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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
Read about Sethe, a fictional enslaved woman who embodies this pattern, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
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.
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.
Read about how the setting of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man challenges this view of the urban life in the North.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass!