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Douglass arrives to live at Thomas Auld’s in March 1832. Life under Auld is particularly difficult because Auld does not give the slaves enough food. Douglass works in the kitchen alongside his sister, Eliza; his aunt, Priscilla; and another woman, Henny. They have to beg or steal food from neighbors to survive, though the Aulds always seem to have food wasting in the storehouse.
As a slave owner, Thomas Auld has absolutely no redeeming qualities. His meanness is in accord with the fact that he was not born with slaves, but acquired them through marriage. Douglass reports that adoptive slaveholders are notoriously the worst masters. Auld is inconsistent in his discipline and cowardly in his cruelty. In August 1832, Auld attends a Methodist camp meeting and suddenly becomes quite religious—and even more cruel. Some of the religious figures in the community, however, act kindly to slaves. One man named Mr. Wilson even runs a slave school until the community shuts it down. Auld, on the other hand, only uses his newfound piety to justify his cruelty to his slaves with added fervor.
While Douglass lives under Auld, he sometimes purposely lets Auld’s horse run away to a nearby farm. Douglass then goes to fetch the horse and eats a full meal at the neighboring farm. After this happens several times, Auld decides to rent Douglass to Edward Covey for one year. Covey is a poor man with a reputation for successfully taming problem slaves. Slave owners give Covey their slaves for one year, during which he “breaks” the slaves while using them as free labor on his land. Douglass knows of Covey’s sinister reputation, but looks forward to being fed sufficiently at Covey’s.
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.”
Covey’s slaves 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 his slaves. He also has a habit of sneaking up on the slaves by crawling through the cornfield in an attempt to catch them resting. Because of this behavior, the slaves 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 owns one slave named Caroline whom he bought to be a “breeder.” Covey has hired a married man to sleep with Caroline every night so that she will produce more slaves for Covey to own.
Douglass recalls that he spent his hardest times as a slave 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 the slaves’ 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 a slave, 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, a slave 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 slave, Hughes, to hold Douglass back. Hughes approaches, and Douglass kicks him down. Next, Covey calls on another slave, 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 IX, Douglass uses the character of Thomas Auld to show that slaveholding is not a natural way of life. Because Auld was not born owning slaves, he must learn the techniques of being a slave master. Auld imitates the mannerisms of someone comfortable with power, but he is unsuccessful in his imitation. Both the slaves and Auld himself realize the falseness of his manner, and Auld becomes more cruel to compensate for his own inconsistency. Douglass shows that the power of slaveholders is created through role‑playing. Auld fails as a slaveholder because his role‑playing is unskilled. If power, then, consists only of the successful enactment of outward demeanor, actions, and words, it follows that slave-holding must not be part of the natural order.
Read more about how Douglass demonstrates the corrupting effect of slavery on slaveholders.
Auld also serves as a vehicle for one of Douglass’s main themes in the Narrative—the dangerous alliance between slaveholders and false Christianity. Douglass recounts Auld’s religious conversion and notes that Auld’s cruelty increases after the conversion. Auld, like many others, creates an image of himself as an upstanding Christian. He uses this self-image to justify his actions toward his slaves. In turn, the church community benefits from Auld’s slaveholding wealth. Douglass is careful to point out that one or two members of Auld’s Christian community are truly religious people who display sympathy for the slaves. Thus Douglass sets up a dichotomy between “true” and “false” Christianity.
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.
Read an in-depth analysis of Edward Covey.
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.
Read more about slaveholding as a perversion of Christianity.
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.”
Read an important quote about the mental and spiritual degradation that Douglass suffers under Edward Covey.
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.
Read more about the symbolism of Sandy’s root.
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 self‑defense. 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.