Douglass's narrative is one of the widest read examples of an enslaved person's narrative. It describes Douglass's childhood as an enslaved person, sheds light on the way social dynamics operated under the institution of slavery, critiques the logic often used to prop up the institution of slavery, and details his journey to freedom. It was one of the first widely-distributed accounts of an enslaved person's life in the United States, and it was extremely influential in the movement for abolition.
As an enslaved person's narrative, the work has a specific audience and purpose: it is pitched mostly to white Northerners, and it aims to radicalize them against the institution of slavery. As with any enslaved person's narrative, it is important to consider ways in which Douglass's narrative centers the white reader even as it relates truthful events from Douglass's life. Even for those white people who were opposed to the institution of slavery on principle, many still held the racist belief that Black people would not be able to become productive citizens and neighbors. Thus, in order to convince white readers that it is not only right but also practical to abolish the institution of slavery, the narrative must prove to them that a Black person can become a respectable member of their society. In Douglass's day, becoming a productive citizen and neighbor meant blending into white social life and resisting stereotypes about Black people. Douglass uses the story of his own life as evidence that a Black person can begin life enslaved and still excel according to white standards: he emphasizes his literacy, his self-sufficiency, and his masculine strength combined with measured temper to demonstrate that Black people are "ready" for abolition. In fact, although its contents are factual rather than fictional, the narrative also shares characteristics with the popular Bildungsroman, or novel of development. Douglass wins the reader over by plotting his own character growth and success in a harsh world.