Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Study Guide

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Chapter 8 | Summary



Chapter 8 moves backward in time, focusing on Douglass at age 10 or 11. His old master, Captain Anthony, has died and left no will, meaning that his property has to be valued so that it can be divided between his two children, Andrew and Lucretia. As a slave, Douglass is part of that property, and so he is sent back to the plantation to be valued. Douglass is sad about leaving Baltimore, as he is well aware that he is treated better there than he will be on the plantation.

"We were all ranked together ... with horses, sheep, and swine," Douglass relates. Describing the "indelicate inspection," he says he "saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder." After the valuation comes the division between the two new owners, with the slaves given no more voice in the decision "than the brutes among whom we were ranked." Making the anticipation worse, Andrew is known to be a cruel, common drunk.

Douglass, fortunately, "fell to the portion of Mrs. Lucretia." This makes Douglass happy because he is immediately sent back to Baltimore. Very soon after Douglass returns to Baltimore, Andrew and Lucretia die, leaving all the property to Lucretia's husband, Thomas Auld, and his daughter. None of the slaves are set free. The treatment of Douglass's grandmother is especially revolting to him. After serving loyally for many years, she sees her family divided. Her new masters cast her out of the plantation, building her a hut where she can support herself "in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die!"

Thomas Auld remarries and has a misunderstanding with Hugh Auld, prompting Thomas to take Douglass away as a way of punishing his brother. "Master Thomas said he would never let me return again," Douglass writes. "The barrier betwixt himself and brother he considered impassable." Douglass is not happy about the separation, but it is not as painful as his previous departure, as Hugh has become a drunkard and Sophia has become increasingly cruel.

While sailing back, Douglass does not try to run away but does note the direction the boats take to go to Philadelphia. He decides that he will run away at the first "favorable opportunity."


Douglass makes two references to how slaveholders increase their wealth in this chapter. The "indelicate inspection" refers to the inspection of the slaves' genitals to make sure they can produce children. His grandmother is described as "the source of all [the old master's] wealth, for she has borne twelve children, who in turn have had children and grandchildren." This monstrous system is capped by the decision to send the grandmother off to die alone. "Will not a righteous God visit for these things?" Douglass asks.

Because it breaks the linear chronology of the narrative, this chapter is somewhat awkward. In Chapter 7, Douglass tells about his seven-year stay in Baltimore, relating how he came to learn to read and write and dream of escape. In Chapter 8, he moves back in time, describing his brief return to the plantation and focusing primarily on the slaves who are valued, treated, and exchanged like livestock.

Why does Douglass do this? The organization of the book is tied to theme, not chronology. While Douglass is telling his story, the book's greater purpose is to show the horrors of slavery and why it should be abolished.

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