“Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” by Fredrick Douglass

Subject: Literature
Pages: 5
Words: 1510
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: Bachelor


One of the most important pieces of historical documents about the history of the abolitionist movement is the “Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass” by Fredrick Douglass, who was a slave in his early life, and later successfully escaped the life of a slave. In his later life, Douglass became an orator and one of the most influential leaders of the abolitionist movement. The book contains a clear picture of the lives of slaves and their fates, along with the socio-economical texture of the American Society of the time (Etcheson 1439-1440).

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The Characters

As it is a narrative of a slave’s life, the book is rich with different characters. We can primarily divide the characters of the book into two parts, slaves and slave owners. Characters like “Edward Lloyd, Thomas Auld, Lucretia Auld (wife of Thomas Auld), Hugh Auld, Sophie Auld, Edward Covey, Betsy Bailey, Harriet Bailey, William Freeland, William Hamilton, William Gardener, Nathan Johnson and Anna Murray” (Austin 996-1027), the woman whom Douglass will marry later are some of the prominent characters of the autobiography. But in our discussion, we will discuss the character of Edward Covey, one of the slaveholders and also a principal tormentor of Douglass in his slave- life.

The character of Edward Covey

Edward Covey is the typical villain in the narrative, with calculated cruelty in his character dimensions apart from the rest of the characters. Skilled and methodical in his approach to the slaves, his cruelty can be best seen when he does it on a psychological level. The other slaveholders of the story are deceptive while he stands out from them by using deception as to his primary weapon, he made the slaves feel that they are constantly under surveillance and always watches them if they are working in the field or not. His ideology was like “it was worth a half-cent to kill a ‘nigger,’ and a half-cent to bury one” (Fearon and Hill 21).

The character of Edward Covey is designed to be the nemesis of the title character of the novel. Edward Covey was a farmer in Talbot County, and Douglass was loaned to him by Sir Thomas Auld. Covey had a reputation of an unparalleled breaker of slaves. Sir Thomas Auld mentioned to Covey that his duty was to crush the rebellious spirit of Douglass and to do this Covey was free to go to any extent in torture. Covey had acquired the free use of Douglass for a year. From the overview of the character, Covey appeared sneaky and cruel. Other slaves named him “Snake” (Mason 943-955).

With calculated cruelness, Covey is the typical villain among all the slaveholders. It has to be remembered that he is not a victim of the so-called “slavery mentality” in any way. He is mentally, and naturally, a cruel man and his main outlet for the cruelty is on the slaves, and thus, he could be termed as sick. Methodical in his approach to torture, skilled in using a whip, and a perfect emotional blackmailer, Covey is just an iconic villain from the Elizabethan Stage dramas. In the course of the story we had seen many slaveholders and were introduced to various types of tortures on the slaves, but Covey is an expert in psychological cruelness. “Deception is the primary method of Covey to deal with the slaves. He makes the slaves feel that they are under constant surveillance as he always lies to the slaves and also does not provide them with any rest while they are working in the fields” (Mason 943-955).

Another aspect of the negative side of Covey is that he is Anti-Christian. His nickname “the Snake” is an extension of Stan’s character from the various references in Christian texts, especially The Genesis. In the portrayal of Covey, the reader will finally assume that Covey is a false Christian all the way. It is further reinforced by the belief of Covey as a Christian, while his actions only refer to his Anti-Christian attitude, which probably makes the character look like a sinner. At a point in the narrative, Douglass slowly starts to associate himself with the Christian faith. This also differentiates him from Covey, and ultimately shows that Covey is an Anti-Christian personality and Douglass is truly Christian nature. This heightens the sense of conflict is a subtle religious way. The lowest point of the slave life of Douglass is the first six months of his work under Covey. Covey, to crush the rebellious spirit of Douglass, had taken some influential tactics.

He made him work rigorously and also constantly whipped him brutally. This goes to show that Covey was really a master of reading the characteristics of a slave and he also was a master of breaking the spirits of the slaves. He applied his often-used processes on Douglass and was really on the verge of success to make him an animal. Douglass was transforming into something different, his rebellious spirit was breaking down every day, and he was unable to make out his way from the hands of this calculated tormentor and ultimately affecting his spirit (Mason 943-955).

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The evil treatment of Douglass, at a point of time changing him to a hollow person, a person who is slowly losing all his human characteristics and this is clear in the quote of Douglass:

My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the night of slavery closed in upon me, and behold a man transformed into a brute” (Colaiaco 120).

The slow degeneration of Douglass’ character is crystal clear in this line, and it also reinforces the fruitfulness of Covey’s techniques and it says that Covey is successful in what he intended to do, that is to crush Douglass’ rebellious spirit. But in the later parts, Douglass starts to define him, and thus it provides the transformation of Douglass’ character. The two both engage in a fight, which can be called the climactic point of the narrative. It also marks the final transformation of Douglass from a slave to a confident freedom-seeking person.

This is achieved by Douglass when he matched Covey with his form of violence. This also turns that Douglass is the ultimate opposite of Covey and a brave man in a true sense. If Douglass is restrained in his entire attitude, Covey is a braggart. In the final parts of the narrative, Douglass emerges victorious and even later becomes the leader of the movement, while Covey’s character fails to develop and ultimately stays as an ineffectual leader (Mason 943-955).

The protagonist of the narrative, Douglass evolves from time to time, and finally, his ultimate transformation comes in the hand of Covey. The fight between him and Covey is the most important re-establishment of sense and justice in the whole course of the narrative. Finally, Douglass has both dual characters, his negativity arises from his exploits as a slave, and all the tortures faced by him. At the same time, his positivist approach by the grace of education and a consistent quest for freedom is aggressive. Douglass, in the course of the novel, is constantly isolated, while Covey is also a bit of an isolated person due to his cruel nature. Douglass has a desire to help others while Covey always seeks to deceive all around him. The imagery of light and darkness is rightfully described in the discussion of the two characters. All the good deeds of Douglass along with his belief in the Christian faith make him the harbinger of light while Covey represents the darkness due to his cruelty and Anti-Christian outlooks.

In his deft analysis of Covey, Douglass reinforces the fact that slave owners by the treatment toward the slaves slowly degenerate their human characteristics. Finally, we can tell that Covey, though he attempts to show himself as a religious and pious man, ultimately becomes silly and pitifully bad. The falseness of the character is most important on a psychological level, where Douglass makes him distinct by showing the Christian side of himself (Van Deburg, 322).


In the final analysis, we can say that the book, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, is one of the historical documents of the time when America was going through one of the most important periods of domestic history. It is not merely a story about the lives of slaves and the evils of slavery; it deals with all the very basic issues that can be linked to the lives of all Americans. The questions of social values, freedom, and equality lurk on every page of the book. It speaks for the people who do not have any legal right to protect themselves. The book is lucid and written in a very simple language. We can say that the book can be historically termed as the predecessor of African-American memoirs like “Black Boy, Malcolm X and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (Austin 996-1027). It will have its place in both literary and American history.

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Works Cited

Austin, Gareth. The reversal of fortune’s thesis and the compression of history: Perspectives from African and comparative economic history. Journal of International Development 20.8, (2008): 996-1027.

Colaiaco, James A. Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July. Boston: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Etcheson, Nicole. Teaching & Learning Guide for: The Origins of the Civil War. History Compass 5.4, (2007): 1439-1440.

Fearon, Globe and Prescott Hill. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. NY: Globe Fearon, 1995.

Mason, Matthew. Slavery and the Founding. History Compass 4.5, (2006): 943-955.

Van Deburg, William. Slavery and Race in American Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.