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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

by Frederick Douglass

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Major events in Frederick Douglass's life as depicted in his narrative


Frederick Douglass's narrative depicts several major events in his life, including his birth into slavery, learning to read and write, experiencing brutal treatment under various masters, his successful escape to the North, and his rise as a prominent abolitionist speaker and writer.

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What are the major events in Frederick Douglass' life in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass?

Before his escape from slavery, Frederick Douglass recounts several major turning points in his life.  One of the more famous scenes in the text occurs in Chapter 1 when he witnesses this Aunt Hester being beaten by her seemingly sadistic master:

Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked.  He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d---d b---h.  After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose.  He made her get upon the stool and tied her hands to the hook.  She now stood fair for his infernal purpose.

Both because of his youth and the transgression involved in seeing such a sight, Douglass narrates that he "hid [himself] in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over."  This scene sets the stage for the brutality of slavery which will serve as a theme in the text.

In reaction to this brutality--and one of his master's claims that slaves ought not learn to read--Douglass enlists the white schoolchildren of Baltimore to help him learn to read.  His new-found literacy leads him to "The Columbian Orator" and its critique of anti-Catholic prejudice.  Upon reading this text:

Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever.  It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing.  It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition.  I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it.  It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

As you can see from this quote, Douglass gains an ambition for "Freedom," and an overwhelming desire to be emancipated.  The crucial turning point in his emancipation comes in a physical struggle he has with his master Covey.  Because Covey threatens to beat him for insubordination, Douglass:

resolved to fight; and suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose.  He held on to me, and I to him....  I seized him with both hands by his collar, and brought him by a sudden snatch to the ground....

After this encounter, Douglass' resolve to be free solidifies, and he eventually escapes from slavery, though he does not indicate how.  This newly-won freedom is not without its difficulties, however.  When working at a shipyard in Baltimore, he encounters racism in the white carpenters with whom he is working:

Many of the black carpenters were freemen.  Things seemed to be going on very well.  All at once, the white carpenters knocked off, and said they would not work with free colored workmen.  Their reason for this, as alleged, was, that if free colored carpenters were encouraged, they would soon take the trade into their own hands, and poor white men would be thrown out of employment.

These four events (the beating of Aunt Hester, learning to read, fighting with Covey, and encountering Northern white racism) serve as key turning points in the Narrative, exemplifying many of its major themes such as human rights, slave self-determination, and the importance of literacy.

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What were the most important events in Frederick Douglass's life according to his narrative?

Frederick witnessing his Aunt Hester's severe lashing is a significant event in his life and the moment he is introduced to the violent, cruel nature of institutionalized slavery, which is both terrifying and appalling. Frederick was so frightened by the spectacle that he hid inside a closet.

Another significant moment in Frederick's life takes place when he first arrives in Baltimore, and Mrs. Auld begins teaching him the alphabet. Once Mr. Auld witnesses his wife teaching Frederick how to read, he proceeds to chastise her and claims that reading will "spoil" the best slave. Mr. Auld proceeds to say that a literate slave will eventually become unmanageable and prohibits his wife from teaching Frederick. Frederick mentions,

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. (47)

From that moment on, Frederick recognizes that knowledge is the "pathway from slavery to freedom" and is determined to learn how to read and write. Literacy awakens Frederick’s independence, and he fully recognizes the depressing nature of his situation, which influences him to entertain the idea of running away.

After Douglass is sent to live with Thomas Auld, he is then sent to a slave breaker named Mr. Covey, who is considered a ruthless, cruel boss, capable of breaking any slave. Mr. Covey almost breaks Douglass's will to live, but he eventually fights back. When Mr. Covey attempts to tie Douglass's legs while he is in the barn, Douglass fights back, and the two proceed to battle for two hours. Douglass wins the fight, and Mr. Covey never lays a hand on him again.

Douglass's struggle with Mr. Covey is a seminal moment in his life, and he refuses to ever allow a slave owner to lay a hand on him. Douglass preserves his humanity by challenging Mr. Covey, and his new mindset motivates him to escape slavery.

