The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: The Formation of Identity

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: The Formation of Identity

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     The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave details the progression of a slave to a man, and thus, the formation of his identity. The narrative functions as a persuasive essay, written in the hopes that it would successfully lead to “hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of [his] brethren in bonds” (Douglass 331). As an institution, slavery endeavored to reduce the men, women, and children “in bonds” to a state less than human. The slave identity, according to the institution of slavery, was not to be that of a rational, self forming, equal human being, but rather, a human animal whose purpose is to work and obey the whims of their “master.” For these reasons, Douglass articulates a distinction between the terms ‘man’ and ‘slaves’ under the institution of slavery. In his narrative, Douglass describes the situations and conditions that portray the differences between the two terms. Douglass also depicts the progression he makes from internalizing the slaveholder viewpoints about what his identity should be to creating an identity of his own making. Thus, Douglass’ narrative depicts not simply a search for freedom, but also a search for himself through the abandonment of the slave/animal identity forced upon him by the institution of slavery.

     The reader is first introduced to the idea of Douglass’s formation of identity outside the constraints of slavery before he or she even begins reading the narrative. By viewing the title page and reading the words “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, written by himself” the reader sees the advancement Douglass made from a dependent slave to an independent author (Stone 134). As a slave, he was forbidden a voice with which he might speak out against slavery. Furthermore, the traditional roles of slavery would have had him uneducated—unable to read and incapable of writing. However, by examining the full meaning of the title page, the reader is introduced to Douglass’s refusal to adhere to the slave role of uneducated and voiceless. Thus, even before reading the work, the reader knows that Douglass will show “how a slave was made a man” through “speaking out—the symbolic act of self-definition” (Stone 135).

     In the first chapter of the narrative, Douglass introduces the comparison between slaves and animals, writing that “the larger...


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...details the transformation of a slave to a man. The institution of slavery defined a slave as less than human, and in order to perpetuate that impression, slaveholders forbade slaves the luxury of self definition. Therefore, when Douglass finally rejects the notions about his identity forced on him by slavery, and embraces an identity of his own creation, he has completed his journey from slave to man. He no longer defines himself in terms of the institution of slavery, but by his own thoughts regarding what his identity is. Through the metamorphosis of his identity as “an animal” to an author who fights for the abolitionist movement, Douglass presents his narrative not simply as a search for freedom, but also a search for himself.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." – Frederick Douglass




Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.

Stone, Albert. “Identity and Art in Frederick Douglass’s ‘Narrative’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism: Volume 7. Ed. Paula Kepos. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1990. 134-137.

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