Study Guide

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Analysis

  • Tone

    Cool, Reserved, Angry, Emotional

    How can Douglass's tone be both cool/reserved and angry/emotional?

    Well, overly emotional narrators don't always come across as reliable. Since Douglass wants to convince us that he's just telling the truth about what happened to him, he mostly tries to keep his anger about slavery hidden. At the same time, Douglass is really angry about slavery and he wants us to be angry too. So even though he keeps his anger in check most of the time, every once in a while he'll let us know how he really feels.

    Here is an example where Douglass really lets his emotions run free. It's from the famous speech he gives when he looks out at the Chesapeake Bay and wishes he could be as free as the white sails of the ships. (We're putting the whole passage in here because, even though it's long, it's eloquent and important).

    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 north-east 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. (10.8)

    This passage is effective, not only because it's beautifully written, but because it comes in the middle of Douglass' normally reserved and dialed-back prose.

  • Genre

    Autobiography, Propaganda, Coming-of-Age

    Technically, Frederick Douglass's book is an autobiography. After all, it's the story of his life from the time of his birth to the time he wrote the book, in 1845. But it also has a lot of important omissions. For example, there's Douglass's announcement that he's gotten married, which comes totally out of the blue. Where, when, and how did he meet this woman?

    That tells us that this isn't just an autobiography. Douglass has a particular political purpose in writing about his life. That purpose is ending slavery, and Douglass leaves out anything that doesn't help him do that. Little things like getting married, for example, don't have much to do with slavery, so he barely mentions it. Since Douglass has a political agenda, this piece can be considered propaganda (though not in the negative sense).

    At the same time, though, Douglass's book was successful because it wasn't just a piece of propaganda. It's also a coming-of-age story. Douglass simultaneously grows up to be a man and learns to be free. His journey into adulthood parallels his struggle to find the strength and will to achieve his freedom.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The full title of this book is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself. Pretty straightforward title, right? Frederick Douglass was a slave, and this the narrative—or story—of his life. 

    But there are also a couple things worth noticing here. First, by calling himself an American slave, Douglass is reminding his audience that slavery didn't happen in some faraway land; it happened in America, the "land of the free." We're supposed to notice that and think about it. Douglass loves this kind of irony, and reminding us that the land of the free is also the land of slavery is just the kind of hypocrisy he likes to point out. (Years later he gave a famous speech entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" which you can read here.)

    The second thing is the phrase "Written by Himself." That might seem basic, too, but there's a serious point there. Most white Americans in the mid-1880s had a hard time believing that a Black person could even learn to read, much less write a book. In fact, when the book became a bestseller, there were a lot of skeptics who insisted that he must have had help. This is why Douglass included two different prefaces from famous writers at the beginning, to sort of vouch for the fact that he did it all on his own. Just the fact that he wrote the book by himself was a way of proving that Black people were the equal of whites.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The ending isn't really a surprise. You must have figured out that the book would end with Douglass getting his freedom, right? Plus, even if you didn't, Garrison's preface gives it away. So it's not like the "getting free" part is the big climax.

    Instead, the ending challenges us to think about what "freedom" really means. Douglass wants us to understand that slavery is wrong and should be abolished, of course, but he also wants to show that freedom is something more than a legal category. For one thing, even when Douglass does get his freedom and goes to New York, he's lost and alone. Without the help of his friends, he wouldn't have been able to make a new start.

    Even more than that, though, Douglass's real triumph is in finding his voice, both as a public speaker and as an author. We think that's why the book ends by returning to the moment that Garrison talks about in the preface, when Douglass first stands up and begins telling the crowd about his experiences.

    In a way, the real happy ending might just be the fact that the book you're reading exists at all. After all, Douglass tells us that at first he didn't want to stand up in front of a crowd of assembled white people because he still, on the inside, felt like a slave. And just as giving that speech shows that he's finally become free on the inside, the fact that he follows it up by writing this book makes the same point: after freeing his body, becoming an author shows that he has freed his mind. Yet this also suggests that getting his freedom hasn't really been the end of his journey.

    In fact, getting his freedom is almost anti-climactic, since slavery continues. Getting his freedom is in a way the beginning of Douglass's story, the beginning of his life as an activist working to end slavery and the beginning of the long road to freedom that African-Americans have traveled ever since.

