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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 | Symbols



Books represent education. Reading inspires Douglass, and he is convinced it will do the same for his fellow slaves. Douglass sees books and education as the key to enlightening the slaves. At a certain point in his development, the education imparted to him through books also represents frustration. Because of this education, he now knows what is unjust about his situation, and it deeply troubles him.

In Chapter 6, Hugh Auld finds out that his wife, Sophia Auld, has taught Douglass the alphabet. He insists that she stop, saying that education makes a slave unmanageable and discontented. His speech against education has the opposite effect on Douglass, who is determined to learn.

In Chapter 7, Douglass reads his first book, The Columbian Orator. Through reading the book, Douglass learns about the history of slavery and comes to hate it even more. The book enables him to articulate his thoughts on slavery and its evils.

In Chapter 10, Douglass talks glowingly of his time teaching Sunday school. He writes, "They were great days to my soul," and he calls his time teaching "the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed." The purpose of the Sunday school is to teach slaves to read.


Slaveholders use the whip to enforce discipline and exert control over the slaves. Sometimes, slaveholders seem motivated only by the need to vent their aggression.

One of Douglass's first memories, depicted in Chapter 1, is of his Aunt Hester being whipped. Her crime was going out to see a man even though her master, Captain Anthony, had forbade it. The whipping he gives her is horrid and frightens six-year-old Douglass, who fears he is next.

Later, in Chapter 10, Douglass is whipped on a near-weekly basis by Mr. Covey. These whippings, along with long hours of forced labor, break Douglass's body and spirit. Douglass writes that these beatings transform him into a "brute." During this time, he contemplates suicide and murder.

Henny is a slave whose master is Thomas Auld. Due to a childhood accident, Henny is nearly helpless and cannot use her hands. Because of this handicap, Thomas Auld views her as a burden and expense. This so angers him that his treatment of her is terribly cruel. In Chapter 9 Douglass describes a time when Henny is tied up all day. She is whipped before breakfast and then again when the master returns home for dinner.


During Douglass's lifetime, ships were commonly used for travel. For Douglass, the ship represents his longing for freedom. At one point in the narrative, he works for a shipbuilder. While on the wharf in Chapter 7, Douglass assists two Irishmen as they are loading a boat. When they find out that he is a slave for life, they suggest that he run away. Douglass pretends that he does not hear them. However, Douglass writes, "I nevertheless remembered their advice, and from that time I resolved to run away."

In Chapter 8, Douglass is sent from Baltimore back to the plantation where he was born. He travels via boat. While he is traveling, he pays careful attention "to the direction which the steamboats took to go to Philadelphia." Watching these boats revives Douglass's desire to run away.

In Chapter 10, Douglass reaches his lowest point; Mr. Covey has worked him extremely hard and whipped him regularly. On one Sunday, his day off, Douglass sits on the bank of the Chesapeake Bay and sees the white sails of the boats as they head off to the ocean. He is jealous of the boats, as they are loosed from their moorings "and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!"

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