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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Ignorance as a Tool of Slavery

Douglass’s Narrative shows how white slaveholders perpetuate slavery by keeping their slaves ignorant. At the time Douglass was writing, many people believed that slavery was a natural state of being. They believed that blacks were inherently incapable of participating in civil society and thus should be kept as workers for whites. The Narrative explains the strategies and procedures by which whites gain and keep power over blacks from their birth onward. Slave owners keep slaves ignorant of basic facts about themselves, such as their birth date or their paternity. This enforced ignorance robs children of their natural sense of individual identity. As slave children grow older, slave owners prevent them from learning how to read and write, as literacy would give them a sense of self‑sufficiency and capability. Slaveholders understand that literacy would lead slaves to question the right of whites to keep slaves. Finally, by keeping slaves illiterate, Southern slaveholders maintain control over what the rest of America knows about slavery. If slaves cannot write, their side of the slavery story cannot be told. Wendell Phillips makes this point in his prefatory letter to the Narrative.

Knowledge as the Path to Freedom

Just as slave owners keep men and women as slaves by depriving them of knowledge and education, slaves must seek knowledge and education in order to pursue freedom. It is from Hugh Auld that Douglass learns this notion that knowledge must be the way to freedom, as Auld forbids his wife to teach Douglass how to read and write because education ruins slaves. Douglass sees that Auld has unwittingly revealed the strategy by which whites manage to keep blacks as slaves and by which blacks might free themselves. Doug-lass presents his own self-education as the primary means by which he is able to free himself, and as his greatest tool to work for the freedom of all slaves.

Though Douglass himself gains his freedom in part by virtue of his self-education, he does not oversimplify this connection. Douglass has no illusions that knowledge automatically renders slaves free. Knowledge helps slaves to articulate the injustice of slavery to themselves and others, and helps them to recognize themselves as men rather than slaves. Rather than provide immediate freedom, this awakened consciousness brings suffering, as Hugh Auld predicts. Once slaves are able to articulate the injustice of slavery, they come to loathe their masters, but still cannot physically escape without meeting great danger.

Slavery’s Damaging Effect on Slaveholders

In the Narrative, Douglass shows slaveholding to be damaging not only to the slaves themselves, but to slave owners as well. The corrupt and irresponsible power that slave owners enjoy over their slaves has a detrimental effect on the slave owners’ own moral health. With this theme, Douglass completes his overarching depiction of slavery as unnatural for all involved.

Douglass describes typical behavior patterns of slaveholders to depict the damaging effects of slavery. He recounts how many slave-owning men have been tempted to adultery and rape, fathering children with their female slaves. Such adultery threatens the unity of the slave owner’s family, as the father is forced to either sell or perpetually punish his own child, while the slave owner’s wife becomes resentful and cruel. In other instances, slave owners such as Thomas Auld develop a perverted religious sense to remain blind to the sins they commit in their own home. Douglass’s main illustration of the corruption of slave owners is Sophia Auld. The irresponsible power of slaveholding transforms Sophia from an idealistic woman to a demon. By showing the detrimental effects of slaveholding on Thomas Auld, Sophia Auld, and others, Douglass implies that slavery should be outlawed for the greater good of all society.

Slaveholding as a Perversion of Christianity

Over the course of the Narrative, Douglass develops a distinction between true Christianity and false Christianity. Douglass clarifies the point in his appendix, calling the former “the Christianity of Christ” and the latter “the Christianity of this land.” Douglass shows that slaveholders’ Christianity is not evidence of their innate goodness, but merely a hypocritical show that serves to bolster their self-righteous brutality. To strike this distinction, Douglass points to the basic contradiction between the charitable, peaceful tenets of Christianity and the violent, immoral actions of slaveholders.