  • Setting

    Pre-Civil War Maryland, New York, and Bedford, Massachusetts

    Douglass is born on a huge slave plantation in rural Maryland, one of hundreds of slaves. When we think of slavery, we usually conjure up an image of the Deep South, or the "Old South," places like Georgia or Alabama. Maryland was one of the northernmost states where slavery was legal (and close to Pennsylvania, a free state), and life there wasn't quite as bad for slaves as it was in the Deep South.

    In fact, in the letter to Douglass that introduces the book, Wendell Phillips says that slavery "appears with its fairest features" in Maryland. Phillips' point, though, is that if slavery in Maryland is as good as it gets, it's still pretty bad. Douglass doesn't want us to think of slavery as a thing that can be better or worse—all slavery is wrong.

    Douglass spends much of his young adult life in Baltimore, and his situation is better there than on the plantation. He is legally enslaved, but in many ways he can almost live as though he were free. And when he eventually escapes to New York, his situation is better still. But even in the North, he isn't really free, since he always runs the risk of being kidnapped and brought back down south. He moves farther north to Bedford, Massachusetts, as soon as he can, but one reason he joins the abolitionist movement is that he can never truly be safe while slavery exists anywhere in the United States.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    Douglass tries his best to keep his book easy reading, but he sometimes has a tendency to get a little long-winded, and he often uses language from the Bible in a way that can be a little disorienting if you're not used to it.

    Basically, the book is over a century and a half old, and it sounds like it.

    Still, there's nothing too difficult here, and the narrative moves along quickly enough to keep you from getting stuck in any one particular section.

  • Writing Style

    Old-Fashioned, Elevated, Plain, Personal, Biblical

    Although Douglass's language may seem a bit stilted to us today, his style is usually pretty straightforward. He wants you to understand him, so he doesn't write long or complicated sentences, and he tries to speak informally, as if it were just you and him.

    Still, he does sometimes use a kind of elevated language, and parts of the book can be a bit difficult. It might be that he's emulating the style of the King James Bible, one book that almost all of his readers would be familiar with.

    For example, this is how he describes Aunt Hester being whipped:

    I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it. (1.8)

    Words like "exhibition" and "spectacle" remind us that, even though Douglass is remembering something he saw as a child, he's a well-educated adult now. He seems to want to show us that his hard-earned education was a success. But he is also is aware of the limitations of language. At the end of the quote, he reminds us that no matter how powerful a writer he might be, language cannot quite capture the trauma of the experience.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    White Sails

    When Douglass is at his lowest point – when Covey has beaten him into submission and he is, for all intents and purposes, broken – he looks out onto the Chesapeake Bay and is suddenly struck by a vision of white sailing ships. It's one of the most powerful symbols in the book, but it's also one of the most elusive. Why do these ships suddenly strike his fancy as the very embodiment of freedom? Is it because they are white? Do they appear to fly and seem like angels? Are they what eventually drive him to become a dock-worker in Baltimore? Almost everyone who reads Douglass's narrative notices this passage, and we have lots of questions, but not many answers. But maybe that's the point: freedom appears in many different forms and with many different names.

    Female Suffering

    Douglass doesn't talk about women very often, and when he does, he usually associates them with suffering. Perhaps because the nineteenth-century South was a time and a place where women were supposed to be shielded from danger, Douglass makes a special point of describing the traumatic sight of female slaves being beaten and abused. The rape of female slaves by their masters was a common occurrence, as Douglass reminds us. The beating of Aunt Hester in Chapter 1, the neighbor whipping his slaves Henrietta and Mary in Chapter 6, and Thomas Auld's cruelty to Henny in Chapter 9 are all moments of ferocious violence toward women. Note, though, that Mr. Auld is not violent toward his wife when he catches her teaching the slaves to read. Only black women are the victims of violence in this story.

    City vs. Country

    No slave wants to live on a plantation in the country, and Douglass is somewhat luckier than most in this regard. For much of his life, he lives in Baltimore, where slaves are treated better, and which is an easier place from which to escape to freedom. In the country slaves are often whipped brutally, and they are rarely given enough food or clothing. Slave owners in the city would be ashamed for their neighbors to see their slaves going without enough food or clothing. In the city, Douglass learns to read and meets a wide variety of people who help him on his road to freedom: the white children who help him learn to read and write, the sailors who teach him a trade, and people from the North who show him that not all whites are slave owners.

