Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

by: Frederick Douglass

Sophia Auld

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.