In his memoir, Frederick Douglass emphasizes the dangers the institution of slavery poses to all aspects of society. He also identifies education as a significant means with which to bring down that institution. As Douglass recounts events from his experience, he reveals that slave owners, although they may present themselves as devout and pious, face a corruption of values. One aspect of that corruption, cruelty aside, is the effort to dehumanize enslaved people by keeping them illiterate and uneducated.

The narrative’s central conflict, which develops as events unfold, is Douglass’s long struggle to free himself from the oppression of his enslavers. As a child, he’s surrounded by cruel reminders of his circumstances, including his separation from his mother and sale to a plantation in southern Maryland. In one of the narrative’s pivotal incidents, Douglass sees Captain Anthony whip his Aunt Hester. The horror of that beating, Douglass later recognizes, includes the fact that the enslaved are prevented from understanding that they have power to respond to and prevent such brutality.

In the work’s inciting incident, Douglass discovers how that understanding has been repressed. At the age of 11, he’s sent to Baltimore to work for Hugh and Sophia Auld. Sophia is kind at first and starts teaching Douglass the alphabet. Hugh, however, ends the effort; he convinces Sophia that education harms the welfare of enslaved people. Douglass overhears this conversation, learning that slave owners deliberately keep the men and women they enslave illiterate. Douglass reaches an epiphany: literacy and education, if deliberately denied, must be crucial to obtaining freedom. He also becomes aware of the corrupting influence of the institution on otherwise kind individuals, as Sophia becomes increasingly cruel to him.

Through the events of the rising action, Douglass continues to experience slavery in Baltimore. He covertly continues his self-education in direct defiance of the law and even gets local boys to give him reading lessons in exchange for bread. This relationship with the boys gains symbolic importance; his own educational pursuits lead them to confess that he does not deserve to be enslaved. That education, however, leads Douglass into a growing awareness of the ramifications of slavery, an awareness that drives him into despondency over his condition. Through his despair, Douglass begins to entertain the idea that he must escape bondage.

As the rising action leads toward the narrative’s climax—the moment that Douglass acts against his oppressors—he experiences a series of harrowing events. He falls into the hands of Auld’s brother Thomas, who is savage and incompetent. Deemed unmanageable, Douglass is rented to Edward Covey, the "slave breaker," where he not only loses the chance to continue his self-education but is so effectively dehumanized that he begins to view himself as property. He receives a root from Sandy Jenkins, who claims that the root will prevent Covey’s beatings. In desperation, he believes in the efficacy of the root. Later, at the narrative’s climax, he rejects Sandy’s superstitious beliefs, instead mustering the courage and strength to assault Covey, resisting a beating. Covey never touches him again.

The falling action takes Douglass from Covey to the home of William Freeland, as rental property. On Freeland's farm, he renews his mission to educate himself, this time including others by teaching them at a freed slave’s cabin. He and several others plan an escape, but they are betrayed and their plans are thwarted. Freeland returns Douglass to Thomas Auld, and Douglass winds up back with Hugh. He is forced into an apprenticeship in Baltimore, where he learns the trade of ship caulking, although his wages are seized by Hugh. Eventually, Hugh permits him to earn his own money.

As the work reaches its resolution, Douglass escapes Hugh Auld, making his way to New York. As a free man, he meets people who, for the first time in his life, treat him kindly and as a human being. His educational pursuits result in his becoming a speaker, spreading his anti-slavery message to people at abolitionist conventions. In his struggle to become free, it is the instrument of education that has led him to act, and, in the end, he realizes that the only way to truly abolish slavery is for him to educate others.