There are a number of important themes in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”.A few of which include inequality, education and an urban environment as the keys to freedom, as well as the duality of Christianity in terms of its true values within the institution of slavery are three themes that are present in the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. These three themes not only occur frequently throughout “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, but are in many ways interconnected.
One of the most prevalent themes in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” as well asother slave narratives by others, is that of inequality. Although Douglass attempts to show how African American slaves are simply human beings like their white counterparts, there are numerous instances in which it is shown how many whites did not accept slaves as truly human. Frederick Douglass perceives the gross racial inequities at an early age and notes, “I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his birhday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege" (13). Merely pointing out the fact that he did not know the details of his background is a structurally vital part of the narrative since it defines an early and formative example of inequality, but Douglass takes this observation one step further by remarking upon the difference between the white and black children. Instead of merely accepting this difference, he is keenly aware of the inequality of even the most minor details. These descriptions of inequality plague the first half of the book and the reader realizes the “worth" of a slave when Douglass states in one of the important quotes from “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass : An American Slave”, “We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married ands single, were ranked with horses, sheep and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination" (51). It is clear that Douglass wants his readers to see the humanity of both himself and other slaves and wishes to show the extent to which perceptions of inequality are flawed.
For Frederick Douglass, there are two routes that appear to be the most direct path to a sense of freedom and liberty; a progressive, urban environment as well as education. At first, he is convinced that the key to freedom is as simple as moving to an urban area. He remarks, “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty enacted on the plantation" (38). Later, he comes to find that while the conditions may be slightly better there is still a great deal of injustice. He then begins to think that his education will be the secret to freedom and liberty and although he endeavors to learn as much as possible, he begins to doubt whether or not he was correct. At one point he states, “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out" (47). In the end, these elements of freedom—becoming urban and educated—led to his final act of rebellion, which he hoped would bring freedom and education does not always appear to be a salvation from slavery. He engages in a fight with is cruel master. He can no longer stand the combination of inequality with his newfound sense of education and urban knowledge. He states, “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free" (70). He gets away and becomes a free man, only to realize that these is still no such thing as complete freedom for a black man, even in the North. He recalls, “There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousand of my own brethren—children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition" (79). For Douglass, freedom and liberty had to be obtained through a combination of factors, with education at the top, followed closely by a rebellious spirit and access to friendly Northerners and the community of urban blacks who were able to live more progressive lives away from the plantation.
There are two forms of Christianity represented in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”and each are described and function differently throughout the text. Based on Douglass’ personal recollections and thoughts within the text, there are both real and false versions of religion and generally, the real or “true" form of Christianity is practiced by himself as well as some whites who are opposed to slavery. In other words, the role of religion in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” serves symbolic as well as narrative functions. The false form of religion, or what Douglass terms, “the hypocritical Christianity of this land" (95) is practiced by whites, most notably Mr. Covey, and is a complete bastardization of the true ideals behind genuine Christian thought. In fact, through his discussions of religion that are interspersed throughout the text, the reader gets the sense that slavery and true Christianity are opposing forces and one cannot be present while the other exists. Not only is the simultaneous existence of the true version Christianity with slavery impossible, it appears that even if real Christianity does exist in a pure form, the introduction of slavery corrupts it inevitably and completely. For these reasons, Douglass juxtaposes both forms of Christianity to reveal the underlying hypocrisy of the slaveholding South as well as the potential redemptive value of his version of true Christianity. The final result is not just a religious or traditionally Christian exposition of the evils of human bondage, but an overtly political statement about how ideals can be easily contorted to fit the current situation.
In sum, all of these themes exist in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” because of the institution of slavery and its resulting lack of freedom and the rhetoric that used to defend it. This text’s themes could all be gathered together under the common element of inequality and how it affects the practical, social, and even spiritual lives of the characters represented.
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