"The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave" is an autobiography that tells the story of the author's 21 years as a slave and later years as a free man and abolitionist. It is one of the earliest narratives written by a former American slave. Within the narrative, Douglass makes use of literary elements including symbolism and allegory, recurring themes, point of view, and syntax and diction to tell his story.
Themes explored in the work include the importance of literacy in gaining freedom, the role of Christianity in slavery and the role of ignorance as a means of reinforcing slavery as an institution, according to Ronald Sundstrom's article "Frederick Douglass," in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The book also explores the link between slavery and spiritual emptiness. An additional theme explored is the link between violence and revelation, particularly the way in which Douglass' final fight with temporary owner Edward Covey resolves doubts within himself about his desire for freedom.
According to Waldo E. Martin's "Mind of Frederick Douglass," important symbols in the work include the white-sailed ships Douglass sees in Chesapeake Bay when he is first rented to Edward Covey and "The Columbian Orator," a collection of essays Douglass read after achieving literacy. Douglass saw the abandoned white sailed ships as metaphors for himself, abandoned to Covey's rule. He conversely saw "The Columbian Orator" as a path to freedom and a symbol of the power of oration.
Point of View
The narrative's first person point of view plays a key role in the story. Because it is one of the first narratives written by a former slave, the firsthand account stands as a vitally important aspect of the work, according to the Harvard University Press website article, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Revisited." Douglass uses the fact that the narrative is told in first person to display his own intelligence and to refute arguments that slaves and African Americans in general were incapable of learning.
Douglass makes use of several different motifs throughout the narrative to emphasize certain aspects of slavery, many of which would also be used as literary devices in other slave narratives. Douglass' narrative frequently describes his quest for literacy and freedom, creates a sense of sympathy that the audience is affected by, and details the destruction of his family by the institution of slavery, according to Washington State University English professor, Donna M. Campbell.
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