Introductory Lecture and Objectives

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

On September 3, 1838, an American slave in Baltimore, Maryland, disguised himself in a sailor’s uniform and boarded a train with a free man’s papers. Less than a day later, the twenty-year-old fugitive was in New York City, a free man himself. Frederick Douglass would go on to become the most famous African-American of the nineteenth century. After his escape, he joined the abolition movement and used his life experience to speak persuasively against slavery and discrimination. In 1845, risking recapture and a return to slavery, Douglass published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The autobiography provides a detailed account of Douglass’s life as a slave, chronicling the cruel and degrading treatment he suffered, the triumph of his self-education, and his constant yearning for freedom. 

In his narrative, Douglass recounts his experiences as a plantation slave and as a house slave in the city of Baltimore. In Baltimore, he developed the desire to read and write, thanks in part to lessons given by his master’s wife. Her lessons ended after Douglass’s master impressed upon his wife the danger of owning a literate slave. Forbidden from learning, Douglass taught himself in secret. He went on to share his knowledge with other slaves after he was sent back to rural Maryland. Convinced that Douglass’s experience in the city had made him unmanageable, his master sent him to live with Mr. Covey, a local farmer renowned for “slave breaking.” Overworked and beaten, Douglass admits that he nearly submitted—both emotionally and physically—to Covey’s harsh treatment. One day, however, he found the strength and spirit to fight back when Covey tried to punish him. After their fight, the farmer never touched the slave again. Douglass marks this successful act of resistance as a key moment in his resolve to be free. Back in Baltimore and working a trade in the shipyards, Douglass had another disagreement with a master, an incident which stirred in him the final determination to escape slavery. 

Published only seven years after his escape, Douglass’s book sold well immediately. Although many firsthand accounts of slavery existed at the time, Douglass’s Narrative shone brightly among them because of his literary skill in exposing the routine horrors of slavery and the fraudulence of justifications made for its continuance. The unexpected even-handedness with which Douglass portrays his white oppressors lends credibility to his story. The intellect and learning evident in Douglass’s writing, however, caused some readers to disbelieve that he had truly lived his early life as a slave. As abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison observes in his preface to the book, Douglass’s intelligence strongly refuted the pro-slavery claim that people of African descent were naturally inferior to whites. 

Douglass uses his powers of language to proclaim slavery’s soul-deadening effects on both master and slave. He laments the hardened heart of his once sweet Baltimore mistress as she must learn to willfully deny Douglass’s humanity. Envisioning his own grandmother’s last days, Douglass imagines her despair in being isolated from loved ones and left to die after a lifetime of servitude. He pities his overseer, Mr. Covey, for the man’s self-deceptive hypocrisy: Covey earnestly proclaims his Christian devotion and then torments his slaves with unchristian acts of violence and dishonesty. Douglass’s soliloquy on the white sails of Chesapeake Bay communicates the universal human longing for freedom. 

After writing Narrative, Douglass went on to campaign for the election of Abraham Lincoln, and he lobbied for the inclusion of black soldiers in the Union army. He continued to speak in favor of rights for African-Americans, as well as to champion women’s rights. In his lifetime, Douglass served as an advisor to three US Presidents. After his first wife died, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist almost twenty years his junior. Their union caused controversy even in their progressive social circle, but they remained together until his death in 1895. A man of exceptional courage, intelligence, and character, Douglass inspired thousands of people in his time, and he is celebrated today as an American hero. 

Frederick Douglass’s noble character endures in Narrative, which he wrote to awaken the American conscience to slavery’s wicked inhumanity. The book’s importance as a historical work is clear, but Narrative continues to be read as literature for its powerful allegation that injustice against a few degrades an entire society. The spirit of Douglass’s impassioned argument for decency and equality lives on in the struggles for civil and human rights happening around the world today. 

