Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

by: Frederick Douglass

Chapters III–IV

Summary Chapters III–IV

Douglass offers several examples similar to Mr. Gore’s killing of Demby. Mr. Thomas Lanman of Maryland has boasted of violently killing two slaves, yet has never been investigated for the crimes. Also in Maryland, the wife of another slave owner beat Douglass’s wife’s cousin to death with a stick. The community issued a warrant for the arrest of the wife, but the warrant has never been served. Colonel Lloyd’s neighbor, Mr. Beal Bondly, shot and killed an elderly slave of Colonel Lloyd’s who was fishing on Bondly’s property. Colonel Lloyd did not complain about the killing.

Analysis: Chapters III–IV

Because the Narrative is both an autobiography and a treatise against slavery, Douglass often incorporates general information, including stories about, or heard from, people that he knew. Therefore, several of the opening chapters of the Narrative do not focus on Douglass at all. In Chapters III and IV, Douglass focuses on Colonel Lloyd’s impressive plantation. Such detail serves not only to set the scene for Douglass’s childhood, but also to verify the authenticity of the Narrative. We must remember that many nineteenth‑century readers—especially readers unsympathetic to the plight of slaves—would have doubted the authenticity of Douglass’s Narrative. The public was particularly skeptical of Douglass because he was more articulate than they thought a slave could be. Douglass extensively uses details of setting and character to reinforce the truthfulness of his Narrative, as Garrison and Phillips both point out in their prefaces.

As Douglass spends so much time describing scenes featuring other figures, such as Demby, the Narrative at times resembles a picaresque novel rather than an autobiography. Picaresque novels typically feature a series of episodes held together simply because they all happened to a single character. Douglass is still the character holding together his disparate scenes, as he either witnessed or heard about each of them. Douglass’s technique in rendering the scenes also invites the comparison to a picaresque novel. His depictions include novelistic detail, as when old Barney removes his hat to reveal his bald head before being whipped. Similarly, Douglass’s depiction of Mr. Gore shooting Demby has the dramatic sequence of fiction. Douglass shows us the scene, recounting each of Mr. Gore’s three counts and Demby’s reaction after each count.

Douglass also uses the stories of other slaves to make an argument about the inhumanity of slavery. After Douglass recounts Mr. Gore’s murder of Demby, he includes several similar stories, such as Mrs. Hick killing her female servant and Beal Bondly killing one of Colonel Lloyd’s elderly slaves. These additional scenes serve to support Douglass’s claims about slavery. Douglass is attempting to convince white Northerners that the events he witnessed—such as a white man killing a black man and suffering no legal consequences—are the normative practice. Supplementary scenarios reinforce this sense of commonality.

Perhaps the main theme of Douglass’s Narrative is that slavery dehumanizes men mentally as well as physically. To make this point, Douglass carefully documents the psychological violence of slaveholding. In Chapters III and IV, he focuses on the damaging effects of slaveholders’ inconsistency of punishment. He explains how masters often whip slaves when the slaves least deserve it, but neglect to whip them when they most deserve it. Douglass also offers the example of Colonel Lloyd meeting one of his own slaves, unknown to him, in the road. The slave speaks ill of his master, Colonel Lloyd, and is punished for it, but not until several weeks later. This delay of punishment makes the act seem separate from the consequence for the slave. In order to survive, then, slaves must become paranoid and must endure the feeling that they will be punished regardless of their actions.

Once Douglass identifies the mind games that masters play with slaves, he can explain the common actions of slaves as normal human responses under the circumstances. In Chapter III, Douglass addresses some of the less appealing characteristics and actions of slaves, such as prejudice and dishonesty. Douglass explains these actions as natural responses to the slaveholders’ treatment of their slaves. He points out that all of these traits are shared by whites and by all humans. Douglass attempts to make his white readers see the slaves as human beings possessed with both reason and emotion—as individuals whose actions are explainable.