Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: Summary & Quotes

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  • 0:04 Overview
  • 0:34 Narrative Summary
  • 4:22 Important Quotations
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson offers a comprehensive plot summary of Frederick Douglass' memoir, 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.' It also introduces and analyzes three important quotations.

Overview

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is the memoir of former slave, writer, and famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Published in 1845, the narrative is hailed as an important abolitionist text, which was a type of polemic from the 19th century that called for the end (or abolition) of slavery in the United States. The story, told from the first-person perspective, describes Douglass' life as a slave before he is freed.

Let's go through a summary of this famous narrative.

Narrative Summary

Summary of Chapters 1-4

Douglass begins his memoir by explaining that he has few memories of his childhood. His mother died when he was seven, and throughout his life, he wasn't even sure of his birth date. He has vague recollections of his mother visiting him at bed time, but he doesn't remember what she was like even as a person. Take a moment to imagine the heartbreak that you would feel if you suddenly couldn't remember your own mother: this was obviously a very formative experience for the young Douglass.

Douglass also suspected that his father was white, perhaps even his master. As a child, he witnessed his Aunt Hester being whipped. Douglass also recounted the horrific abuse to which all the slaves were subject. He observed that fear likely accounted for most of the slaves' compliance, since slaves often confessed to crimes that they did not commit in order to avoid punishment. This wasn't a value judgment against the slaves, by any means: Douglass made it clear that it was a matter of self-preservation, which was all they had.

Summary of Chapters 5-7

Douglass moves on to describe his relocation to Baltimore, Maryland. This move marked an important moment in his life, since it eventually helped him to escape slavery, beginning with his hope for a better future. He would take on a mistress, Mrs. Sophia Auld, who was initially kind to him, but then became cruel. As an example of this about-face, Mrs. Auld was the one who taught Douglass to read, but when Mr. Auld disapproved of her decision, she abruptly stopped her instruction of Douglass and became cold to him. However, because of her instruction and his newfound knowledge, Douglass realized how much reading skills could improve his life, so he became tormented about this. Most importantly, he began to understand the term 'abolition', and this allowed him to imagine how he might flee to the North. Over time, he continued to practice reading and writing on his own.

Summary of Chapters 8-9

When Douglass' master eventually died, his son and daughter inherited his estate. Douglass in turn became priced as having the same value as the livestock. This greatly disturbed him, but he became relieved when he was sent back to Baltimore to live with a new family, led by Master Hugh.

Eventually, Douglass ended up at St. Michael's. Douglass admits that he regrets that he never attempted to escape, but still entertained the possibility. He also became happy when he was lent to Mr. Covey, a master known for providing his slaves with substantial food, but also known as a 'negro-breaker' for breaking the will of slaves.

Summary of Chapters 10-11

Under Mr. Covey's control, Douglass struggled to be compliant, leading him to be whipped frequently. He recounts even collapsing in the field one day, after being worked to exhaustion, leading Mr. Covey to beat him even harder. However, when Mr. Covey tried to tie Douglass up at one point, Douglass finally fought back and eventually prevailed over his master. After this, he is never beaten again. Mr. Covey also didn't involve authorities because he became embarrassed by his loss. Douglass explains in the narrative that Mr. Covey likely feared that the story would ruin his reputation as the 'negro-breaker.'

Douglass was sent to another plantation, where he taught the other slaves to read and write. He and the other slaves also planned to escape, but they were caught before they were able to execute their plan. Because of this, Douglass was sent to jail for two years before returning to Baltimore, where he became an apprentice in a shipyard and was mistreated by white apprentices. This eventually led to him getting into a brawl with one of the apprentices, and his left eye became severely gouged.

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