Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass
Main Ideas

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