    Sandy's Root

    Sandy Jenkins offers Douglass a root from the forest that supposedly has magical powers to protect slaves from being whipped. Douglass doesn't seem to believe this, but he wears the root on his right side – as he's told to – in order to appease Sandy. In a footnote, Douglass calls Sandy's belief in the root "superstitious" and typical of the "more ignorant slave" population. In this regard, the root stands as a symbol of a traditional African approach to religion and belief. While we might expect Douglass to be sympathetic toward African traditions, he doesn't really seem to be. As a Christian, he doesn't believe in other forms of spirituality.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central)

    Douglass's narrative is, as the title page tells us, "Written By Himself." He's the book's main character – almost the only character – so most of the narrative is just him talking to us about himself. Simple, right?

    Well, that's not quite all there is to it. Even though Douglass is the book's narrator, he is a bit older than he was when he was living the events he's telling us about. Sometimes he looks back on his younger self with a bit of nostalgia. Since most of the action takes place when Douglass is a teenager, he's got a slightly different perspective on the kind of a person he was when he was growing up, and he often emphasizes the things he didn't know then, or things he would have done differently.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Anticipation Stage and Call

      Douglass is born a slave and begins to realize how terrible slavery is

      As a child, Douglass doesn't know his parents, and he's poorly fed and clothed. But because he doesn't know any other life, he isn't especially dissatisfied. He doesn't even really know that he's a slave; he mostly just does chores around the house.

      But we are starting to get the sense that bad stuff is coming. Slavery is out there, and like a monster lurking in its cave, we know that sooner or later Douglass is going to have to go out there and do battle with it.

      Dream Stage

      Douglass learns how to read and write.

      Though Douglass has seen some bad stuff happen to other people, he manages to avoid the worst of it. He's still young, so the overseers mostly leave him alone. He's young and adaptable, so when he's sent away to Baltimore to work for Mr. and Mrs. Auld, he welcomes the change.

      At first things go pretty well for him there. He learns to read, and when his master tries to put a stop to this, he learns something even more important: the power of literacy. Eventually he makes enough white friends in the street to learn to write, too.

      Frustration Stage

      Douglass gets sent to work for Mr. Covey, who "breaks" him.

      As Douglass gets older, his owners notice that he isn't quite as easygoing or obedient as they would like. And when a slave is labeled a troublemaker, things are going to get real bad, real fast. Douglass is rented out to Mr. Covey, who for six months steadily and mercilessly beats him into submission.

      Douglass is too exhausted from work to think and too broken by constant whipping to complain or fight back. At this point, it seems like Douglass has been defeated.

      Nightmare Stage

      Douglass despairs when looking out over the Chesapeake Bay, but then he recovers hope.

      This is Douglass at his lowest, in the depths of despair. Covey has basically reduced him to an unthinking animal, and all hope seems lost. One day, when he is looking out across the Chesapeake Bay, his eyes fall on the white sails of ships sailing free. He has a sudden realization, or epiphany: he had resigned himself to being a passive, mindless slave for the rest of his life, but suddenly he is outraged.

      How dare those ships be free while he is not? Even though he is still a slave in body, he resolves never again to be a slave in mind.

      The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster

      Douglass defeats Covey in battle and sets the stage for his eventual freedom.

      Covey represents the monster within Douglass, the part of him that accepts being a slave. As long as Douglass lets Covey push him around, he's a slave in more than a legal sense: he's a mental slave.

      Once he determines to fight back, however, everything starts to change. He defeats Covey physically, but the real battle is a psychological one. After Douglass refuses to be whipped again, Covey never even tries. He's still a slave in the eyes of the law, but Douglass now knows that it's only a matter of time before he finds his way to freedom. And even though it takes four more years, he does eventually escape to freedom in the North, where he becomes a leader in the movement to abolish slavery and one of the most famous men in the country.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Douglass is born a slave and has to figure out what that means.

      Douglass wrote this book to show people what slavery was like from the inside. He takes his readers into the mind of a child who is trying to understand what it means to be a slave. When Douglass tells us about his childhood, he emphasizes how little he understands about it. We discover the truth, with him, through his eyes.


      Douglass sets out to improve himself and get an education

      Douglass is a little older now, and when he moves to Baltimore, his new master's wife starts to teach him to read. His master stops her, though, and this teaches Douglass an important lesson: reading must be pretty powerful, right? Douglass resolves not to let his education end just because he can't get any more lessons at home. He makes the streets his classroom, making friends with white children and eventually learning not only to read, but to write as well. But the most important lesson he's learned is about slavery, that a person can only be kept in slavery as long as he is kept in ignorance.


