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.