderstanding what it really is. This is why slave masters try to prevent slaves from being able to read or learn about freedom any other way.