The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

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Themes and Colors
The Self-Destructive Hypocrisy of Christian Slaveholders Theme Icon
Knowledge and Ignorance Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
The Inexpressibility of Enslavement Theme Icon
Fellowship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Knowledge and Ignorance Theme Icon

Douglass writes, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.” Throughout his experience as a slave, Douglass finds that masters consistently seek to deprive their slaves of knowledge, in order to crush slaves’ wills to be free, or to make it so that the slaves cannot even comprehend of being free. When Hugh Auld finds his wife, Sophia, teaching Frederick how to write, he demands that she stop, saying that “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”

The institution of slavery seems to depend on keeping slaves as unenlightened as possible. Masters encourage slaves to revel and drink excessively during their annual Christmas holidays, so that the slaves sicken themselves when left to their own devices and come to think of themselves as unable to be responsible for themselves. Sinister slave owners contrive situations that force slaves to develop a distorted understanding of the nature of freedom. This way, slaves come to believe that they cannot handle an independent existence. Even Douglass, upon first reading about the full nature and extent of slavery, loses the little hope he had for bettering his circumstances.

However, Douglass becomes dedicated to educating himself and his fellow slaves because he sees it as a route to longer-term empowerment. The information that Douglass encounters through literacy broadens his understanding of the dehumanizing institution of slavery and the slaveholders’ strategies for promoting the ignorance of their slaves, and strengthens his desire to emancipate himself. Once he is free, Douglass’s literacy lets him advance the abolitionist cause far more than he could without the ability to read and write. This literacy is in itself a refutation of many arguments in favor of slavery: Douglass’s intelligence and eloquence prove that slaves are human beings capable of meaningful thought, despite racist slaveholders’ arguments to the contrary.

Knowledge and Ignorance ThemeTracker

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Knowledge and Ignorance Quotes in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

Below you will find the important quotes in The Narrative of Frederick Douglass related to the theme of Knowledge and Ignorance.
Chapter 3 Quotes

“…slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass recounts a story that is "reported of" Colonel Lloyd, admitting that this particular anecdote may be a rumor as he continues to attempt to only express the truth in his narrative. According to this story, Lloyd once met one of his slaves and asked him how he was treated by his master. The slave replied honestly, saying that he was worked too hard and not treated well. Then, a few weeks afterwards, this particular slave was apparently sold to a slave-trader in Georgia, forever severed from his family and friends. This demonstrates how slaves were treated when they told the truth. 

After this anecdote, Douglass explains that many slaves must lie when they are asked how they are doing; they claim that their master treats them kindly because they are afraid of such punishment. This illustrates how the sins of slave-owners compound; slaves are forced into morally questionable activities (perhaps the least of which is simple lying) because of the way their owners are allowed to treat them.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

“I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man… The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering… and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Hugh Auld, Sophia Auld
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly after arriving in Baltimore, Mrs. Auld begins to teach Douglass how to read. She only is able to explain up to "words of three or four letters," however, before Mr. Auld learns about this endeavor and forbids Mrs. Auld from continuing. In his vehement declaration that Douglass must not become literate, Mr. Auld unwittingly provides Douglass with the most useful lesson of all: literacy is the key to freedom. Through denying slaves the right to read or write, slaveowners deprive slaves of the knowledge they need to attain freedom from their bondage. Most slaves cannot realize this, however, because few slaveowners describe this phenomenon as directly as Mr. Auld did when he found Mrs. Auld teaching Douglass. This explains why Douglass has uniquely been able to attain literacy, which suggests that Douglass is a genuine representation of all slaves. In his wisdom, Douglass reveals the particular reason for his triumph, as well as crediting both Mr. and Mrs. Auld.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery; but while they relieved me of one difficulty, they brought on another even more painful than the one of which I was relieved. The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had left their homes, and gone to Africa, and stolen us from our homes, and in a strange land reduced us to slavery.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Columbian Orator
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass explains that he read certain passages of The Columbian Orator many times, such as the dialogue between slave and master and Sheridan's speech about Catholic emancipation, and he analyzes how these readings affected him in multiple ways. Yes, they allowed him to articulate his innate sentiments in opposition to slavery and replaced his ignorance with understanding; they also, however, made him gain additional feelings -- of hostility and even hatred towards the slaveowners that he came to "abhor" and "detest." As these readings allowed Douglass to truthfully come to terms with his condition as slave, the truth threatened Douglass' moral virtue (making him loathe his slaveowners as much as he deplored his own position) although it also allowed him to develop his abolitionist perspective and argument. In learning the "truth," Douglass not only works towards his own freedom and that of others, but also must accept the harsh reality that even the "kindest" of slaveowners are complicit in an impossibly evil institution.

