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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Study Guide

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Chapter 6 | Summary



Douglass's initial assessment of Sophia Auld's character proves to be accurate. He is full of praise for her: "I was utterly astonished at her goodness." One way this goodness manifests itself is through Sophia's willingness to teach Douglass the alphabet and simple spelling.

The teaching sessions come to an end when Hugh Auld, Sophia Auld's husband, learns about them. He forbids his wife to teach Douglass and notes that doing so is unlawful. His greater concern is that teaching a slave to read "would spoil the best nigger in the world." Hugh Auld also believes that education will make the slave unmanageable and cause him or her to feel "discontented and unhappy."

Hugh Auld's words affect Douglass greatly. Douglass says that they "only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn." Learning how to read becomes a mission for Douglass. He believes it is the pathway to freedom.

Sophia Auld heeds her husband's warning, and her demeanor toward Douglass changes. Douglass is the first slave Sophia Auld owns, and she has been uncomfortable with the formalities between slave and slaveholder. As time passes, however, Sophia changes: "That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage."

Douglass notices a difference between the treatment of a slave in the city as compared to the country. Compared to the country, "A city slave is almost a freeman." City slaves are generally better fed and clothed. According to Douglass, those in the city possess "a vestige of decency, a sense of shame" that those in the country do not feel. However, there are some exceptions, including neighbors in Baltimore who treat their slaves terribly.


Sophia Auld exemplifies one of Douglass's key points: slavery dehumanizes both the slave and the slaveholder. She transforms from a decent person who sees Douglass as a young boy in need of an education to a woman filled with rage.

The speech that Hugh Auld gives to his wife about the evils of teaching slaves to read is precisely what inspires Douglass to learn to read. The speech is a key point in Douglass's life and development, and he realizes it instantly. Thomas Auld is correct, as learning how to read helps Douglass realize that he must have something better in his life. The key to escaping slavery is education.

Readers can envision the bizarre standards by which city slaveholders judge one another. The slaveholders in the city feel some "sense of shame," though not enough to give up the practice altogether. Instead, they are less cruel, and most give their slaves enough to eat. For those Baltimore slave owners who do mistreat their slaves, there is no punishment.

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