The Narrative of Frederick Douglass

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.

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Knowledge and Ignorance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Knowledge and Ignorance 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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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:

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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:

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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:

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“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:

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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:

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“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:

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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