In the Narrative, Douglass acts as both the narrator and the protagonist, and he appears quite different in these two roles. The wide gulf between Douglass’s two personas is, in fact, the point of the Narrative: Douglass progresses from uneducated, oppressed slave to worldly and articulate political commentator. Douglass frequently dramatizes the difference between his older, more experienced self and his younger self through references to his relative ignorance and naïveté. One instance of this dramatization occurs when Douglass mocks how impressed he was as a young man to encounter the city of Annapolis—a city that now seems small to him by the standards of Northern industrial cities.
As the narrator, Douglass presents himself as a reasoned, rational figure. His tone is dry and he does not exaggerate. He is capable of seeing both sides of an issue, even the issue of slavery. Though he makes no excuses for slave owners, he does make an effort to present a realistic—if critical—account of how and why slavery operates. His humane vision allows him to separate slaveowning individuals from the institution that corrupts them. Moreover, Douglass as the narrator presents himself as capable of intricate and deep feeling. He allows his narrative to linger over the inexpressible emotions he and others have suffered, and he sometimes dramatizes his own tears.
Douglass as the protagonist of the Narrative is sometimes a strong character and at other times a sidelined presence. Douglass’s strength as a character fluctuates because Douglass the narrator sometimes presents his younger self as an interesting, unique case and sometimes as a typical, representative American slave. As a representative slave, Douglass’s individual characteristics matter less than the similarity of his circumstances to those of all other slaves, as when he describes the circumstances of his upbringing in Chapter I of the Narrative. Similarly, at times Douglass exists merely as a witness to scenes featuring other characters. These scenes are important to the Narrative not because of Douglass’s role in them, but because they present a composite portrait of the dehumanizing aspects of slavery.
Generally, Douglass the protagonist becomes a stronger presence as the Narrative proceeds. The protagonist Douglass exists in the Narrative as a character in process and flux, formed and reformed by such pivotal scenes as Captain Anthony’s whipping of Aunt Hester, Hugh Auld’s insistence that Douglass not be taught to read, and Douglass’s fight with Covey. Aunt Hester’s whipping introduces Douglass to the physical and psychic cruelty of slavery. He becomes committed to literacy after Hugh Auld’s order that Sophia Auld cease teaching him. Douglass then is reintegrated into slavery and loses his desire to learn at Thomas Auld’s and at Covey’s. Finally, Douglass reestablishes a sense of self and justice through his fight with Covey. Douglass thus emerges as a figure formed negatively by slavery and cruelty, and positively by literacy education and a controlled but aggressive insistence on rights.
Through this process, certain traits remain constant in young Douglass’s character. Though often isolated and alienated, Douglass remains largely optimistic about his fate and maintains a strong spiritual sense. He is exceptionally resourceful, as demonstrated by his untraditional self‑education. Finally, Douglass has a strong desire to help others, expressed in part through his commitment to improving the lives of his fellow slaves, as we see in the Sabbath school he runs while under the ownership of William Freeland.
Sophia Auld is one of the few characters, apart from Douglass himself, who changes throughout the course of the Narrative. Specifically, Sophia is transformed from a kind, caring woman who owns no slaves to an excessively cruel slave owner. On the one hand, she appears more realistic and humane than other characters because we see her character in process. On the other hand, Sophia comes to resemble less a character than an illustration of Douglass’s argument about slavery. Douglass uses the instance of Sophia’s transformation from kind to cruel as a message about the negative effects of slavery on slaveholders. Sophia also seems less realistic as a character because Douglass’s descriptions of her are rhetorically dramatic rather than realistic. Douglass’s initial description of Sophia idealizes her kind features, and his description of her character post-transformation equally dramatizes her demonic qualities.
Sophia’s gender affects her characterization in the Narrative. To nineteenth-century readers, it would have seemed natural for Sophia, as a female, to be sympathetic and loving. Consequently, it would have appeared all the more unnatural and undesirable for her to be transformed into an evil slave owner. Because many -nineteenth-century readers thought of maternal figures as the symbol of their society’s moral righteousness, corruption of a maternal figure—or disruption of her family structure—would point directly to moral problems in the society at large. In this regard, Sophia appears in the Narrative as a symbolic character as well as a realistic character. Her symbolism of a culture’s corruption is an important emotional component of Douglass’s larger argument against slavery.
Edward Covey represents Douglass’s nemesis in the Narrative. Covey is a typical villain figure in that his cruelty is calculated. He is not a victim of the slavery mentality but a naturally evil man who finds an outlet for his cruelty in slaveholding. Covey is skilled and methodical in his physical punishment of his slaves, but he is even more skilled at psychological cruelty. While other slaveholders in the Narrative can be deceitful with their slaves, Covey uses deception as his primary method of dealing with them. He makes the slaves feel that they are under constant surveillance by lying to them and creeping around the fields in an effort to catch them being lazy.
One way in which Douglass portrays Covey as a villain is by depicting him as anti-Christian. The slaves call Covey “the snake,” in part because he sneaks through the grass, but also because this nickname is a reference to Satan’s appearance in the form of a snake in the biblical book of Genesis. Douglass also presents Covey as a false Christian. Covey tries to deceive himself and God into believing that he is a true Christian, but his evil actions reveal him to be a sinner. As Douglass associates himself with Christian faith, he heightens the sense of conflict between himself and Covey by showing Covey to be an enemy of Christianity itself.
As Douglass’s nemesis, Covey is the chief figure against whom Douglass defines himself. Douglass’s fight with Covey is the climax of the Narrative—it marks Douglass’s turning point from demoralized slave to confident, freedom-seeking man. Douglass achieves this transformation by matching and containing Covey’s own violence and by showing himself to be Covey’s opposite. Douglass thus emerges as brave man, while Covey is exposed as a coward. Douglass is shown to be capable of restraint, while Covey is revealed to be an excessive braggart. Finally, Douglass emerges as a leader of men, while Covey is shown to be an ineffectual master who cannot even enlist the aid of another slave, Bill, to help him.