Summary and Analytical Review of main themes of Douglass' Narrative

One of the most influential and well known abolitionists of the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass was always one to point out the evils of slavery. Being a former slave himself made his accounts of cruelty and malice all the more believable and persuading against the practice. Douglass’ Narrative is a book about his first hand experiences while he was a slave, and his early attempt to escape to freedom before he succeeded on his second attempt (the details of which are not stated in the book, so that the secret is not revealed). He focuses, expectantly, on the many cruelties and maltreatments of his masters, as well as the few kindnesses of his masters. His hopes in this book were to explain and prove the evils of slavery and the slave owners. From his writings, it is clear he has good intentions for the abolitionist movement, and he succeeds in aiding it to a great extent. His accounts of the barbarity and general cruelness of his masters (even those that were kind at first) and his mockery of the slaveholders’ religion did well to help the abolitionist movement.

His book begins, as do most autobiographies, with the beginning of his known and remembered life. From early on all he can remember (or at least tell us about) is the pain and suffering caused by his bondage, although in most cases, all that is known to slaves is pain and suffering. One of the first and most notable accounts he retells is the witnessing of his aunt being beaten. She was beaten and whipped for being caught in the company of a male slave with which she was forbidden to see. It was not the first time Douglass was to witness the cruelty of slavery, however. The first instance of cruelty came from the intentional separation of himself and his mother. Douglas retells of the encounters with his mother, but only to show and prove that slave owners intentionally destroyed and separated families.

The next, and inarguably the most important, event in his life occurred when he was moved to Baltimore to work as a house servant. In Douglass’ own Narrative he calls the event “one of the most interesting of his life” (Narrative 18). He notes that the city is much kinder to slaves than is the country plantations. In the country, he states that he “suffered little from anything than hunger and cold” (Narrative 16) while being whipped very seldom and was even favored by his master with rewards of cake. Later in the book, however, he dwells on the fierceness of slave drivers on field workers while under the care of Mr. Covey and others. Douglass says that under Covey, he was beaten and whipped to the point where he “was broken in body, soul, and spirit” (Narrative 38). In the city, at first, he was put into the best of care by his Master Hugh’s wife. At first Douglass’ mistress was “a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings” (Narrative 19). It is arguable that she was the most influential person in Douglass’ life, for she was the one who first taught him to read, which gave him the taste of freedom. His ability to read was both hindered and helped by his master, whom upon discovery, forbade his wife from teaching Douglass to read because it was unlawful. Hugh made the mistake of alluring that the ability to read was somehow connected to freedom, which is every slave’s dream, not just Douglass’. After the discontinuing of Douglas’ formal education, his mistress became a “demon,” but he was still better treated in the city than in the country. In the city, slave owners are more social with each other, being more condensed than in the country. Because of the density of population, the slaves are seen by peers and friends of the masters and then seen as a reflection of the master; if a slave is mistreated, the master is shamed. Also after the ending of his learning from his mistress, Douglass learns to read by tricking young white boys in the city in his free time. These ‘self taught’ lessons in reading proved to be an invaluable skill to Douglass, as he more than likely used his ability to read and write to escape, as he did in his first attempt when he forged notes to escape persecution.

After Douglass came of age, he was put to work as a field hand, the hardest and most detested job of any slave. Eventually he was rented to Mr. Covey, who, as mentioned before, was the cruelest master Douglass had ever worked under. While in Covey’s care, Douglass was subject to weekly (if not more often) beatings and was “seldom free from a sore back” (Narrative 36). The barbaric practices of Covey eventually caused Douglass to rise up and fight against Covey. This gave Douglass a sense of power not experienced prior. It also “rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom” in Douglass (Narrative 43). Had it not been for his fight and victory, over Covey, Douglass’ name would have been long forgotten shortly after his death in 1895, had he been able to live that long while in bondage.

After Covey, Douglass was put to labor in fields belonging to a man named Freeland. There he conspired with other slaves to attempt escape, but failed. His escape attempt involved forging papers that granted him and a few others safe passage, via river boat, to Baltimore, but one of the slaves originally involved in the plan backed out, and snitched. Douglass was jailed for a week and then sent back to Baltimore, once again under the care of Hugh. While in Baltimore, Douglass learned how to become a calker for boats and was able to hire himself out under the provision that he paid his master. Douglass was responsible for his clothes, board, and job materials and tools. In a sense, Douglass was completely independent. This sense of freedom was pleasurable to Douglass, but unwanted at the same time. He thought it a great injustice to forfeit much of his earnings to a man who did nothing to earn it. Douglass eventually found the means by which to escape his forced servitude and did so.

One of Douglass’ main themes throughout the book is the nourishment of slaves under various owners. “Every city slave holder is anxious to have it known of him, that he feeds his slaves well” (Narrative 21). Douglas points out, often, that there is a direct connection (obviously) between the kindness of the master and the amount of food given to the slave. Douglass would often let a horse run away to a neighboring farm (5 miles away), thereby being required to fetch it, and while away, acquiring something to eat. The direct relation of food to treatment is obvious and important. It should be noted that Covey, while almost certainly cruelest of all the slave owners described, did in fact, give his slaves enough to eat, but gave them insufficient time in which to eat the meals provided.

Another important theme throughout Douglass’ Narrative is religion. Douglass states outright, that “for all the slaveholders that I have met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others” (Narrative 46). Indeed, the cruelest master Douglas ever served under, Mr. Covey, was a “professor of religion- a pious soul- a member and class leader in the Methodist church” (Narrative 34). Two of the kindest masters Douglas labored under, Hugh and Freeland, had “no pretensions to, or professions of, religion” (Narrative 46), both of which, it should be noted, he tried (and succeeded under Hugh) to escape from. The hypocracy of religion, is seen because Douglass was fortunate enough to know how to read. Slave owners taught, out of the Bible, that servitude and obidience were key to salvation. However, when Douglass preached to other slaves (he taught many slaves to read in a sort of Sunday School he ran), he found that independance, freedom, and equality were also stressed in the Bible; two very conflicting messages that he took to hate cruel masters.

Douglass’ own, personal experiences with the slaveholders’ brutality and the hypocrisy of their religion are good arguments for the cause of abolitionists. In the Appendix, especially, Douglass details his links between religion and the cruelness of slaveholders. He details every hypocritical aspect of America’s religions, stating “we have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members” (Narrative 72). The appendix, with its religion bashing, probably did more for the abolitionist movement than his entire book did. But the violence depicted in his Narrative, as well as the intelligent arguments about religion in the appendix are a powerful and highly convincing force for the movement of which Douglass was an important part of. It cannot be determined how much aide Douglass' Narrative gave to the abolitionist movement, but the movement eventually did lead to the Fourteenth Amendment, which freed the slaves. So, in conclusion, it can be assumed that Frederick Douglass was an indisposable force to be reckoned with, and his Narritive was key to his fame and influence.