The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

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The Inexpressibility of Enslavement Theme Analysis

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.
The Inexpressibility of Enslavement Theme Icon

Douglass’s commentary throughout the book suggests that someone who has the fortune never to be enslaved can never truly understand slavery. The hardship of slavery is inexpressible. For example, when recounting his escape, Douglass writes, “I say, let him be placed in this most trying situation,—the situation in which I was placed,—then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave.” Moreover, intellectual means may not be the most effective way to understand this hardship: when he remembers the songs that the slaves used to sing, Douglass reflects that merely hearing these songs could do more to help one understand the abominable nature of slavery than years of reading about the institution could ever accomplish.

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The Inexpressibility of Enslavement ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Inexpressibility of Enslavement appears in each chapter of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Inexpressibility of Enslavement 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 The Inexpressibility of Enslavement.
Chapter 1 Quotes

On watching Captain Anthony whip Aunt Hester: “I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood- stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker), Captain Anthony, Aunt Hester
Related Symbols: The Whipping of Aunt Hester
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

As Douglass recalls his life under his first master, he describes how  the overseer Mr. Plummer was "hardened" by his "long life of slaveholding"; slavery damages its slaveholders as well as its slaves. Captain Anthony, the master himself, was such a malicious individual that he whipped Douglass's Aunt Hester, drawing blood and screams from her, until he was too tired to continue. For Douglass, this anecdote is the first of a lifetime's worth. By only detailing one of these whippings, Douglass suggests how the horrors of slavery evade easy comprehension; even readers of his narrative can only ever be partial witnesses to the wholly unChristian and torturous behavior of the individuals who enforce the systems of slavery. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

“The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness…I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Douglass gives a more detailed explanation of his master Lloyd's many properties, which included a home plantation ("the seat of government for the whole twenty farms") and over twenty other farms. Within this description, he also lists slaves' meager monthly and yearly allowances of a little food and clothing; the stark contrast is apparent although Douglass does not directly mention it. He does, however, mention the ways slaves would sing, vibrantly, as they went to the home plantation to collect their provisions and apparel. It is in these human voices, which reflected the "highest joy and deepest sadness," that Douglass locates the "horrible character of slavery." Douglass implies that the cruelty of enslavement can only be expressed in intangible, fleeting human voices and real, personal experiences, which are more removed from his contemporary white reader than the "volumes of philosophy" which Douglass mentions as well. 

“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.”

Related Characters: Frederick Douglass (speaker)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

After Douglass reflects on the singing which enlivened slaves' walks to the home plantation on allowance day, he briefly stops recounting his experiences in the South to acknowledge the setting in which he writes: the North. He rightly accuses Northerners of misinterpreting slaves' songs; as Douglass explains, slaves do not sing when they are happy, but rather when are unhappy and isolated. Their songs are akin to the songs a man might make while alone on an island; they are communal expressions of sadness and alienation. By reinterpreting slaves' singing, Douglass continues to advocate that Northerners forget their old beliefs about slaves and adopt truer, and often more negative, views of slaves' lives. By changing the ways Northerners perceive little daily events such as songs, Douglass may change the way they understand slavery as a whole. 

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.