Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

10. How does the life of a city slave compare/contrast to that of a country slave?

Frederick Douglass

Narratives of a Slave

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Douglass’s relocation to Baltimore is the first major change in his life, and the shift of setting introduces the notion of the greater freedom of cities versus the countryside. Cities—and especially Northern cities—in the Narrative offer enlightenment, prosperity, and a degree of social freedom. Only in cities is Douglass able to connect with different kinds of people and new intellectual ideas. By contrast, the countryside appears in the Narrative as a place of extremely limited freedom. In rural areas, slaves have less mobility and are more closely watched by slave owners. This motif contributes to the movement of the Narrative: Douglass is symbolically closest to Northern freedom when in the city of Baltimore, and is symbolically furthest from freedom when in rural areas.

While Douglass’s Narrative shows that slavery dehumanizes slaves, it also advances the idea that slavery adversely affects slave owners. Douglass makes this point in previous chapters by showing the damaging self‑deceptions that slave owners must construct to keep their minds at ease. These self‑deceptions build upon one another until slave owners are left without religion or reason, with hypocrisy as the basis of their existence. Douglass uses the figure of Sophia Auld to illustrate this process. When Douglass arrives to live with Hugh and Sophia Auld, Sophia treats Douglass as nearly an equal to her own son. Soon, however, Hugh schools Sophia in the ways of slavery, teaching her the immoral slave‑master relationship that gives one individual complete power over another. Douglass depicts Sophia’s transformation in horrific terms. She seems to lose all human qualities and to become an evil, inhuman being. Douglass presents Sophia as much a victim of the institution of slavery as Douglass himself is.

The fact that Sophia is a woman helps Douglass’s portrayal of her as a victim of slavery. It is significant that the male slaveholders of Douglass’s Narrative, even Hugh Auld, all appear to be already schooled in the vice of slavery. Women, and Sophia especially, exist in Douglass’s Narrative as idealistically sympathetic and virtuous beings—a gender stereotype common in nineteenth‑century culture. Thus Sophia becomes, along with the slaves themselves, an object of sympathy for Douglass’s readers. The readers’ horror and regret for Sophia’s lost kindness reinforces their sense that slavery is unnatural and evil.

The first pivotal moment in Douglass’s mental life is in Chapter I, when he is initiated into the horrors of slavery by seeing Captain Anthony whip Aunt Hester. The second turning point in Douglass’s youth occurs when Hugh Auld refuses to allow Douglass to become educated. Before this moment, Douglass has known intuitively that slavery is evil, but has been mystified by the logic of how slavery works. Hugh Auld’s pronouncement that education ruins slaves enlightens Douglass. He suddenly understands that slave owners gain and keep power over slaves by depriving slaves of education and ideas. Douglass realizes that he must become educated to become free. The idea that education is the means to freedom is a major theme in the Narrative.

Douglass presents his revelation about the importance of education as a moment of both alignment with and opposition to Hugh Auld. Though it is Sophia Auld who has been teaching Douglass to read, Douglass values Hugh Auld’s lesson more. Douglass presents the moment as a rejection of feminine lessons in favor of masculine authoritative knowledge. Douglass further aligns himself with Hugh Auld by pledging to place himself in opposition to Auld. A series of rhetorical antitheses pair the two, such as “What [Hugh Auld] most loved, that I most hated.” Throughout the Narrative, Douglass’s progress rests on this focus on white male authority.


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