Although throughout the Narrative, Frederick Douglass has a tendency to skip around often and does not always follow a completely chronological ordering, the work begins with his childhood. Frederick Douglass gives a summary of how he, like many other slave children, has no idea when his birthday is but as far he can guess it must have been around 1818. He was separated from his mother right after he was born (which he imagines was because they did not want the bonds of family to develop naturally between families) but recalls how sometimes she would walk at night from a neighboring plantation to sleep with him. As this important part of this summary of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” makes clear, he tells the reader that she died but because of his lack of connection with her the news did not have much of an impact on him. All Frederick Douglass knows about his father is that he is a white man based on his light skin tone and rumors he’s heard to confirm it. Frederick Douglass then gives the reader a brutal short summary of that the rape of female slaves by their white masters actually benefits slavery because by law the products of the rape become slaves themselves. When you’re reading this analysis and summary of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and throughout the text itself, you should notice the way Douglass makes reference not just to the cruelty of slavery as an institution, but also how he shows the way it has become institutionalized through things like politics, law, religion, and social practices.
After briefly discussing his childhood, Douglass goes on to discuss his first master, Captain Anthony and the overseer of his plantation, Mr. Plummer. He gives a short summary of the way the drunken cruel Mr. Plummer repeatedly whipped his Aunt Hester until the blood streamed down her back simply because she was beautiful and he may have had an interest in her. The reader is left to figure out the psychology behind such an awful act while Douglass explains that he was afraid of the idea of being whipped that he often hid. Aside from this specific incident, Douglass recalls other details from the “Great House Farm" and describesthe conditions under which he and the other slaves lived. He wistfully remembers the songs they used to sing that once sounded happy but now he realizes were very mournful and belied great pain and suffering.The plantation, which now belongs to Colonel Lloyd, is described as being so big that many slaves never even saw their master and vice versa. Frederick Douglass summarizes the details of an instance in which a slave was heading down a road and encountered his master without knowing who he was. When the unknown Lloyd asked the slave how he was treated and the slave responded that he was ill-treated, he was made an example of by being chained up and sold to a slave trader—one of the worst punishments. Lloyd enacted certain measures to keep his slaves in line, including whipping slaves who stole fruit from his prize garden and beating slaves for apparently no reason. Because of instances like these, slaves always tried to appear happy and although it gave a false impression to whites (especially those from the North) it was really the only way a slave could protect himself.
A new overseer named Mr. Gore takes over at the Great House Farm. He is even more cruel than his predecessor and is absolutely heartless in his treatment of his charges. When one slave named Demby disobeys him he simply shoots him to “make an example" out of him. Douglass relates with some sadness that just as in other cases when slaves have been murdered, there were no charges made and he was able to go free. You will notice that Douglass often interrupts his own story to tell tales of other slaves. He does this to emphasize his points and show the extent of the cruelty and wrong of slavery even if he wasn’t directly involved in the event he describes. Keeping in mind that this narrative was meant for Northern white readers, it is important to consider what function these side stories serve. They work to tell the whole tale of slavery (or at least they try to) by showing the extent to which the cruelty was manifest.
Getting back to his own experiences, Douglass talks about being too young to work in fields and thereby developing a relationship with the young white boy Daniel. He compares his dress and other behaviors to those of the white boy’s and discusses slave conditions in more detail, especially as they relate to children. By the time he was around 8 years old, Douglass is sent to live with Mr. Hugh Auld, Captain Anthony’s relative. He is being taken to Baltimore which to him sounds like heaven compared to the plantation. He feels blessed by God to be going away from the plantation and has the first inkling that slavery will not consume his whole life. Furthermore, upon arriving, he is amazed by the bustling coastal city and is even more impressed by his new mistress, Sophia Auld. Because she has never owned slaves and doesn’t know that she should be more harsh with them as her brother demands she should be, she almost treats her new slaves like equals and teaches the young Douglass a few words and letters. Her brother scolds her and tells her that teaching a slave and allowing him to learn will only make him unhappy later, a fact which Douglass begins to agree with later as his level of education increases. Although there are still examples of cruelty toward slaves in the North (Douglass cites a few examples) he admits that slaves had far more freedom and masters were more careful about seeming cruel. At first he feels blessed at Sophia Auld’s kind tutoring but as time goes on she becomes hard and like a true slave owner. She ceases teaching Frederick and her attitude toward him changes completely.
