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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Thesis Statements and Important Quotes

Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements / paper topics  for “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; An American Slave, Told by Himself” that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements for “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.

For background, here is an excellent extended analysis and summary of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Paradox of Education in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

The power of education in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is one of the most important themes in the entire work, but it is not a theme with a consistent meaning. Although Frederick Douglass understands that the only path to freedom, both for himself and fellow slaves, is through learning to read, write, and have an educational base to build on, he is at the same time disgusted with education because it causes him to understand the full extent of the horrors of slavery. At one point, he states, “It [education] opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered no ladder upon which to get out” (47). With this important quote as your starting point, examine the shifting meaning and importance of education in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and consider if Douglass ultimately views it is the most important thing or as something that it is fraught with danger and disappointment. For more assistance with this topic, check out the article “The Incompatibility of Education and Slavery”

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Representations of Christianity and Religion in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”

Just as education is presented as a paradox in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas” so too is the issue of religion and Christianity. On the one hand, religion is a saving grace to many of the slaves and they take great joy in participating in religious activities, songs, and other forms of worship. On the other hand, there is a false form of Christianity, one that is practiced by the white people. This is the kind of religion or Christianity that says one thing, yet in practice does another—perfect hypocrisy. For this essay, examine (using characters such as Mr. Covey, for instance) the two forms of religion in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; An American Slave” and consider what points Douglass is trying to make by showing the duality of Christianity. For more assistance with this topic, check out the article “Representations of Christianity in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Purpose of “The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass

Certainly, one of the purposes of “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is to relate a personal story about slavery and the way one man could rise above it and make something of himself, but there are other purposes this text would have served, particularly during Fredrick Douglass’ lifetime. Since he was one of the few ex-slaves who was given ample opportunity to speak publicly about his experiences, often to white audiences (who were generally abolitionists) this was also a way for him to get across the pure cruelty of slavery as an institution to a captive audience. Such a forum allowed him to speak directly to whites, particularly in the North, about what was happening in the South and the treatment the average slave was prone to. For this essay, look for examples of how Douglass might have used stories of slavery to influence those involved in the Northern abolitionist movement. Also, the use of violence in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” particularly against women (rape) would be useful, especially considering his stories were being told to whites, including white women. Another good starting point might be to look at ways Douglass compared whites with blacks in the south. Out of all three thesis statements for “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” listed here, this would be your best opportunity for a very long essay or a research paper that integrates historical facts and information.

** For an excellent essay/article discussing some of the most prevalent themes in “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, click here**

For background, here is an excellent extended analysis and summary of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


This list of important quotations from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned.  All quotes from “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.

“No words, no tears, no prayers from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped the longest” (11).

“I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time… A want of information concerning my own [birthday] was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages, I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege” (13).

, “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I was there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she did not a tear…Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities” (16).

 “She [his mother] was long gone before I knew anything about it… I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of stranger” (20).

“if their increase will do no other good, it will do away with the force of the arguments, that god cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural…” (24).

I speak advisedly when I say this—that killing a slave, or any other colored person in Talbot County, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community” (26).

“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see or hear” (29).

“We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep and swine…all holding the same rank in the scale of being and were all subjected to the same narrow examination” (51).

“I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the South is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity…a shelter under…which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection” (86)

Source:  Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself (ed. John Blassingame) Yale University Press, 2001.

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