Summary of "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass"

by Petra Turnbull
'The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass' was important to the anti-slavery movement.

'The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass' was important to the anti-slavery movement. Images

"The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," is an autobiography by a former slave and abolitionist activist. The book was published in 1845 with two prefaces written by Northern abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. The autobiography was an international best-seller, and became an important contribution to the fight against slavery.


Not knowing his date of birth or his father, Douglass only rarely sees his mother. When he is 7, she dies; ;he is not allowed to go to her deathbed or her funeral. He grows up on a plantation, and first sees the impact of slavery when his aunt is beaten senseless. After that, he starts registering the brutal incidents in which slaves are mistreated by their masters. Douglass' childhood ends when he is about 8; he is sent to work in Baltimore, a move he first rejoices in as he believes the city preferable to plantation life and work.


Douglass arrives in Baltimore, and is taught to read and write by his new mistress, who first seems a decent woman, but soon becomes mean. When her husband disapproves -- he is afraid slaves who can read and write will no longer be fit to serve -- Douglass realizes literacy could be a way out of the misery of slavery. The boy secretly continues developing his reading skills, and learns to understand the meaning of abolition and freedom. He meets two Irishmen in a shipyard. They advise him to run away to the North, and Douglass decides to do so when he is older.

Working Life

While Douglass is still in his early teens, his master dies, and he is sent back to the plantation to be evaluated with the other slaves and the livestock. He returns to Baltimore as part of the inheritance, and is subsequently moved around between various masters before he ends up with an especially cruel, yet deeply religious, man who starves him. Regularly whipped, Douglass starts quietly to resist. He lets his master's horse run away to the neighbouring farm, where people feed him when he picks up the animal. His master decides to teach him a lesson, and sends him to a slaveholder known for viciousness.


As expected, the new slaveholder regularly beats Douglass, but his treatment inspires the slaves' resistance. Douglass starts fighting back; in a final altercation, he wins over the white man, and is subsequently moved to a new place. There, he teaches other slaves to read, and together they make escape plans that are discovered. Douglass ends up in jail. Upon his release, he works in a shipyard, where his unpaid labour is resented by white workers. Douglass moves on to a paid position, but his master collects all his wages. Escape to the North becomes Douglass' only alternative in order to live a decent life, and he finally succeeds, ending up in New York.

About the Author

Based in the U.K., Petra Turnbull has been working as a journalist since 1989. Her articles on the film and book trades have been published in "Screen International," "Dagens Naringsliv," "Film Magasinet" and other Scandinavian newspapers and magazines. She now manages her own book shop. Turnbull holds degrees in law and economics from Goethe University, Germany and Oslo Business School in Norway.

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