“As I writhed under it, 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. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Columbian Orator
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

As Douglass continues to reflect on the way The Columbian Orator influenced his development, he more directly articulates the negative aspects of realizing the truth about his position (his "wretched condition") as a slave. After reading the work, had a more refined perspective, but still lacked the political or social means to improve his circumstance. He began to have a liminal sort of existence; he was still a slave, but he saw the ignorance (what he called the "stupidity") of his "fellow" slaves, which prevented him from fully belonging to their community. He even wished he was a "beast," feeling that it would be better to live ignorant of the full evils of his position than to be aware of them and still unable to change them.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey…I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Edward Covey
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass then works as a field hand for Mr. Covey, his most brutal master yet. Under Covey's demanding, and often furtive, watch, Douglass and his fellow slaves are relegated to a life of "work, work, work." Douglass claims that even his innate intellectual curiosity is extinguished under this man's control, as Douglass loses his passion for literacy also with his optimistic outlook. Furthermore, he feels himself fundamentally broken, transformed from a man into a "brute" -- essentially experiencing the underlying project of slavery itself (the dehumanization of an entire race of people). Yet Douglass also describes how, during this period of his life, he would often deliver "an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships" -- eloquent declarations about freedom and bondage that serve as tribute to his enduring human spirit. 

“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…My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Edward Covey
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass experiences a "glorious resurrection ... to the heaven of freedom" during his time under Mr. Covey's watch. One hot August afternoon, at the Biblically significant time of 3pm (the same time of Christ's crucifixion), Douglass finally loses his physical strength. When he is whipped by Mr. Covey, as expected, he decides to complain to his master about Mr. Covey's behavior -- which he later does. On his way back from his master's house (his journey after complaining to his master), Douglass receives a superstitious root from the slave Sandy Jenkins. The root seems to prevent Douglass from being beaten; as Douglass carries it, Mr. Covey speaks to him kindly. Then, the next day, when Mr. Covey attempts to whip Douglass, Douglass engages in a physical combat with Mr. Covey.

Douglass successfully fights Covey off; they brawl, and Covey does not whip Douglass as he intends to do. With this physical victory, Douglass has reclaimed his "manhood." He is a slave in "form," but not in "fact." He has taken one step towards freedom, and this progression begins to suggest how complicated and difficult the process to attaining freedom must be -- it doesn't just mean physically escaping the South, but also rebuilding one's identity as a human being in full possession of one's self.

“I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man, whose name I deem it imprudent to mention; for should it be known, it might embarrass him greatly, though the crime of holding the school was committed ten years ago. I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn…I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul. The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

While working for Freeland, Douglass begins to share his literary experience (and the knowledge and freedom which these experiences provide him) with his "dear fellow-slaves." This, more than any other item Douglass has shared, most effectively captures how Douglass's ability to read and write is not exceptional, and all slaves deserve the treatment which Douglass receives as a freed man.

Yet, even as Douglass reveals the events of this "Sabbath school" (a school which spreads Douglass's gifts with others in Christian fellowship), Douglass captures the still-present need for secrecy. He reluctantly refrains from revealing the freed man who hosted these literary sessions (despite his usual commitment to total truth), emphasizing how slaves are still struggling under social structures which restrain the improvement of their circumstance.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“The impression which I had received respecting the character and condition of the people of the north, I found to be singularly erroneous. I had very strangely supposed, while in slavery, that few of the comforts, and scarcely any of the luxuries, of life were enjoyed at the north, compared with what were enjoyed by the slaveholders of the south…The people looked more able, stronger, healthier, and happier, than those of Maryland. I was for once made glad by a view of extreme wealth, without being saddened by seeing extreme poverty.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 66-67
Explanation and Analysis:

After Douglass arrives in New Bedford, he receives his name ("Douglass") from Nathan Johnson and realizes that many of his impressions about Northerners were wrong. Douglass explains that, previously, he believed that because Northerners lacked slaves, they must also have lacked the luxury and comforts enjoyed by Southerners. He is surprised, however, by the profound well-being of Northern people, which seems to even surpass that of Southerners.

This indicates that slavery is indeed not essential to economic or other sorts of prosperity, thus mitigating an enduring, implicit argument in favor of slavery. It also suggests that an individual's perspective can easily be misguided; Douglass indirectly implies that Northerners' opinions about Southerners might be as wrong as his own prior opinions about Northerners. 

Appendix Quotes

“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass provides an Appendix here in order to clarify certain points which he feels he may have misrepresented in his narrative. Firstly, he comments on religion; as a Christian man himself, Douglass clarifies that he is not against Christianity, but is only opposed to the hypocritical form of Christianity common among slaveowners. After the narrative proper, Douglass directly praises Christian doctrine itself -- as "good, pure, and holy," and as essential to life. He thus aligns his narrative with the Christian audience from the North, allying himself to his likely audience through the medium of religion, while also avoiding any criticisms that he is "unchristian" because of his condemnation of religious slaveowners. Indeed, this critique of people who twist and corrupt religion for their own cruel purposes is one of the most enduring lessons of Douglass's narrative.