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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 7 | Summary



During Douglass's seven years with Hugh and Sophia Auld, he learns to read and write. This happens despite Sophia Auld's vigilance. She has gone from a "tender-hearted woman" to a woman whose "heart became stone." When Sophia Auld sees Douglass reading, she rushes at him "with a face made all up of fury." Slavery, Douglass says in a familiar refrain, has proven "as injurious to her as it did to me."

Yet Douglass perseveres, educating himself by making friends with as many little white boys as he can. He takes bread from the Auld home—where it is always available, and he is welcome to eat it—and trades it with the poor white children in the neighborhood in exchange for "the bread of knowledge." Many of these children pity Douglass for being doomed to slavery for life. He feels tremendous gratitude and affection toward them.

Douglass regularly reads a book titled The Columbian Orator. He focuses on a conversation between a master and a slave as the two debate slavery. The debate convinces the master to free his slave. Douglass learns from the book "the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder." This inspires him and helps him clarify his thoughts and arguments about slavery. It also causes him to hate the enslavers. When Douglass contemplates spending his whole life as a slave, he feels suicidal. At this point, he fears learning to read was a curse, as it has shown him how terrible his condition is but provided "no ladder upon which to get out." He envies illiterate slaves for not being able to comprehend the helplessness of their situation. It is during this time that Douglass first learns of the abolitionists.

While at a shipyard, he speaks with two Irish sailors who learn he is a slave and encourage him to run away. Douglass is reluctant to trust them. Yet the idea of escape stays with Douglass, and he becomes determined to do so one day.

Douglass continues going to the shipyard and sees carpenters writing single letters on cargo. Douglass learns these letters. He comes up with ways to learn how to write. He tricks boys into teaching him how to write the letters and practices with Thomas Auld's schoolbooks whenever he is alone in the house.


Readers see Douglass's boldness, determination, and cleverness in this chapter. His description of tricking other children into teaching him how to write is worthy of Tom Sawyer, the Mark Twain character who fools other children into doing his work. The children's kindness to Douglass and his deep affection for them show readers how much Douglass values his education and illustrate the fact that attitudes toward slavery are learned.

Hugh Auld has predicted that education will make Douglass discontented and unhappy, as acquiring knowledge without being able to use it is frustrating. This idea comes to fruition as Douglass describes his despair and even contemplates suicide. Previously, Douglass simply did as he was instructed, just as a slave is taught. While he certainly had emotions and thoughts, he had trouble expressing them. Reading enables him to gain exposure to those who are against slavery. He learns about abolitionists and the history of slavery. He wants the right to think and act as a free man, and reading brings that world closer—and yet it is still so far away.

A slave's life is isolating. While in the city, Douglass can move about more freely. He finds time to go to the shipyards and gets to go on errands. He is among many people, some of whom are black and free. Yet in many ways, Douglass is still in the chains of slavery. While at the shipyards, the Irishmen suggest that Douglass run away. Though he hears the idea and it stays with him, he does not respond to it, because he doesn't trust the men. Again, readers are reminded that a slave can trust no one.

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