Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, one of the finest nineteenth century slave narratives, is the autobiography of the most well-known African American of his time. The narrative chronicles Douglass’ early life, ending soon after his escape from slavery when he was approximately twenty. It focuses on formative experiences that stand out in his life for their demonstration of the cruelty of slavery and of his ability to endure and transcend such conditions with his humanity intact.
Douglass’ work follows the formula of many slave narratives of his day. He structures his story in a linear fashion, beginning with what little information he knew about his origins and progressing episodically through to his escape North. His recurring theme is the brutal nature of slavery, with an emphasis on the persevering humanity of the slaves despite unspeakable trials and the inhumanity of slave owners. Other themes common to Douglass’ and other slave narratives are the hypocrisy of white Christianity, the linkage of literacy to the desire for and attainment of freedom, and the assurance that with liberty the former slave achieved not only a new sense of self-worth but also an economic self-sufficiency. Douglass’ work is characteristic of the nineteenth century in that it is melodramatic and at times didactic.
Despite its conventional traits, however, Douglass’ work transcends formulaic...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
There are about six thousand records in existence of slaves who either wrote their own stories or told them to others. Of these works, commonly known as slave narratives, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is nearly universally considered to be the most compelling and well written. Douglass went on to write two more autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (1881), to found several abolitionist magazines—most notably North Star—and to become the greatest African American orator and statesman of his age. However, he is primarily known for his first book, which he wrote before the age of thirty and despite the fact that he had never gone to school. Douglass’s autobiography came to be one of the most frequently taught books at American colleges and universities, where together with Moby Dick (1851), The Scarlet Letter (1850), and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852) it was regarded as a seminal source for understanding the United States in the antebellum period of the nineteenth century.
Douglass’s story began humbly. Douglass describes how, as a young boy growing up as a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, he never knew his age or the identity of his father. Slave owners did not consider it necessary to tell slaves such facts or to try to keep families together. His mother,...
(The entire section is 1639 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
Before the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave begins, the reader is provided with a preface, written in 1884 by the famous abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, that sets the tone of the book. Garrison notes how he first met Douglass at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts. He then goes on to describe Douglass' impassioned and unforgettable speech that eventually led to writing this book. His thoughts echo those of many who saw Douglass speak that day when he writes, ''I think that I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment.’’ Garrison explains how he encouraged Douglass to become involved in the abolitionist movement and how Douglass feared that he would do more harm than good. However, Garrison persisted and Douglass became one of the most eloquent and persuasive promoters of slave independence. Garrison notes that ''As a public speaker, he excels in pathos, wit, comparison, imitation, strength of reasoning, and fluency of language.''
In his preface, Garrison mentions a number of abolitionists who were well known in the antislavery movement. These include John A. Collins; Charles Lenox Remond, an African-American free man; and Daniel O'Connell, who fought for Irish independence in the mid-nineteenth century. These men have all argued passionately and eloquently for the end of oppression, yet Garrison claims that none is as forceful a speaker as Douglass because...
(The entire section is 693 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
In this chapter, Douglass continues to describe the conditions of being a slave on a plantation owned by Colonel Edward Lloyd, who owns a large estate in eastern Maryland. His master, Captain Anthony, runs the estate for Lloyd which, in Douglass' words, ‘‘had the appearance of a country village.’’ Douglass gives details of what the slaves wear, where they sleep, and what they eat. He also describes several overseers that lord over them. One is Mr. Severe, who is unjust and cruel, and later arrives Mr. Hopkins, who dislikes dispensing physical punishment to the slaves.
In his famous passages about slave songs found in this chapter, Douglass describes the effects that their singing has on him, how despondent he felt and still feels when he thinks of those songs. They remind him not of inner joy as many northerners think but of deep and unbearable sadness. As he says, ‘‘Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.’’
