Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Study Guide

Frederick Douglass

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass | Summary

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass traces Douglass's life from its very beginning until the time he wrote the autobiography. However, the main focus is on Douglass's enslavement and the institution of slavery.

The narrative begins with Douglass's birth in Talbot County, Maryland. Because he was born into slavery, his birth was not recorded in any official capacity, and he is unsure of the date or even the exact year.

Because his mother works all day in the fields, he sees her only a handful of times, always at night. She passes away when he is around seven years old. Her death does not have much impact on him, as he had not been allowed to form a relationship with her. Douglass is uncertain of the identity of his father. He knows he is a white man and suspects that his master is his father.

The ugliness of slavery becomes well-known to Douglass at an early age. His aunt is brutally whipped, and he fears he will be next. Douglass describes the poor conditions under which slaves live, emphasizing how they are poorly clothed and suffer from a lack of decent bedding. At this point, Douglass lives on the Great House Farm, which is owned by Colonel Lloyd and run by Captain Anthony, who is Douglass's master.

When Douglass is seven, he is selected to go to Baltimore and live with Hugh Auld, the brother of Captain Anthony's son-in-law, Thomas Auld. Now responsible for looking after Hugh Auld's son, Douglass is happy to get away from the plantation and excited to see a big city like Baltimore. Later, when reviewing his past, Douglass says the move was one of the most interesting events of his life. He credits it with allowing him to not be "confined in the galling chains of slavery."

Sophia Auld, the wife of Hugh Auld, greets Douglass with "a white face beaming with the most kindly emotions." The positive impression proves to be accurate, as Sophia Auld treats Douglass well and teaches him the alphabet and how to spell. Hugh Auld finds out about the lessons and orders his wife to stop them, insisting that education makes slaves unmanageable. Not only does this end the lessons, but Sophia Auld begins to treat Douglass poorly. Douglass blames her changed behavior on the evils of slavery.

Though the lessons have ended, they inspire Douglass to learn to read and write on his own and with the help of anyone who will offer it. His education, just as Hugh Auld predicted, impacts Douglass greatly. After reading a book called the The Columbian Orator, in which a master and slave debate slavery, Douglass feels despair until he resolves that one day he will escape.

After seven years, Douglass is sent back to the plantation. Though living with the Aulds had grown difficult—largely due to Hugh Auld's drinking and Sophia Auld's cruelty—Douglass observes, "A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation." Douglass views Thomas Auld, his new master at the plantation, in a particularly negative light. While Thomas Auld claims to be a good Christian, he treats his slaves cruelly. Thomas Auld rents Douglass out to Mr. Covey, a notorious slave breaker (a person who specializes in destroying the wills of unruly slaves), for one year.

Six months after being sent to work for Mr. Covey, Douglass is nearly broken. The exhaustive work and merciless whippings have taken take a terrible toll on him. On one extremely hot August day, Douglass collapses and is unable to get up. Mr. Covey whips him. Douglass decides to go to his master and complain, but his master will have none of it. On his way back to Mr. Covey's place, a fellow slave gives Douglass a root that he says is good luck. Douglass accepts it, though he does not believe in its power.

Douglass fights back against Mr. Covey. He writes that the fight "was the turning-point in my career as a slave." It revived him, rousing in him once again "a determination to be free." Mr. Covey never touched him again.

Soon, Douglass finds himself rented out to William Freeland, whom he calls his best master "till I became my own master." During his first year with Freeland, Douglass begins secretly educating fellow slaves in a Sabbath school at a free black man's house. During his second year working for Freeland, Douglass hatches an escape plan with four other slaves. Just as they are about to execute their plan, it is discovered. The men are jailed. After some time, Douglass is sent back to Baltimore to serve Hugh and Sophia Auld.

During his second go-round in Baltimore, Douglass learns a trade—ship caulking. Douglass gives his earnings to Hugh Auld, who occasionally lets Douglass keep a fraction of the earnings for himself. This arrangement causes Douglass great frustration. He works out a deal with Hugh Auld in which Douglass finds his own work and pays his master a fixed amount. Douglass is happy to have this arrangement because "it [is] a step towards freedom." However, Douglass and Hugh Auld eventually run into a problem. Though they resolve the problem, it is the last straw for Douglass, who decides that he will "make a second attempt to secure my freedom."

The book reveals very few details of Douglass's actual escape. This is intentional; of his flight from Baltimore, Douglass writes, "How I did so ... I must leave unexplained." This is because it could cause others "embarrassing difficulties" and make it harder for other slaves to escape.

Douglass's first stop as a free man is New York, where he marries Anne—Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore. The couple moves to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass—born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey—adopts the surname he is known by today. Douglass works in various jobs and reads an abolitionist newspaper called the Liberator. This inspires him to speak publicly about the cause and his experiences. Later, he gives a speech at an antislavery convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Douglass writes, "From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren." These speeches lead him to write his Narrative.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Frederick Douglass is born.

Rising Action

2 Douglass's mother passes away.

3 Douglass witnesses the brutal whipping of Aunt Hester.

4 Douglass is sent to Baltimore.

5 Douglass learns how to read and write.

6 Douglass is suicidal, thinking he's a slave for life.

7 Douglass is sent back to the plantation.

8 Douglass is broken by Mr. Covey.


9 Douglass fights back against Mr. Covey.

Falling Action

10 Douglass teaches slaves to read at Sunday school.

11 Douglass and four other slaves are caught trying to escape.


12 Douglass escapes slavery and speaks out against slavery.

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