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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
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
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.