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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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Why does the full title for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass include the words "written by himself"?

In the years leading up to the composition of his Narrative, Douglass often delivered speeches about his experiences as a slave. Audiences were moved by Douglass's anecdotes and stories of slavery. However, critics were skeptical of Douglass's background. After all, they reasoned, how could a man just a few years removed from slavery be so articulate? Many of these critics felt that Douglass was a fraud. In addition, some other slave narratives had been ghostwritten, such as Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave and Mark Twain's account of Mary Ann Cord, his household cook who was a slave for 60 years before emancipation. By adding the words "written by himself" to the book's cover, Douglass attempts to disprove his critics. Another way he does this is to provide names, dates, and locations whenever possible. Critics and doubters could thus confirm details of Douglass's story.

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, why are the preface and letter by William Lloyd Garrison and Wendel Phillips considered ironic?

William Lloyd Garrison's preface and Wendell Phillips' letter vouch for Douglass's authenticity. The men were two of the most prominent members of the abolitionist movement, and their ideas were respected by like-minded people. Their approval and assurances regarding the Narrative elevate its seriousness and importance. Without their contributions, the Narrative would have faced more critics and doubts and likely would have had fewer readers upon its release. To modern readers, the necessity of including these letters is ironic because Douglass—a free black man describing his experiences under slavery—needed two white men to vouch for the authenticity of his story.

What are some of the ways that slaveholders destroy a slave's sense of identity in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass? Why do they do this?

Douglass explains that, from the slaveholder's point of view, a slave does not need a sense of self. The slave exists for the sole purpose of serving the master. If a slave develops an identity and acknowledges self-worth, then the slaveholder will consider the slave likely to rebel or cause trouble. Withholding knowledge of a slave's birth date is one tactic slaveholders use to keep their slaves from developing a sense of identity. Douglass discusses this in Chapter 1. As Douglass explains, slaveholders consider a slave's inquiry about his or her birth date as "evidence of a restless spirit" and discontent with being a slave. He later explains two other practices to destroy a slave's sense of self. One is to separate a child from its mother at a young age. He says the result is to "hinder development of the child's affection toward its mother and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child." The upbringing of the child is then left to the slaveholder, and the child knows of no other existence than that provided by the slaveholder. Another tactic is to try to keep slaves from developing friendships among themselves. Slaves who develop close friendships might develop escape plans or pass information about escape routes among themselves.

In Chapter 1 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass discusses the passing of his mother, Harriet Bailey. How does his writing style impact this scene?

Douglass narrates the story of his relationship with his mother, Harriet Bailey, and her passing almost as if he is a newspaper reporter. He is spare with his words and focuses on the facts. There is no sense of outrage or loss. He says that he "was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial." Even so, the horror of the situation resonates with readers. Douglass is around six years old when his mother dies, and he has been able to see her just a few times, and only at night. He has little reaction to her death. Having never been allowed to enjoy "her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care," he receives the news the same way he would a stranger's passing. There is no need for him to embellish the story because he expresses the inhumanity in the child's situation.

In Chapter 1 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, what is implied about slavery when Douglass says that Captain Anthony was hardened "by a long life of slaveholding"?

In Chapter 1, Douglass says Captain Anthony "was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding" who "would at times take great pleasure in whipping a slave." One of the book's major themes is that the institution of slavery is destructive to both the slave and the slaveholder. Being a master (or mistress) over someone is an unnatural position. Many slaveholders become cruel when performing their role because they are in an unnatural state. Slaveholding makes a bad person worse and can turn a good person into an evil one. This is particularly clear in the case of Sophia Auld, a woman who astonishes Douglass with her goodness but who becomes capable of terrible rage when she grows accustomed to having a slave. In Chapter 6, Douglass says that Sophia Auld's "cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage. ... That angelic face gave place to that of a demon."

In Chapter 1 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, what does Douglass imply about the reason for Captain Anthony's beating Aunt Hester?

Aunt Hester is told that she is not to go out in the evenings and cannot spend time with a particular man who is paying attention to her. Aunt Hester ignores the warning and is caught. Captain Anthony insults her as he brutally whips her. Douglass notes that Aunt Hester has an especially attractive figure. While Douglass does not conjecture, it seems clear that Captain Anthony is having or intends to have a sexual relationship with her. Anthony has had sexual relationships with his slaves in the past, including with Douglass's mother. Such relationships between masters and their slaves were a common occurrence. Douglass notes that there is a law that says the product of such a relationship belongs to the mother and is considered a slave. When Captain Anthony whips Hester, he may have more than one motivation. He may be acting out of a sense of sexual jealousy, or he may be seeking to reassert control over the body of a female slave who has attempted to choose her own sexual partners.

In Chapter 2 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, why does Douglass say it is punishment for a slave to be sold?

Douglass lives on a plantation in Maryland, a border state. As Douglass notes while at Mr. Covey's, it is just 100 miles to freedom. Simply being closer to freedom has a positive impact on Douglass. In Chapter 2, Douglass says, "If a slave was convicted of any high misdemeanor, became unmanageable, or evinced a determination to run away ... he was sold to some other slave-trader as a warning to the slaves remaining." The implication is that the slaves are likely treated even more harshly in the Deep South. While Douglass and the other slaves cannot know for certain how slaves are treated in other areas, the possibility that it is worse is enough to scare them. Finally, being sold distances a slave from all his friends and family.

In Chapter 2 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, how are the living conditions of the slaves at Great House Farm a contradiction of the slaveholder's goals?

It would be wise for slaveholders to keep their slaves healthy and strong. A slave who is in better condition is presumably able to work harder and bring the slaveholder greater financial reward. Slaves are considered a commodity. The more slaves a slaveholder has, the wealthier he or she is considered. However, in the conditions Douglass describes, slaves are poorly clothed. Children under 10 are naked much of the time, even in winter. Children receive no bedding at all, and adults receive only a coarse blanket. The terrible conditions under which slaves are kept affects their ability to work.

In Chapter 2 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, why do slaves who live at the Great House Farm, as well as those sent there, feel pride?

There is a hierarchy amongst slaveholders. For example, Captain Anthony, who owns only a few slaves, lives and works on the plantation of Colonel Lloyd, who owns hundreds of slaves and a number of farms. Slaves feel a part of that hierarchy. They take their sense of self from their master and from where they live. While living at the Great House Farm does not bring the slaves any material benefits, being part of the wealth and attraction does provide them with a particular sense of pride. There is nothing else in their lives that inspires pride. Douglass adds that being the slave to a poor man is considered a disgrace.

In Chapter 2 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, why is Douglass astonished that Northerners misinterpret the slaves' singing?

In Chapter 2, Douglass says that "they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which were full of meaning to themselves." Douglass confesses that he did not understand the deep meaning of the slaves' songs while he himself was a slave. When he was a slave, he saw the songs as rude and incoherent. It is only when he escapes slavery and is residing in the North that he is able to interpret the songs properly. He then recognizes the songs as prayers for deliverance, filled with anguish. Douglass is astonished to "find persons who could speak of the singing as evidence of their contentment and happiness." In reality, the songs are about sorrow and seeking to escape the bonds of slavery. Douglass seems to imply that those who have freedom should understand someone else's call for it. However, those in the North are deaf to the slaves' songs and their meanings. Douglass's speeches and the Narrative seek to educate people about what it means to desire freedom.

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