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From the beginning of Chapter X through Douglass’s fight with Covey
Douglass arrives at Covey’s farm on January 1, 1833, and he is forced to work in the fields for the first time. His first task is to guide a team of unbroken oxen. The oxen are uncooperative, and Douglass barely escapes with his life. Finding that Douglass has failed, Covey orders him to take off his clothes and receive punishment. When Douglass does not respond, Covey rushes at him, tears his clothing off, and whips him repeatedly. Covey continues to whip Douglass almost weekly, usually as punishment for Douglass’s supposed “awkwardness.”
The people Covey enslaves must work in the fields during all the daylight hours, with few breaks for meals. Unlike most slave owners, Covey often works in the fields with enslaved people. He also has a habit of sneaking up on the workers by crawling through the cornfield in an attempt to catch them resting. Because of this behavior, the enslaved people call him “the snake.”
Covey behaves deceitfully even in regard to his religion. His excessive piety seems designed to convince himself that he is a faithful man, even though he is guilty of blatant sins such as adultery. Covey enslaves a woman named Caroline as a “breeder," to give birth to more people for Covey to own.
Douglass recalls that he spent his hardest times during his first six months rented to Covey. Douglass becomes deadened by work, exhaustion, and Covey’s repeated punishments. Douglass loses his spirit, his intellect, his desire to learn, and his natural cheerfulness. Sunday is his only leisure time, and Douglass usually spends the day in a stupor in the shade. He considers killing himself, or even Covey, but he is paralyzed by both hope and fear.
Covey’s house is situated near the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, where large ships with white sails travel past. To Douglass, these ships symbolize freedom, cruelly reminding him of his own enslaved condition. Douglass recalls standing on the bank and speaking aloud to the ships, asking them why they should be free and he enslaved. He begs for God’s deliverance and then wonders if there actually is a God. He vows to run away.
Having traced his dehumanization from a man into an enslaved person, Douglass now recounts his transformation back into a man. In August 1833, on a particularly hot day, Douglass collapses from fatigue. Covey discovers him and kicks and hits him with a plank. Douglass resolves to return to Thomas Auld and complain about Covey. When Covey is not looking, Douglass starts to walk feebly to Auld’s. Douglass has blood pouring from his head and his progress is slow. He stays in the woods to avoid detection. Douglass finally arrives at Auld’s and complains about Covey’s behavior. At first Auld seems sympathetic, but then he insists that Douglass return to Covey’s.
When Douglass arrives back at Covey’s the next morning, Covey runs toward him with a whip. Douglass runs and hides in the cornfield among the stalks. Covey eventually gives up searching for him and leaves. Douglass returns to the woods, where he runs into Sandy Jenkins, an enslaved man from a neighboring farm. Sandy is traveling to the home of his free wife, and he invites Douglass to come. At the house, Douglass explains his troubles to Sandy. Sandy advises Douglass to carry a certain magical root from the woods, explaining that the root will save him from white men’s beatings. Douglass is skeptical, but then decides it cannot hurt to try.
Douglass returns to Covey’s on Sunday morning with the root in hand. Covey, who is on his way to a religious meeting, speaks kindly to Douglass. Douglass begins to suspect that the root has worked. But on Monday morning, Covey finds Douglass in the stable and attempts to tie his legs. Douglass suddenly decides to fight back. He grabs Covey by the throat in an effort to keep Covey from tying and whipping him. Covey is terrified and calls for another enslaved man, Hughes, to hold Douglass back. Hughes approaches, and Douglass kicks him down. Next, Covey calls on another enslaved man, Bill, for aid, but Bill refuses. Douglass explains to Covey that he will not stand being treated like an animal any longer. The two men fight for two hours. Covey brags afterward that he whipped Douglass, but he did not. Covey never touches Douglass again.
[T]he dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!
See Important Quotations Explained
[T]he dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!
In Chapter X, Douglass’s Narrative clearly fits the conventions of several types of autobiography—the “underdog” story, the success story, and the religious conversion narrative. These subgenres usually portray the decline of the protagonist’s fortunes, followed by a climactic turning point in which the protagonist has some sort of revelation. The Narrative shows Douglass’s decline during his first six months with Covey, and at the end of this time, Douglass’s spirits are lower than ever. Douglass then presents his fight with Covey as the turning point in his life. Douglass highlights this moment as the climax of the Narrative by using a rhetorical phrase that hinges on a reversal of fortune: “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.”
Like his depiction of Auld, Douglass also presents Edward Covey as an example of a slave owner perverting Christianity. Covey considers himself a pious man, yet he has forced a female slave into adultery with a married man. With Covey, Douglass shows that this false Christianity can be a symptom of the negative effects of slaveholding on slave owners. Because of the evils Covey perpetrates against his slaves, he must deceive himself with elaborate displays of piety in order to preserve his sense of moral righteousness. Douglass presents this self-deception as a damaging way of life.
Douglass also points to the falseness of Covey’s Christianity by drawing parallels between Covey and Satan. The slaves refer to Covey as “the snake”—a nickname that is a clear reference to Satan in the Garden of Eden from the biblical story of Genesis. Covey’s cunning and deceitfulness further align him with the figure of Satan, undermining his professions of piety.
Douglass is vague about the role that Sandy’s magical root plays in his successful battle with Covey. Sandy’s root seems to symbolize a kind of religion different from Douglass’s own spiritual Christianity. Douglass associates the root with backward ideas—and possibly traditional African ideas. Douglass does not go so far as to say that the root has no effect, though, and he admits to having wondered about it. Douglass’s conflicted attitude toward the root arises again in Chapter XI. In a footnote, Douglass identifies Sandy as “superstitious,” attributing beliefs similar to Sandy’s belief in the root to “ignorant” slaves. Douglass’s authority in the Narrative relies on the distance between his writing self and his slave self, and the distance between himself and unenlightened slaves. Therefore, Douglass must ultimately dismiss the root as having no power.
Though the Narrative treats knowledge as the means to freedom, Douglass presents his transformation from slave to free man as an act of violence. Douglass regains his personal spirit, interest in learning, and conviction to be free by physically fighting against his oppressor, Covey. Yet Douglass’s violence takes the form of controlled violence or selfdefense. He does not advocate vengeance, but rather controlled confrontation. Through this contained aggression, Douglass asserts himself and achieves his larger goal—to end physical violence between Covey and himself.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass!