Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass

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Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass

Fredrick Douglass (1818 - 1895) was born into slavery and suffered its effects until his eventual escape in 1838. From then on he worked hard to awaken the world to the horrors of slavery and encourage people to stand up for the abolition of slavery.

At an early age Douglass realised that education and learning were the 'pathway from slavery to freedom' when his master reproached his wife for teaching Douglass to read by saying 'If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him.' (pg 20)

From that point onwards Douglass was determined to learn to read and write.

When he eventually gained his freedom, his studies allowed him to become a wonderful orator, who could educate people on the destructive nature of slavery. It also enabled him to write his life story as a slave.
When published in 1845 Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass was doubted by some as Douglass' own work as they could not believe that an ex-slave could write so eloquently. However, it soon became a bestseller and as a result the author travelled to Britain to join the Abolition movement there.
Upon his return to America he published abolitionist newspapers and also sought to support other human rights causes such as women's right to vote.
Douglass' ability to convey the harsh reality of slavery through excellent use of imagery, tone, point of view, and many other skillfully used techniques means that his narrative is one of the best known and widely read accounts of slavery that exists.

Chapter 1

1. Discuss the following statements about the intended audience for the letter.

Decide which one you agree with most and be prepared to report your conclusions.

  • Douglass wrote this for himself

  • He wrote this for fellow slaves to read

  • It is a device to get the attention of the general public.

  • He wrote this for slave owners to read

2. Douglass provides many pieces of evidence on the way slave owners seek to

dehumanise slaves.

Choose two examples and discuss the impact they have on the reader.

3. Discuss the use of imagery on page 4. (‘It was the blood-stained gate...’)

In terms of language in general how does Douglass’s style differ from that of

other slave narratives?
Why would this work to his benefit?

4. 'He was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding.'(Page 3)
What does this statement tell us about how slavery affected all who were


How does Douglass use this statement to reinforce his belief that slavery should

be abolished?

5. How would you describe the tone Douglass employs in the opening chapter?
Why does he use this tone?

Chapters 2 & 3

1. Discuss the following statements about the purpose of the text. Decide which

one you agree with most and be prepared to report your conclusions.

  • Douglass wrote this to remind himself of his life in slavery

  • He wrote this to educate people on the horrors of slavery

  • He wanted to show off his language skills

  • He wanted to ‘name and shame’ his former masters

  • Another reason other than that given above.

2. Douglass's use of point of view is effective in this chapter.
Think about the language he uses to describe the scenes of violence he witnessed

as a child.

What is unusual about this?

Why does he retell the events in this way?

2. Read pages 8 and 9 again.
Why does Douglass discuses at length the slaves' songs?
i) How does this reflect his emotions regarding slavery?
ii) What point is he making about white people and their understanding of slaves?

4. Why does the author give a detailed account of Colonel Lloyd's plantation?

How does this add to the authenticity of the narrative?

5. Discuss the way in which Douglass demonstrates to the reader that slaves did not

only suffer physical abuse but also psychological.

Chapters 4 & 5

  1. Discuss the ironic tone used by the writer when he describes Mr. Gore as a 'first-rate overseer.'

  1. Why does Douglass give, in detail, three separate accounts of slaves having

been murdered by their master or the overseer?
How do these accounts fit with the purpose of the text?
Do you believe that these accounts really happened? Explain your answer.

(If you do believe them to be true then what is about Douglass, and his writing,

that makes him a credible source?)

3. From chapter five choose an example of language/imagery which demonstrates

that Fredrick Douglass is an educated man.

Why do you think he wants to make his readers aware of this?

4. What does the city of Baltimore symbolise to Douglass?

Choose one or two from the following (and be ready to explain your choice)

  • Losing his family

  • An education

  • Freedom

  • Violence and hunger

Chapter 6

  1. Look at the description of Mrs. Auld at the beginning of chapter 6. What reason does Douglass give for her kind nature?

Describe the change in her and why this comes about.

How does this relate to Douglass's earlier discussion on the effects of slavery

on white people?

  1. What reasons does Mr. Auld give for why slaves should not be educated?

What does this actually tell us about his ideas on slavery and black people in general?

  1. Explain the valuable lesson that Mr. Auld actually teaches the young


4. How does the writer bring in the symbolic nature of the city on page 21?

  1. In the final section of this chapter Douglass recounts the horrific treatment

of some slave girls.

Think back to the examples of abuse he has given thus far in his book.

Who tends to bear the brunt of abuse?

What point do you think Douglass is trying to make?

Chapter 7

  1. Why do you think Douglass dedicates so much time to the changes his mistress undergoes at the start of this chapter?

Is there anything unusual about the tone that he uses when discussing his white mistress?

  1. How does his master’s warning about teaching slaves become fulfilled? (page 24)

In what way does education both free and enslave Douglass?

  1. Douglass mostly focuses on his education in this chapter. Thinking about the purpose and audience of this text, why do you think he is so keen to emphasise the fact that he is educated?

  1. Douglass includes an anecdote in which he meets two Irishmen who encourage him to runaway. Discuss the following statements on why he would have included this in the text. You must be able to justify your answers.

  1. Give some examples of the way Douglass uses the city to represent a better life in this chapter.

Chapter 8

  1. At the beginning of this chapter Douglass briefly returns to the undignified

life of a plantation slave.
Look at the imagery he uses to describe the auction and explain the

significance behind it.

What tone does he use in this opening section of the chapter?

  1. Why do you think Douglass again refers to the ‘brutalising effects of slavery

both on the slave and slave holder.’

  1. Reread pages 28 and 29 in which Douglass discusses the fate of his


How does the narrative stance change in these paragraphs?

What effect do you think the author is trying to create here?
In what way does the tone also differ in this section? Do you think this was a deliberate change by Douglass or subconscious?

Chapter 9

  1. In the first sentence of this chapter Douglass tells the reader: ‘I have now

reached a period of my life when I can gives dates.’
Taking into account what he says at the very beginning of the narrative, why is

this statement significant?

What does it tell us is happening to Douglass?
In what way would this make his account of things more reliable and credible to

the readers of the text?

  1. Douglass begins his discussion on the theme of religion in this section.

Discuss the following statements and decide what point you think he is making.

  • God cannot exist or else he would put an end to slavery

  • Too many slave owners are hypocrites when it comes to religion

  • Christianity condones slavery

  1. What other recurring theme does Douglass discuss in this chapter?

Thinking about audience and purpose discuss why he continually makes

reference to this theme.

  1. What is ironic about Mr. Covey having a ‘high reputation’?

What point is Douglass trying to make through this reference?

Chapter 10: Extract

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree. At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished. I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition. I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear. My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships:--

"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I'll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. The steamboats steered in a northeast course from North Point. I will do the same; and when I get to the head of the bay, I will turn my canoe adrift, and walk straight through Delaware into Pennsylvania. When I get there, I shall not be required to have a pass; I can travel without being disturbed. Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to some one. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming."

Thus I used to think, and thus I used to speak to myself; goaded almost to madness at one moment, and at the next reconciling myself to my wretched lot.

Chapter 10
Analysis of Speech
The speech that Douglass gives while looking out at the sailing boats is the most famous part of the Narrative.

Reread this section again and then discuss the following:

  1. Why does Douglass include this speech in his text?

  1. In what way does the narration and tone differ from the rest of the

What effect does this change have?

3. Why does Douglass find the sailing vessels troubling to watch?

4. What do they symbolise to him?

5. However, he also finds hope in them. Explain what this hope is.

6. What are the sailing vessels a metaphor for?

Chapter 10

  1. After he has the fight with Covey he states: ‘however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.’ Discuss the significance of this statement.

  1. Explain why the Christmas holidays were 'part and parcel of the gross fraud,

wrong, and inhumanity of slavery.'

In your answer relate to theme, audience and purpose.

3. Explain how Douglass reinforces the theme of religion and hypocrisy in this


  1. On page 48 Douglass becomes quite impassioned when describing how slave

holders keep slaves intellectually enslaved.

What does this tone add to the text?

5. What technique does the writer employ when he describes his pursuit and dreams of freedom on page 50?
6. Douglass gives a very detailed account of his first attempt at running away.
Discuss which of these statements best fit his reasons for this detailed account:

      • it is a means to engage the audience and gain their sympathy

      • he wants to make it clear how difficult it is for a slave to run away

      • the account gives his work authenticity

it creates an element of drama and tension in his work.
7. ‘Master Hugh, for once, was compelled to say the state of things was too bad.'
Discuss the irony in Master Hugh's response to Douglass being attacked, and his relationship with him.
8. What does Douglass compare his master to at the end of chapter 10?

In what way is this an effective comparison?

Chapter 11

  1. When discussing the Underground Railroad Douglass urges his readers not to disclose information on it.

What reasons does he give for this?

How does this refer to a recurring theme in the text?

2. ‘He [Master Hugh] received all the benefits of slaveholding without its evils; while I endured all the evils of a slave, and suffered all the care and anxiety of a freeman. I found it a hard bargain.’
Discuss the significance of this statement.

3. What does the writer find so surprising about the lifestyle people had in the North?
What point is he trying to make by discussing this in his narrative?


Thinking about audience and purpose, why does Douglass include this appendix?

Discussion Topics

1. What role do women play in Douglass’s Narrative? Pay close attention to when or if female characters speak, to how female characters relate to Douglass, and to the depiction of women in relation to virtue.

2. Analyse Douglass’s treatment of Christianity in the Narrative. Why does he include his “Appendix”?

3. How does Douglass describe New Bedford, Massachusetts? How does this description undermine economic arguments in favor of slavery?

4. Think about Douglass’s private speech to the ships in Chapter X. Why does Douglass recreate this speech in his Narrative? What do the ships represent? Why is this moment important within the Narrative?

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