Dehumanization in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer


The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass was written by Frederick Douglass during the peak of slavery in the south. The many views of the slaveholders did not allow slaves to become free and instead were dehumanized and mistreated. Douglass’ use of personal anecdotes helps detail the dehumanization of slaves.

Economic Beliefs

The value that slave owners placed on the enslaved population were based purely on an economic standpoint. At the beginning of the novel, Colonel Llyod discovers that Aunt Hester ‘[disobeys] his orders in going out’ and finds her with Ned, leading to a ‘bloody transaction’ (6) with her master. Her disobedience generates anger with her master causing the transaction to occur. The transaction reveals the economic concept as she pays for her defiance through a whipping. An old slave of Colonel Lloyd was killed by Mr. Bondly, who comes over to see, “whether to pay for his property” but their “whole fiendish transaction was hushed” and believes that it is “worth a half-cent to kill a n****r, and a half-cent to bury one” (22). The slaveholders show no regard for the human life of slaves and only view the death or a slave as damaged goods. Slaves are regarded as products meant to be sold, showing the degradation of their status as living things to commercial assets. Douglass captures the degradation of humans through the Slaveholder’s economic beliefs.

Inhuman Abuse

The author utilizes the comparison to animals to show the demeaning of slaves. A plantation was valued based on men, women, and children being ranked together with “horses, sheep, and swine” (39) and “holding the same rank in the scale of being” (39). This shows the “brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder” (40). The ranking system shows the demeaning of slaves as they are ranked among animals and not humans. The author uses ‘brutalize’ to emphasize the humanity taken away by slaveholders as they transform them into mindless beasts. Similarly, Douglass has his ‘body, soul, and spirit’ broken as Mr. Covey’s ‘discipline tamed him,’ transforming him into a ‘brute’ (55). The author uses ‘tamed’ to show the animalistic views that were held against slaves, comparing them to a wild animal. Douglass’ human characteristics were stripped away from him, showing the dehumanization through his alteration into an unintelligent animal working in the field. The author displays his past experiences to demonstrate the slaveholders’ inhuman abuse.

The Unrelenting Treatment

The harsh treatment the author received helps create the image of the degradation of slaves. Douglass feels weak from the strenuous fieldwork causing him to fall; Mr. Covey orders him to stand and gives him ‘a savage kick in the side’ and deals ‘a heavy blow upon [his] head, making a large wound’ (58). Douglass receives a barrage of kicks, and each blow represents the slow breaking of his human spirit. The breaking of his spirit addresses all the slaves who face the same humiliating trial. The author faces an overseer that was ready ‘to whip anyone who was so unfortunate’ and took ‘pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity.’ (9) His own experience allows the readers to realize the severe conditions he and many slaves faced throughout the South. Having an owner that took pleasure in beating slaves not only shows the cruelty but the degrading mentality they held upon slaves. The unrelenting treatment Douglass experiences expose the dehumanization of slaves.


Slavery was built upon the dehumanization of slaves. Douglass gives graphic details to help get his point across. The economic value, comparison to animals, and the harsh treatment displays the true nature of slaveholders to break slaves down into obedient animals. His own experiences allow the readers to understand the grim reality of the slaves.

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