By the end of the unit the student will be able to: 

1. Describe the connection Douglass makes between education and freedom. 

2. Explain Douglass’s views on the religious hypocrisy of Christian slave owners. 

3. Identify the morally degrading and dehumanizing effects of slavery on both slaves and slave owners. 

4. Summarize Douglass’s comparison of economic conditions in the free North and the slaveholding South. 

5. Describe the effects on slaves of forced separation from family members and friends. 

6. Explain Douglass’s idea that freedom had to be a state of mind for a slave before it could become a legal reality. 

7. Identify the major turning points in Douglass’s life that led to his becoming a free man. 

8. Explain the importance of honesty to Douglass and how honesty is evident in his narrative. 

9. Identify the reasons Douglass withholds details of his successful escape. 

10. Identify Douglass’s purposes in writing his autobiography.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom. 

Student Lesson Guide 

The Lesson Guide is organized for study of the book in sections as indicated by chapters. Lesson Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace. 

• Lesson Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each section of the book and to acquaint them generally with its content. 

• Before Lesson Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension. 

• Lesson Guide vocabulary lists include words from the book that vary in difficulty. 

1. The vocabulary lists for each section are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them. 

2. Working from the Lesson Guide vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each section that are most appropriate for them. 

Essay and Discussion Questions 

The essay and discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty. 

1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry. 

2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion. 

Multiple-Choice/Essay Test 

Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty. 

1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the book; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences. 

2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the book. 

3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.

Before students read the text, explain that themes are universal ideas developed in literature. Point out that these themes will be developed in the work; discuss them with students as they read and/or after they finish reading: 

  • The moral future of America 
  • Education 
  • Freedom 
  • Religion 
  • Friendship 
  • Racism 
  • Hope 

Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or repeated action, element, or idea in literature. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs: 

  • Christian hypocrites 
  • Whips and blood 
  • Slave women deprived of children 
  • Slave owners as thieves or pirates 
  • Characters’ names that reflect their qualities (Mr. Severe, Mr. Gore, Mr. Freeland) 

A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have students discuss how the author develops the following symbols and what ideas the symbols could suggest. Have them look for other symbols on their own. 

  • Sailboats and ships on Chesapeake Bay 
  • Sandy’s magic root 
  • Douglass’s grandmother’s retirement hut 
  • Contrasting settings (North and South, city and country, house and field)

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. Patrick Henry, whom William Lloyd Garrison mentions in the book’s preface, was a supporter of American independence in the days leading up to the American Revolution. In the face of oppressive colonial rule, Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” How does this sentiment apply to Frederick Douglass or to any of the other slaves he describes in his narrative? How does Garrison portray abolitionists as American patriots?

2. Both intentionally and unintentionally, how do white people help Frederick Douglass on his journey to freedom?

3. Remembering the dialogue between a slave and his master in The Columbian Orator, Douglass says, “The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder.” Does owning slaves seem to trouble the consciences of any of Douglass’s masters? How does Douglass refute the reasoning with which slaveholders justify slavery?

4. If he were to be returned to slavery, Douglass says, the worst master he could have would be a religious man. Is a religious slave owner morally worse than a non-religious one? Why, or why not? Do Douglass’s arguments against slavery depend only on Christian ideals for their power?

5. How do Christian ideals serve slaveholders as justification for their treatment of slaves and for slavery itself? How do Christian ideals support Douglass’s humanitarian goals?

6. According to Douglass, what do slaves consider good qualities in an overseer? What qualities make an overseer effective in the eyes of his employer, the slave owner?

7. What does Douglass’s education mean to him before and after his escape? Why were slave owners so concerned about keeping their slaves ignorant? How can education be a path to greater freedom today?

8. Douglass mentions slaves’ painful separations from family, but he says that leaving his siblings...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Preface by William Lloyd Garrison


anomalous: irregular; unusual

ascertain: to find out

asylum: a place of retreat and security; a refuge

candor: unreserved, honest, or sincere expression

chattel: portable property

consecrated: dedicated to a sacred purpose

diffidence: hesitance in acting or speaking because of lack of self-confidence

execrable: deserving to be cursed; detestable; awful

felicitous: well-suited; well-expressed

flagellation: whipping

impetus: a driving force

impunity: freedom or exemption from punishment

incredulous: skeptical; disbelieving

manacled: shackled; handcuffed

multitudes: large numbers of people


(The entire section is 1251 words.)

