Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

by: Frederick Douglass

Chapters IX–X

Summary Chapters IX–X

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.

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.

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.”

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 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.