(The entire section is 157 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Douglass describes different aspects of Colonel Lloyd's plantation. He begins with a description of Lloyd's garden, whose tasty fruits tempt slaves to eat from it. They are soundly punished for their transgressions. He discusses the unwarranted punishments that the slaves who take care of Colonel Lloyd's stables must undergo. He ends the chapter discussing the number of slaves Colonel Lloyd owns—close to one thousand—and how slaves must be careful about expressing any discontent they have with their owners. These comments may have severe repercussions. Douglass describes how slaves from different plantations often quarrel with each other on the merits of their owners.
(The entire section is 104 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
This chapter recounts a number of cruel and dehumanizing punishments that plantation slaves suffer at the hands of overseers such as Mr. Austin Gore. What is most disturbing about this chapter are Douglass' accounts of the numerous slave murders that occur. These are ignored by local judicial systems because the institution of slavery denies slaves basic human rights and legal protection. Douglass sums up this horrific disregard of the law by relaying a common saying among slaveholders ''that it was worth a half-cent to kill a 'nigger,' and a half-cent to bury one.’’
(The entire section is 94 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Here Douglass provides details of his treatment while living on the plantation of Colonel Lloyd. Because of his young age, he does not have to take on many of the responsibilities that come with adulthood. However, he suffers from hunger and lack of decent hygiene, clothes, and sleeping conditions. A sign of hope comes in the form of an opportunity to work for Hugh Auld, the brother of his old master's son-in-law. Douglass departs for Baltimore via ship and is introduced to his new mistress, Sophia Auld, and the Auld's young son, Thomas. Sophia is the first white person to treat him with warmth and friendliness. He views his move to Baltimore as a sign of providence that God is looking out for him, and that one day he will be free.
(The entire section is 132 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Sophia Auld is described as being a kind and generous woman who never has owned a slave. She is a weaver by trade. Unlike most women of that era, especially in the South, Auld ran her own business until she married. She treats Douglass in a respectful and courteous manner, going so far as to teach him how to read. Unfortunately, her husband discovers this and forbids these lessons to continue. In thinking about Auld's harsh reaction, Douglass realizes that slaves' illiteracy allows the white man to retain power over slaves. As he states, ''From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.’’ Douglass sets himself the task of teaching himself to read and write. In this way, he hopes to become a free man. Douglass ends the chapter by comparing city and plantation slaves, noting that city slaves have the appearance of being free. They are better clothed and fed. Yet, ultimately, injustices and physical harm continue under slavery regardless of where the slave resides.
(The entire section is 168 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
In this chapter, Douglass tells the reader that he lived with his master and mistress in Baltimore for seven years. Early on he realizes that Sophia, the mistress of the house, is falling under the spell of being a slave owner. In other words, her kind countenance is replaced with a stony one. She actively attempts to thwart his continued efforts to become literate. Douglass finds ways to learn to read from the white boys he talks to on the streets. He also finds books to read, such as The Columbian Orator that contain famous speeches. By reading these speeches that touch on questions of emancipation, Douglass engages himself in debating the arguments for and against emancipation. Yet as he becomes more learned, he also becomes more painfully aware of his dire circumstances—he is no better than a beast. This compels him to contemplate suicide. However, his growing literacy impels him to think of freedom as attainable. He makes an effort to teach himself to write in a variety of ways that avoid Sophia Auld's keen eye. Writing becomes an act of survival.
(The entire section is 184 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
This short chapter covers significant changes in Douglass' life, as he tries to cope with his unstable position of a slave. Soon after moving to Baltimore, Douglass discovers that his former master's son, Richard, has died; three years later, Captain Anthony dies, leaving the estate to his only living children, Andrew and Lucretia. Douglass has to return to the plantation for a ''valuation of the property'' so that Anthony's property, including his slaves, can be divvied up.
