Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Summary: Chapter VII
Douglass lives in Hugh Auld’s household for about seven years. During this time, he is able to learn how to read and write, though Mrs. Auld is hardened and no longer tutors him. Slavery hurts Mrs. Auld as much as it hurts Douglass himself. The mentality of slavery strips her of her inherent piety and sympathy for others, making her hardened and cruel.
However, Douglass has already learned the alphabet and is determined to learn how to read. He gives bread to poor local boys in exchange for reading lessons. Douglass writes that he is now tempted to thank these boys by name, but he knows that they would suffer for it, as teaching blacks still constitutes an offense. Douglass recalls the boys sympathetically agreeing that he no more deserved to be a slave than they did themselves.
At around the age of twelve, Douglass encounters a book called The Columbian Orator, which contains a philosophical dialogue between a master and a slave. In the dialogue, the master lays out the argument for slavery, and the slave refutes each point, eventually convincing the master to release him. The book also contains a reprint of a speech arguing for the emancipation of Irish Catholics and for human rights generally. The book helps Douglass to fully articulate the case against slavery, but it also makes him hate his masters more and more. This dilemma is difficult position for Douglass and often fills him with regret. As Hugh Auld predicted, Douglass’s discontent is painfully acute now that he understands the injustice of his situation but still has no means by which to escape it. Douglass enters a period of nearly suicidal despair.
During this period, Douglass eagerly listens to anyone discussing slavery. He often hears the word “abolitionist.” In a city newspaper account of a Northern abolitionist petition, Douglass finally discovers that the word means “antislavery.”
One day around this time, Douglass kindly helps two Irish sailors at the wharf without being asked. When they realize that Douglass is doomed to be a slave for life, the sailors encourage him to run away to the North. Douglass does not respond to them, for fear they might be trying to trick him. White men are known to encourage slaves to escape and then recapture them for the reward money. But the idea of escape nonetheless sticks in Douglass’s head.
Meanwhile, Douglass sets out to learn how to write. After watching ships’ carpenters write single letters on lumber, Douglass learns to form several letters. He practices his letters on fences, walls, and the ground around the city. He approaches local boys and starts contests over who can write the best. Douglass writes what he can and learns from what the boys write. Soon, he can copy from the dictionary. When the Aulds leave Douglass alone in the house, he writes in Thomas Auld’s old discarded copybooks. In this painstaking manner, Douglass eventually learns to write.
Summary: Chapter VIII
During Douglass’s first several years in Baltimore, his old master, Captain Anthony, dies. When Douglass is between ten and eleven years old, he is returned to the plantation to be appraised among the other slaves and the livestock, which are to be divided between Captain Anthony’s surviving children, Mrs. Lucretia Auld and Andrew Anthony. Douglass is apprehensive about leaving Baltimore because he knows his life in the city is preferable to the plantation.
The valuation of the slaves is humiliating, as they are inspected alongside the livestock. All the slaves are anxious, knowing they are to be divided regardless of marriages, family, and friendships. Master Andrew is known for his cruelty and drunkenness, so everyone hopes to avoid becoming his property. Since Douglass’s return to the plantation, he has seen Master Andrew kick Douglass’s younger brother in the head until he bled. Master Andrew has threatened to do the same to Douglass.
Luckily, Douglass is assigned to Mrs. Lucretia Auld, who sends him back to Baltimore. Soon after Douglass returns there, Mrs. Lucretia and Master Andrew both die, leaving all the Anthony family property in the hands of strangers. Neither Lucretia nor Andrew frees any of the slaves before dying—not even Douglass’s grandmother, who nurtured Master Andrew from infancy to death. Because Douglass’s grandmother is deemed too old to work in the fields, her new owners abandon her in a small hut in the woods. Douglass bemoans this cruel fate. He imagines that if his grandmother were still alive today, she would be cold and lonely, mourning the loss of her children.
About two years after the death of Lucretia Auld, her husband, Thomas Auld, remarries. Soon after the marriage, Thomas has a falling out with his brother, Hugh, and punishes Hugh by reclaiming Douglass. Douglass is not sorry to leave Hugh and Sophia Auld, as Hugh has become a drunk and Sophia has become cruel. But Douglass is sorry to leave the local boys, who have become his friends and teachers.