       Douglass's master rents him out to Mr. Covey to be "broken"

      As Douglass gets older, he starts to do the one thing no slave is ever supposed to do: think for himself. So his master rents him out to Mr. Covey, a farmer with a reputation as a "slave-breaker." Covey works to beat Douglass into submission, and for the first six months it works. Douglass is too exhausted to think and too beaten physically to complain or fight back. He reaches the depths of despair when he looks out onto the Chesapeake Bay and sees the white sails of ships sailing free. Yet even while he questions (in a famous passage) why he can't be free too, he starts to take courage and resolves to free himself, no matter what the obstacles may be.


      Douglass fights Covey—and wins

      Psychologists sometimes say that addicts have to reach "rock bottom" before they are ready to regain control of their lives. Perhaps because he reaches rock bottom with Covey, Douglass suddenly finds the strength to resist. Not long after the moment looking at the white sails on the Chesapeake Bay, he resolves that he would rather die than be beaten again.

      When he stands up to Covey and says so, he discovers something amazing: he doesn't die. And once he resolves to be free at any cost, things start to change. Defeating Covey doesn't make him free in a legal sense, of course, but standing up for himself makes him mentally free.


      Douglass has freed himself from mental slavery, but he is still legally a slave.

      Having resolved to become free, Douglass must now find a way to actually do it. He no longer despairs -- in fact, he has complete faith that he'll find a way – but getting away from the slave states is still a complicated proposition. He doesn't know much about the North, and no one in the South will tell him anything. Even worse, there are slave masters watching his every move.

      Douglass's first attempt to escape fails. He tries to lead a group of slaves to freedom by forging traveling passes for each of them (since no one expects a slave to know how to write). But the plan falls apart when one of the other slaves betrays the group to their masters, and Douglass is left back where he started.


      Douglass escapes to the North, but slavery pursues him.

      It takes Douglass four years to do it, but he does eventually escape to freedom in the New York. But the story isn't over. Getting to the North isn't the end of his worries; if he were to be caught by his former master, he could be dragged back to the South and put in chains, and no law in the North could protect him. In fact, Douglass can't even tell us how exactly he escaped, since giving away that information might put the friends who helped him in danger. He eventually decides that New York is too close to the South and moves even farther, to Massachusetts.


      Douglass becomes a famous orator and author.

      At this point in Douglass's life, he faces a dilemma. He's becoming involved as a speaker and writer in anti-slavery politics, but the more famous he becomes, the more danger he is in. Talking about his life is a way of fighting slavery and helping others still caught in its trap. But the more he talks about himself, the more information he gives to his enemies and the more likely it is that he could be kidnapped back into slavery.

      Eventually, years after the book was published, Douglass bought his freedom from his former master. Once he was legally free, he was out of danger. But when he first wrote the book that you're reading, he was still taking a great risk. In fact, taking that risk was a lot like standing up to Covey. Even if it meant risking everything he had, he would rather lose it all than be afraid.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      Douglass is born a slave and spends his childhood discovering what it is to be a slave. At first, he only sees terrible things happen to others, like his Aunt Hester.

      Act II

      As Douglass gets older, he starts to actually experience the suffering of slavery himself. But being punished and whipped regularly only makes him more rebellious. So his master sends him to Mr. Covey, a well-known "slave breaker," to be beaten into submission. For the first six months, this works.

      Act III

      After six months of punishment, Douglass decides that he would rather die than be whipped again. This resolve helps him escape to freedom. Once he's free in the North, he joins the Abolitionist movement to end slavery.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • William Shakespeare, Hamlet (10.25): "rather bear those ills we had, than fly to others, that we knew not of."
      • Richard Sheridan (7.6)
      • John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Farewell of a Virginia Slave Mother to Her Daughters Sold into Southern Bondage" (8.6), "Clerical Oppressors" (appendix.2)

      Biblical References

      • Matthew 25:35 (11.14): "I was hungry, and he gave me meat; I was thirsty, and he gave me drink; I was a stranger, and he took me in."
      • Luke 12:47 (9.4): "He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes."
      • The Story of Daniel (11.5): "I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions"; (8.5): "I had escaped a worse than lion's jaws."

      Historical References