Chapters 1-3


blasphemy: the act of insulting God

conjecture: guesswork

cunning: crafty, sly

exultingly: in a manner expressing triumphant joy

flesh-mongers: slave traders

impertinent: behaving without proper respect for superiors

ineffable: indescribable

infernal: hellish; relating to hell

intimation: a hint

maxim: a proverbial saying

mulatto: a person with one white parent and one black parent

obdurate: hardened in feelings

odiousness: hatefulness; repulsiveness

partiality: unfair bias

privation: deprivation

providence: divine guidance or care

rapturous: extremely enthusiastic; ecstatic


(The entire section is 1126 words.)

Chapters 4-6


abhorrence: loathing; hatred

aft: in or near the rear of a ship

blighting: ruinous

bountifully: abundantly

consummate: complete in every detail; perfect

ell: archaic English unit of length equal to forty-five inches

emaciated: extremely thin

eminent: prominent; distinguished

festering: infected; generating pus

immutable: not subject to change

impudence: disrespect

incur: to bring something upon oneself

reproving: scolding, disapproving

scanty: insufficient

servility: submissive or cringing demeanor

vestige: a trace of something which no longer exists


(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Chapters 7-9


abolishing: ending; eradicating; destroying

abolition: the banning of slavery

apt: intelligent; ready to learn

bestow: to give as a gift

dank: damp

denunciation: condemnation

depravity: corruption; wickedness

destitute: lacking the basic necessities of life

dissipation: excessive drinking

divest: to take away

indelicate: indecent; improper

mouldering (moldering): decaying

pious: devout; religious

profligate: extravagant

sanction: an official or explicit permission or approval

scow: a large, flat-bottomed boat

sod: grass; turf

trump: a trumpet


(The entire section is 1476 words.)

Chapter 10


annihilate: to destroy completely

apostrophe: an exclamatory address to an absent person or a personified thing, usually as an interruption to other discourse

calamity: a disastrous event

calk (caulk): to stop up the seams of something, such as a boat, to prevent leaking

dregs: solid particles that settle at the bottom of a liquid solution

epoch: an event or period of time that marks a new beginning

forte: a person’s strong point; the thing in which one excels

gallant: noble; stately

goaded: drove to action with annoyance or pain

indispensable: essential

insurrection: an act of revolt against authority

languished: became...

(The entire section is 1623 words.)

Chapter 11


ardor: intensity of feeling

betokened: showed; gave evidence of

commensurate: equal in degree

conveyance: transport

erroneous: mistaken; wrong

exculpate: to free from blame or guilt

exhorted: urged strongly

famished: starved

forthwith: immediately

galling: chafing; irritating

habiliments: archaic clothing

imbibed: received into the mind and retained

mariner: a sailor

minute: very small; marked by close attention to detail

myriads: large numbers

pomp: splendid display or ceremony

toil: hard work

wrath: violent anger

Study Questions


(The entire section is 1002 words.)

Appendix and Parody


caricature: exaggeration by means of distortion

gewgaws: showy, frivolous things

hypocritical: characterized by professing one set of beliefs but acting in a way that is contradictory to the beliefs

infidel: derogatory term for a non-believer of a religion

iniquity: wickedness

mammon: corrupting wealth or possessions

maws: mouths and throats

motes: small particles, usually of dust or dirt

Pharisees: members of a Biblical sect held to be strict, self-righteous, and hypocritical

plundering: stealing or looting by force

pulpit: an elevated platform used in preaching

ravages: destructive results

semblance: outward...

(The entire section is 525 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. According to William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass is a persuasive speaker because he has both

A. head and heart.

B. wit and good looks.

C. a deep voice and a kind face.

D. first-hand knowledge of slavery and a large vocabulary.

E. a wife and many children.

2. What does William Lloyd Garrison claim are the natural consequences of one man having absolute power over the life and liberty of another man?

A. poverty and sorrow

B. illegitimate children

C. care and concern

D. resistance and abolition

E. violence and cruelty...

(The entire section is 1035 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. Describe three turning points in Douglass’s life, and explain their significance.

In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, three important moments mark Douglass’s journey from Maryland slave to Massachusetts abolitionist. In childhood, Douglass resolves to educate himself, a decision that gives him a sense of purpose and exposes him to new ideas. Later, he physically resists the cruel treatment of an overseer, an act of courage that reaffirms his faith in his own strength and humanity. Finally, Douglass makes a successful escape to freedom, ending his struggle against his own bondage and beginning his fight against the institution of slavery.

An early turning point in Douglass’s life is...

(The entire section is 2647 words.)