An autobiography recounts the life of an individual who has played an important role in the world. The individual, or, character must be a relevant and influential figure in society to have a successful autobiography. Frederick Douglass was an extremely intelligent and influential man which is apparent as he tells his story in the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. The narrative is a popular autobiography in which Douglass tells about his life as a slave and the struggles he endured to become free of slavery. Douglass originally wrote the narrative during the abolitionist movement. Through Douglass's story of development the autobiography was used to help in the fight against slavery.
Douglass wrote the narrative in a manner that made readers start to think about slavery. Through vivid descriptions the reader was able to see what slavery was really like and feel some of the fear felt by the slaves. The way in which this autobiography was written also made the readers feel sympathy for the slaves. Douglass felt that the autobiography was descriptive; however, no reader could actually feel exactly what a slave felt, and sympathize completely with a slave. "... 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." (70) Douglass felt that no one would ever know what slavery was like unless he or she had been a part of it.
As a slave, Douglass was not given many opportunities; although, through intellectual and physical struggles, Douglass developed into a very strong man. Douglass overcame many obstacles throughout his life, including some particular events that had a great influence on him. Autobiography can be thought of as a story that recounts how the subject considered as a "character" comes to be the subject that speaks, the narrator. The major things that occurred in Douglass's life that helped to bring him to the point of narrator in this autobiography were the denial of an identity, the first scene of brutality with Ant Hester, the urge to become literate, living with Covey, and returning to live with Thomas Auld. Although many other events occurred during Frederick Douglass's life, these particular ones made Douglass go from being a character to a narrator.
Douglass was denied an identity for much of his life. He lived outside of the plantation on which his mother worked for the first couple of years, he did not see his mother very often, and he had no idea who his father was. Part of a child's development and identity formation is through relationships with one or more parents. If a child is denied these parental relationships he or she is denied help in forming an identity. Douglass was not given the opportunity to have any parental bond and, therefore, was denied the help needed to develop an identity. Furthermore, Douglass did not even know his own birthday. In today's society, people base much about one's identity on when the individual is born. People feel "lost" if their birthday is unknown. A part of Douglass was missing without this knowledge of his birth and, therefore, a part of his identity was also missing.
Throughout Douglass's life, he was denied an identity because he could not make any decisions for himself; he was controlled by a master. Even after Douglass escaped from slavery he was still, in a sense, controlled by his master because he feared he would be recaptured. In order to reduce this fear, Frederick changed his name from Bailey to Douglass. Douglass could not even keep his own name, which is a significant denial of identity. Douglass faced many obstacles with regards to identity formation; however, he still managed to overcome those obstacles and he developed into a great man.
Douglass's first impression of slavery occurred when he witnessed the beating of Ant Hester. Until this point, Douglass lived outside of the plantation and had never seen any brutality. It was Douglass's first Master-Anthony, who severely whipped Ant Hester. Douglass described Anthony as an uncaring man who took pleasure in whipping slaves: "The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest."(15) People are influenced and affected greatly during childhood. Many children who witness violence regularly end up violent adults. It is amazing that Douglass did not become a violent person because, as a child, Douglass witnessed Ant Hester and many other slaves getting whipped. Douglass watched these acts of violence daily and still turned into a good person.
The beating of Hester had an impact on Douglass, although it was not a negative one. After watching this severe attack on his aunt, Douglass referred to the gates of the plantation as "...the entrance to the hell of slavery..." (15) From then on Douglass knew the realities of slavery. Although there is a large amount of violence depicted in this part of the novel, without the vivid description, the narrative would not have had such a profound effect on the readers. In order to write a successful autobiography, one must first have an interesting story to tell. Douglass witnessing this brutality was a big part of his story and contributed to the man he became.
One of the biggest influences in Douglass's life was his knowledge and literacy. Without literacy Douglass would not have written his narrative and he would not have been such a great influence in the abolitionist movement. Also, if he was illiterate, Douglass may not have escaped slavery. At an early age Douglass realized that education was the key to freedom, and later in life Douglass used language to break the bonds of slavery. Throughout the narrative Douglass emphasizes the importance of language.
When Douglass was sent to Baltimore to live with Master and Mrs. Auld, Mrs. Auld began to teach him how to read. This instruction continued for a short time until Master Auld found out what was going on and he scolded Mrs. Auld. The master said, "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing except to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world."(29) From Master Auld's comment, Douglass learned that literature equalled intellect, which resulted in power. Therefore, Douglass became determined to learn to read because he believed that reading was the only route to freedom.
After Mrs. Auld stopped teaching Douglass to read, he began to seek the assistance of the white children in the neighborhood. Douglass would give the boys bread in exchange for reading lessons. Douglass went on to work in a ship yard and began to write the letters that were used to distinguish different types of timber. He continued learning how to write with the help of the boys in the city and by copying his Master's son's homework. When Mrs. Auld began to teach Douglass to read, he "awakened" and became aware of the lies and injustice associated with slavery. At first, reading caused Douglass some unhappiness and Douglass felt at times "... that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing."(33)
It took Douglass many years to become literate; however, it benefited him greatly in the quest for freedom. At twelve years old, Frederick ...