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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Key Facts

Main ideas Key Facts

full title  · Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself

author  · Frederick Douglass

type of work  · Autobiography

genre  · Slave narrative; bildungsroman

language  · English

time and place written  · 1845; Massachusetts

date of first publication  · 1845

publisher · American Anti-Slavery Society

narrator  · Frederick Douglass

point of view  · Douglass writes in the first person

tone  · Douglass’s tone is generally straightforward and engaged, as befits a philosophical treatise or a political position paper. He also occasionally uses an ironic tone, or the tone of someone emotionally overcome.

tense  · Past

setting (time)  · 1818–1841

setting (place)  · Eastern Shore of Maryland; Baltimore; New York City; New Bedford, Massachusetts

protagonist  · Frederick Douglass

major conflict  · Douglass struggles to free himself, mentally and physically, from slavery.

rising action  · At the age of ten or eleven, Douglass is sent to live in Baltimore with Hugh and Sophia Auld. Douglass overhears a conversation between them and comes to understand that whites maintain power over black slaves by keeping them uneducated. Douglass resolves to educate himself and escape from slavery. However, he is later taken from the Aulds and placed with Edward Covey, a slave “breaker,” for a year. Under Covey’s brutal treatment, Douglass loses his desire to learn and escape.

climax  · Douglass decides to fight back against Covey’s brutal beatings. The shocked Covey does not whip Douglass ever again.

falling action  · Douglass is hired to William Freeland, a relatively kinder master. Douglass starts educating his fellow slaves and planning his escape. Douglass’s plan to escape is discovered. He is put in jail and then sent back to Baltimore with the Aulds to learn a trade. Douglass becomes a caulker and is eventually allowed to hire out his own time. Douglass saves money and escapes to New York City, where he marries Anna Murray, a free black woman from Baltimore. They move to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass is eventually hired as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society.

themes  · Ignorance as a tool of slavery; knowledge as the path to freedom; slavery’s damaging effect on slaveholders; slaveholding as a perversion of Christianity

motifs  · The victimization of female slaves; the treatment of slaves as property; freedom in the city

symbols  · White-sailed ships; Sandy’s root; The Columbian Orator

foreshadowing  · Douglass’s concentration on the direction of steamboats traveling to Philadelphia in Chapter VIII; Douglass’s premonition that his escape plans had been revealed in Chapter X