The character of Thomas Auld stands as an illustration of this theme. Like Sophia Auld, Thomas undergoes a transformation in the Narrative from cruel slave owner to even crueler slave owner. Douglass demonstrates that Auld’s brutality increases after he becomes a “pious” man, as Auld’s show of piety increases his confi-dence in his “God-given” right to hold and mistreat slaves. Through the instance of Auld, Douglass also demonstrates that the Southern church itself is corrupt. Auld’s church benefits from Auld’s money, earned by means of slaves. Thus Auld’s church, like many Southern churches, is complicit in the inhuman cruelty of slavery.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Victimization of Female Slaves

Women often appear in Douglass’s Narrative not as full characters, but as vivid images—specifically, images of abused bodies. Douglass’s Aunt Hester, Henrietta and Mary, and Henny, for example, appear only in scenes that demonstrate their masters’ abuse of them. Douglass’s depcitions of the women’s mangled and emaciated bodies are meant to incite pain and outrage in the reader and point to the unnaturalness of the institution of slavery.

The Treatment of Slaves as Property

Throughout the Narrative, Douglass is concerned with showing the discrepancy between the fact that slaves are human beings and the fact that slave owners treat them as property. Douglass shows how slaves frequently are passed between owners, regardless of where the slaves’ families are. Slave owners value slaves only to the extent that they can perform productive labor; they often treat slaves like livestock, mere animals, without reason. Douglass pre-sents this treatment of humans as objects or animals as cruel and absurd.

Freedom in the City

Douglass’s Narrative switches settings several times between the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland and the city of Baltimore. Baltimore is a site of relative freedom for Douglass and other slaves. This freedom results from the standards of decency set by the non‑slaveholding segment of the urban population—standards that generally prevent slaveholders from demonstrating extreme cruelty toward their slaves. The city also stands as a place of increased possibility and a more open society. It is in Baltimore that Douglass meets for the first time whites who oppose slavery and who regard Douglass as a human being. By contrast, the countryside is a place of heightened surveillance of slaves by slaveholders. In the countryside, slaves enjoy the least amount of freedom and mobility.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
White-Sailed Ships

Douglass encounters white-sailed ships moving up the Chesapeake Bay during the spiritual and physical low point of his first months with Covey. The ships appear almost as a vision to Douglass, and he recognizes them as a sign or message about his demoralized state. The ships, traveling northward from port to port, seem to represent freedom from slavery to Douglass. Their white sails, which Douglass associates with angels, also suggest spiritualism—or the freedom that comes with spiritualism.

Sandy’s Root

Sandy Jenkins offers Douglass a root from the forest with supposedly magical qualities that help protect slaves from whippings. Douglass does not seem to believe in the magical powers of the root, but he uses it to appease Sandy. In fact, Douglass states in a footnote that Sandy’s belief in the root is “superstitious” and typical of the more ignorant slave population. In this regard, the root stands as a symbol of a traditional African approach to religion and belief.

The Columbian Orator

Douglass first encounters The Columbian Orator, a collection of political essays, poems, and dialogues, around the age of twelve, just after he has learned to read. As Douglass becomes educated in the rudimentary skills of literacy, he also becomes educated about the injustice of slavery. Of all the pieces in The Columbian Orator, Douglass focuses on the master‑slave dialogue and the speech on behalf of Catholic emancipation. These pieces help Douglass to articulate why slavery is wrong, both philosophically and politically. The Columbian Orator, then, becomes a symbol not only of human rights, but also of the power of eloquence and articulation. To some extent, Douglass sees his own life’s work as an attempt to replicate The Columbian Orator.

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Which of the following does Douglass credit as his path to freedom?
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Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

by Mr_Cafaro, April 04, 2013

The title Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is suggested by the CCSS Initiative as an Exemplar Text for middle school.


12 out of 25 people found this helpful

Actually a good book

by BellaTheGod, November 20, 2013

No doubt, I thought it was gonna be super boring and I was gonna hate it, but to the contrary, I actually REALLY liked it. It's something I can read, and it doesn't take too long to read either. If you actually like history, and like to read about the stuff you won't find in a textbook, then this narrative is worthwhile.


such Douglass

much history


9 out of 14 people found this helpful

I found it inspiring!

by LoveTrueBooks, August 07, 2014

I LOVE reading books but I am particular. When it comes to pleasure reading I prefer nonfiction. I am weary of fictionalized history. This was refreshing.

Since this was over 100 years ago, I don’t entirely relate to it but I can say that human nature hasn’t changed. Slavery is not an American phenomena. It has always existed. A good world history course will demonstrate that. Wanting to enslave someone is a mindset that needs to be changed. Too many by people only associate it with race and that is not accurate.


3 out of 4 people found this helpful

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