Time passes and soon Frederick begins hearing the word “abolitionist" around town. He thinks for the first time about running away and throughout the rest of the book, escape remains at the forefront of his thoughts. It is also during this time that he tries to learn to read and write in any way possible. By hanging out at the docks he finds white friends who teach him some things and he practices writing whenever possible in secret.
Following this period of several years in which Douglass is young and learning to read in Baltimore, great changes occur within his master’s family. With the death of Captain Anthony, Frederick and the other slaves belonging to him are appraised and judged like cattle at an auction. For a short while Douglass is returned to the plantation before being assigned to Thomas Auld. Mr. Auld is rather stingy and his slaves are nearly always starving to death. Douglass is assigned kitchen work with a girl whom the reader learns is sister, Eliza, as well as his aunt. Living in Thomas Auld’s domain is harsh and things get even worse after Auld goes to a Methodist religious camp and is converted. Instead of becoming more sympathetic and less cruel, Auld’s demeanor gets even worse. There are number of statements in this section that describe the relationship of religion and slavery that are worth looking into.
Douglass detests living under the “care" of Auld and always allows his horses to run away to a neighboring plantation where he is at least given something to eat. When he is caught, he is sent to live under Mr. Covey, the most cruel overseer in the text who has a reputation for correcting errant slaves. At Mr. Covey’s Frederick works in the fields for the first time with terrible results. He is beaten by Covey, a cruel, sneaky master whom all the slaves call “The Snake." Like Thomas Auld, Covey uses religion to justify his cruelty and seems to posses no Christian traits at all. To Douglass (and likely to the reader) his religion seems like a front—he is a violent hypocrite. The only salvation for Douglass is the promise of more learning and the thought of escaping back to the north.
A turning point in the narrative as well as Frederick’s life comes after an incident in which he is beaten almost to death by Covey. Douglass determines that his only recourse is to complain to Auld, who at first seems as though he might be willing to help but at the last minute changes his mind and sends him back to Covey. Immediately upon his return Covey comes after him but Douglass runs away. Eventually Covey gives up the hunt and Douglass wanders until meets another slave, Sandy Jenkins. Sandy gives him a root that is supposed to protect him from white men and with this in tow, he heads back to Covey’s. At first, it seems that Covey is not going to retaliate, but like the “snake" he is, he waits and then goes after him. A two-hour fight ensues between slave and master and after this event, Mr. Covey leaves Frederick alone. Although Douglass does not attribute this fight to the root given to him by Sandy, it does bring up some interesting points about slave religions.
Soon after the altercation with Covey, Douglass is sent to live with Mr. Freeland (note the name itself has the word “free" in it) where things are still hard, but at least a bit more tolerable. Douglass begins a school on Sundays where he begins to teach some of the slaves how to read and write. They become close as a result of the educational bond and soon, some of them formulate a plan for escape. Douglass and a few other men organize the details of the plan and even get passes that will allow them travel freely once they get to the North. Unfortunately, the plan is discovered because of a traitor (although even the reader never find out his identity). They are put in jail and they remain for several days until Auld decides to send Frederick back to Baltimore. This is much better news than being sent to Alabama and once in Baltimore, Douglass is given a job working in the shipyards.
Although he is learning a new skill, Douglass must endure the hostility of the white workers who are bitter about free labor being hired. During one instance, he is attacked but because of laws in North, he cannot fight back or else he could suffer the death penalty. For once, Auld stands up for him and hires him at his own shipyard although he is not allowed to keep hardly any of his wages. He wishes to find work and live on his own, but Auld refuses at first and then tells him that if he does, he must pay him money out of his wages every week for the privilege of being free. For a while, Douglass carries through with this but after a misunderstanding, Auld revokes this right, causing Frederick to think about escape again. Although the reader is told almost nothing about how, Douglass finally escapes into New York City. He is very afraid at first but finds that there are many ex-slaves that are willing to help their own. With the help one such man named Ruggles, he is able to find work as a caulker and has his fiancée come to live with him.
In New Bedford, along with his wife, he begins to get more involved with the abolitionist cause and subscribes to the famous magazine, The Liberator. Eventually, he secures a speaking engagement where he details the experience of slavery to northern white. Ever since that time he continued writing and helping people understand the horrible institution. The story is followed by an Appendix which gives further insights into his feelings on religion in the South. It is a powerful statement and I encourage you to read it even before you begin the text.