Interpretive Analysis of Learning to Read and Write by Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass's novel, Learning to Read and Write, highlights the value of education and the effects of being learned in life. It is apparent that learning to read and write is a mechanism by which a person gains social and economic influence. However, the speaker contends that intelligence is like a two-edged sword, cutting both ways; therefore, it is both a sign of strength and a curse. Regardless of these educational complexities, Frederick sends a message that a person should aim to acquire information and use it to enhance his or her life. Education is presented as the basis within which a person can define himself or herself and not the circumstances within which people are born into.

Interpretative analysis

The narrative puts across the author's sense of pride at his accomplishments especially being able to read and write. He feels proud for having accomplished various things in spite of his social limitations that he succeeds to overcome through embracing and fervently seeking to learn how to read and write. Since being an African American slave made it difficult if not impossible to learn how to read and write, the author presents the various ingenious ways that he succeeded to convince various people to teach him how to read and write especially when they did not recognize that they were teaching him anything. He observes that "the idea as to how I might learn to write was suggested to me by ... frequently seeing the ship carpenters" (Douglass 51)

The author argues that his ability to make people to teach him to write and read without their knowledge gave them ignorant bliss. Since, the dominant white race was opposed to the African Americans learning to read and write it was prudent to make sure that they knew as little as possible with respect to the author's intentions to learn how to read and write. His argument is that by manipulating people to teach him to read and write, there would be not repercussion to his various teachers and to himself for doing something that was considered a taboo in the contemporary social dynamic.

The concept of ignorance is bliss is not only applicable to the narrator's learning process, but it is a central theme across the narrative. The author intimates that by learning to read and write, he become aware of social evils and problems that he would have remained oblivious had he remained ignorant. The other people that did not know how read were evidently happier since they knew very little that could upset them or cause them to realize the challenges of their immediate social and economic environment. Though learning how to read and write, the author becomes aware of issues that he was previously oblivious and the fact that he does not have the power to change things for the better makes knowledge a source of pain and discomfort.

The author was brought up in a social setting where he was a slave and did not have the right to access education in any form. Therefore, his interest and desire to gain knowledge drives him to learn how to read and write in the most unconventional of ways. He observes that his mistress had kindled an interest to learn how to read, "Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell" (Douglass 48). His uncanny ability to indirectly persuade individuals to teach him without their knowledge alludes to the harsh circumstances that he would find himself should his actions be discovered. Therefore, his journey to becoming literate can be characterized as an adventure that inspires those in pursuit of knowledge. The narrative demonstrates that a desire for knowledge cannot be inhibited by social constraints; therefore, if a person wants to learn how to read and write, he or she can always find methods of doing so in spite of the prevalent social and economic challenges.

The essay presents a number of issues that include social oppression and repression of the African Americans especially being prevented to learn how to read and write or gain social mobility in any way. The narrative illustrates a devoted and dedicated person being able to overcome all odds in order to achieve his goals. Frederick is presented as an ingenious and courageous individual who did not waver especially in view of the potential repercussions had he been discovered.

The author examines his life and carefully presents the challenges he faced in his pursuit of knowledge in the absence of tutors or mentors to guide him through education. In the course of his learning, the author discovered that there are major differences in thinking between individuals that were learned and those that were illiterate. He observes that while education was the greatest of his achievements in life as a young slave, it open his eyes to a new kind of thinking and opened his eyes to a new world that he was previously oblivious. As such, he examines the benefits and drawbacks of learning to read and write especially in a social dynamic where his people were only recognized as slaves and were denied the most basic human rights including education.

Learning to read and write paves way for the author's transition from a mere slave boy to a man who becomes increasingly aware of his immediate surroundings, the social issues that affect his community and what he can do to alleviate their position is society. Being educated makes it possible for Frederick Douglass to being his journey from being a mere slave to a champion of African American's civil rights. He becomes aware that slavery is a social evil that must be done away with and becomes a vocal supporter and activist in the quest for the abolition of slavery in the United States of America. He observes that "I could hear something about abolitionists. It was sometime before I found what the word meant" (Douglass 50).

It is clear that the author is speaking to his fellow African Americans as the direct audience of the narrative especially those that were liberated from slavery and those that supported the abolition of slavery. This view is premised on the author's careful description of the challenges that he faced in the process of learning how to read and write. Hence, only a slave, a liberated slave or a supporter of the abolition could appreciate his sacrifices and the unique methods that he used in order to gain knowledge.


Learning How To Read And Write is a narrative that presents the journey of young slave in becoming aware of the issues that surround his community and his actions towards rectifying them. The author learns how to read by making observations and inquiries to individuals such as carpenters and local boys. The learning process is painstaking, yet rewarding since he becomes more knowledgeable and informed especially on issues regarding slavery. It is evident that the Frederick is a resilient and dedicated individual considering he did not give up learning how to read and write in spite of his social status as a slave. However, he soon recognizes that knowledge can bestow power and cause great pain at the same time.

Works cited

Douglass, Frederick. "Learning to read and write." Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

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