Douglass discovers the horrors of being subjected to a thorough physical inspection and being parceled out to one of the two heirs of Captain Anthony's estate. Fortunately, Douglass is portioned to Lucretia and is allowed to return to Hugh Auld. Lucretia dies soon after his return to Baltimore, and soon thereafter Andrew also dies, leaving their slaves to the hands of strangers or abandoned. In particular, Douglass' grandmother is unable to be sold due to her old age and is left to die in the woods. This tragedy more than anything, Douglass states, ‘‘served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders.’’ The chapter ends with Douglass being sent to work for Lucretia's husband, Thomas Auld, who has remarried and lives in rural Maryland. Once again, Douglass' future is uncertain and his hopes for escape appear bleak. Yet he plans on running away.
(The entire section is 231 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
In March 1832, Douglass leaves Baltimore to live with Thomas Auld, whom Douglass knows from Colonel Lloyd's plantation. Auld and his new wife are cruel and unlikable people who keep their slaves always yearning for more food. Worse, Auld does not know how to treat his slaves in a consistent and respectful manner. ''In all things noble which he attempted, his own meanness shone most conspicuous.’’ Auld is also a pious man who participates in religious revivals and church goings-on, yet he is capable of great wrath and cruelty toward his slaves. Douglass mentions that Auld's preacher friends break up a school meeting set up for slaves by throwing sticks and missiles at them. Auld and Douglass do not see eye-to-eye. Eventually, after nine months of working for Auld, Douglass is sent to Mr. Covey, known as a "negro-breaker," to work for a year. Despite the horrors he has heard about working for Mr. Covey, Douglass looks forward to at least getting enough to eat.
(The entire section is 164 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
In the longest chapter of the narrative, Douglass reveals some of the most distressing and empowering moments of his life as a slave. He begins the chapter illustrating how unfit he was to work as a field hand after having lived in the city for seven years. Douglass describes an incident where he has to drive a pair of unbroken oxen into the woods for some firewood. Because he takes too much time due to the surly nature of the oxen, Douglass gets whipped by Mr. Covey. Douglass goes on to describe the many ways in which Covey catches his slaves off guard by sneaking up on them. ''He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, at the plantation.’’ Because Covey is a poor man, he finds a way to double his slaveholdings by buying a female slave, who is then coupled with a hired hand to produce twins. Covey, Douglass claims, makes life miserable for every slave who comes in contact with him. Even on Sunday, his day off, Douglass can do nothing but bemoan his fate of being held hostage by Covey's emotional and physical torture.
However, Douglass and Covey have a confrontation that changes the power dynamic and provides Douglass with new energy for planning his escape. Douglass returns to Hugh Auld's home because of Covey's harsh treatment when Douglass fell ill. Douglass returns to Covey, due to his former master's lack of support and sympathy. Covey is so angry that Douglass runs back to the woods. This time he runs into a...
(The entire section is 595 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
In his last chapter, Douglass achieves his goal of attaining freedom in the North. Working as a caulker provides Douglass with a number of advantages he never had working on a plantation, but he is still very troubled by his lack of freedom. Although Douglass has achieved an ideal situation for a slave, he wants what his masters have: the ability to do what, and go where, they please, answering to nobody. With this in mind, Douglass continues working in the shipyards. He bargains with Hugh Auld to keep his wages and promises to pay Auld for his own time as well as his food and lodging each week. The bargain creates conflict between Douglass and Auld; Auld thwarts Douglass' attempt to be independent of him. Douglass escapes to the North and reaches New York on September 3, 1838. The reader is not given many details of Douglass' escape, as he does not want to endanger the lives of other slaves seeking freedom in a similar way. In fact, Douglass makes it clear that others have spoken too openly about the underground railroad, the famous escape route that many slaves use to reach the North, and have jeopardized slaves' and abolitionists' lives because of this.
Arriving in New York, Douglass is overwhelmed by his new status and surroundings. His initial enthusiasm is tempered by fear that he may be sent back to Baltimore if caught. After a few lonely days, Douglass is introduced to David Ruggles, an African-American journalist and abolitionist, who helps...
(The entire section is 625 words.)