While sailing from Baltimore back to the Eastern Shore of -Maryland, Douglass pays particular attention to the route of the ships heading north to Philadelphia. He resolves to escape at the -earliest opportunity.
Analysis: Chapters VII–VIII
In Chapters VII and VIII, Douglass relates events slightly out of chronological order, again disrupting the Narrative’s appearance of -autobiography. His brief return to the plantation, recounted in Chapter VIII, actually takes place before he reads The Colombian Orator, recounted in Chapter VII. Douglass records the events out of order because he favors thematic consistency over strict chronology. As Chapter VI deals with Hugh Auld forbidding Sophia to teach Douglass to read, Chapter VII addresses Douglass’s self-education and the fulfillment of Hugh Auld’s predictions of unhappiness.
Chapter VII elaborates the idea that with education comes enlightenment—specifically, enlightenment about the oppressive and wrong nature of slavery. Douglass’s reading lessons and acts of reading are, therefore, contiguous with his growing understanding of the social injustice of slavery. Douglass gets his first reading lessons from neighborhood boys and also engages in discussions about the institution of slavery with them. These boys not only provide the means of Douglass’s education, but also support his growing political convictions. In this way, Douglass depicts each step in his educational process as a simultaneous step in philosophical and political enlightenment.
Douglass’s encounter with The Columbian Orator represents the main event of Douglass’s educational and philosophical growth. This book features both a Socratic‑style dialogue between an archetypal “master” and “slave” and a speech in favor of Irish Catholic emancipation. Douglass has a sense of the inhumanity of slavery before he reads The Columbian Orator, but the book gives him a clear articulation of the political and philosophical argument against slavery and in favor of human rights. It allows Douglass to formulate his personal thoughts and convictions about slavery. However, the book also causes Douglass to detest his masters. Painfully, he understands the injustice of his position, but has no immediate means of escape. In this regard, Douglass fulfills Hugh Auld’s prediction that educated slaves become unhappy. Douglass’s unhappiness shows that education does not directly bring freedom. His new consciousness of injustice has drawbacks, and intellectual freedom is not the same as physical freedom.
Chapters VII and VIII further develop the Narrative’s motif of the greater freedom of the city compared to the countryside. Chapter VII takes place in Baltimore and features Douglass’s free movements and self-education. Douglass hardly discusses the Aulds or their cruel treatment in Chapter VII. Instead, he focuses on his intellectually fruitful interactions with people around the city, such as neighborhood boys and dock workers. Chapter VIII, however, deals with Douglass’s time in the countryside. First, Douglass discusses his brief trip back to the Eastern Shore around age ten and then his return to Thomas Auld’s plantation three years later. These disparate historical events are out of chronological order with the events of Chapter VII. They are united in one chapter because of their common rural setting. Douglass portrays the oppressive atmosphere of the rural plantation, where slaves are closely watched, harshly punished, and treated as property.
In Chapter VIII, Douglass elaborates on the idea of slave owners treating slaves as property through his depiction of the valuation of Captain Anthony’s slaves. Douglass ironically describes how Captain Anthony’s slaves are lined up alongside the livestock to be valued in the same manner. Douglass’s irony points to the absurdity of treating humans as animals. Douglass further develops this idea by showing how slaves are frequently passed from owner to owner as property. In Chapter VIII alone, Douglass is under the ownership of Captain Anthony, then Lucretia and Thomas Auld, then Hugh Auld, and then Thomas Auld once again. Douglass’s extended description of the Anthony family’s treatment of his grandmother particularly develops this motif of ownership. Though Douglass’s grandmother lovingly tends the Anthony children for her entire life, they do not grant her freedom even in her old age. Because slave owners value slaves only according to the amount labor they can do, Douglass’s grandmother’s new owners abandon the elderly woman.
Several times in his Narrative, Douglass breaks the conventions of his past‑tense autobiography to recreate a scene imaginatively. In his discussion of the treatment of his grandmother, Douglass imagines that she is still alive as he is writing. He creates an image of her stumbling around her small hut, waiting for death. This imagined scene works in the same ways as sentimental fiction. Douglass evokes the conventional scene of the home hearth surrounded by happy children to contrast it with the desolation of his grandmother’s life. Douglass’s grandmother becomes an object of sympathy—a sympathy meant to translate into outrage and political conviction.