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What were the most important events in Frederick Douglass's life according to his narrative?

Here are several of the most important events in Douglass's life, as related in his autobiography:

  • He is born on a plantation in 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. He only sees his mother a few times.
  • When he is a child, he is sent to Mr. Auld's house in Baltimore, where his slave mistress, Sophia Auld, begins to teach him how to read before her husband stops her. He bribes local children to continue to learn to read.
  • Douglass is sent back to the plantation when his master, Colonel Lloyd, dies.
  • He briefly returns to Baltimore but then is sent to work for Master Thomas. 
  • Thomas sends Douglass to work for a cruel slave master named Covey to break Douglass's will.
  • After receiving a magic root from his friend, Douglass decides to fight back against Covey and vows that no one will ever beat him again. 
  • Working under a new master, Douglass starts a slave school that the slave owners discontinue. 
  • He attempts to escape with a number of slaves, but their attempt is discovered and foiled. 
  • Douglass is sent to Baltimore again with Mr. Auld, and he works as a ship caulker along whites, who treat him cruelly.
  • In 1838, he escapes via the Underground Railroad to New York but hides the details in his narrative to make the way safe for other escaped slaves. He marries in the North and moves to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he hears abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak.
  • Douglass publishes his narrative in 1845. 
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What were the most important events in Frederick Douglass's life according to his narrative?

Frederick Douglass was born a slave, and his father was likely his master.  This incident might have been significant, because it led to the first important event: his mother was sent away. 

Frederick Douglass barely knew his mother, but she did care about him.  She was sent to another plantation, but she would sneak into his hut at night to see him.

For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. (ch 1 enotes etext p. 4)

Douglass never had a real family connection.  She died when he was about seven, but he got to see her only a few times in his life.  He uses this example as one of the prime cruelties of slavery, that children are arbitrarily separated from their parents.

Another significant event is when Douglass saw his aunt get whipped.  This experience scarred him for life.  He got a good look at the life he was in for, and saw the cruelty of slavery first-hand.  He never forgot it.

It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. (ch 1, p. 5)

Another important even in Douglass’s life was that he was sent to the town.  This is mostly significant because he saw that slaves were treated better there, because there were fewer of them and everyone was watching.  This event was also significant because it led to his desire to learn to read.

I succeeded in learning to read and write. In accomplishing this, I was compelled to resort to various stratagems. I had no regular teacher. (ch 7, p. 18)

Against all odds, Douglass managed to bribe white children to teach him to read and taught himself to write.  This was an important step in his education, but the inevitable result was that he became more depressed, because he was more aware of how terrible his life was.

The final most important event in Douglass’s life marked the end of his slavery.

I felt assured that, if I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one—it would seal my fate as a slave forever. I could not hope to get off with any thing less than the severest punishment, and being placed beyond the means of escape. (ch 11, p. 43)

Douglass talks about how he missed his friends, because he knew he would never see them again.  He also does not want to talk about how he escaped, because he would put in dangers others who helped him. 

Though Douglass was no longer a slave, he worked tirelessly to convince others of the cruelty of slavery, and his book still affects us today

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What major events in Frederick Douglass's life shaped his identity?

The first major life event that formed Frederick Douglass's identity was his witnessing his Aunt Hester being brutally whipped. This event occurred when Douglass was very young. At the time he did not understand why his aunt was being beaten. However, the event frightened him and taught him that the world was fundamentally unsafe for him and those he loved.

A second event in early childhood that shaped Douglass's identity was his being sold away at the age of seven from his plantation of birth. Douglass was taken from his friends and family and placed in an unfamiliar and decidedly more brutal environment. Douglass would later note that this was when he began to understand what slavery was. He began to understand how the system of American slavery worked to dehumanize both enslaved people as well as those who held them captive.

A final defining moment in Douglass's early childhood was his learning to read. Upon learning to read, Douglass began to realize that the oppression of black people is a matter of social hierarchy and racial brutality. The oppression of black people was not due to innate inferiority (as he had previously believed). Learning to read marked a turning point when Douglass began to believe that he could eventually achieve emancipation and help abolish the system of slavery itself.

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