12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Solomon Northup begins with an address to the reader, noting that the following narrative will “not be uninteresting to the public.” He explains that he was born a free man and lived as such for thirty years, when he was then kidnapped and sold into slavery. He remained a slave for twelve years and was rescued in January, 1853. Writing as a man restored to freedom, Solomon knows that people in the North are increasingly curious as to how slavery unfolds in the South, so his purpose in writing down his experiences is to provide a “candid and truthful statement of facts.”
The opening of the narrative reveals that Solomon’s goal isn’t just to tell a story about his experience as a slave. His narrative also has a legal and political purpose, which is why it’s important that it be a “candid and truthful statement of facts.” Through his slave narrative, Solomon seeks to bolster his Northern audience’s anti-slavery attitudes and testify against all those who obscured justice.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
Solomon provides a brief genealogy. His ancestors on his father’s side of the family were slaves in Rhode Island and belonged to the Northup family. Solomon’s father, Mintus, was born into slavery but was freed upon the death of his master. Solomon notes that the lawyer Henry B. Northup, who eventually saved Solomon himself from slavery, is a relative of Mintus’s former master.
Solomon immediately shows that family will play a key role in his narrative. Even though he and Henry B. Northup share the same last name, they’re not blood relatives. Despite this, Solomon still considers him family.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
Solomon remembers his father Mintus fondly for his “peaceful pursuits of agriculture,” his commitment to providing his children with an above-average education, and the way he taught his children to be good people and rely on God, since God deeply cares for all His children. Even in the midst of Solomon’s most miserable experiences as a slave, he always remembered his father’s teachings.
Solomon asserts his Christian faith, which was instilled in him by his father. Family and religion commingle in Mintus’s teaching that God loves all people, just as a father loves his children. Throughout the narrative, Solomon finds comfort and strength in God and his family.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Recounting the rest of his childhood, Solomon writes that when he wasn’t working on the farm in Fort Edward, New York where his father worked or studying, he spent his time playing the violin. Playing the violin was “the ruling passion” of his childhood and later, as a slave, it was his source of comfort, happiness, and distraction from his suffering.
Solomon establishes himself as a musician with a deep appreciation for music as art. In this way, he finds common ground with his white Northern readership to show them that he is just as intelligent, sensitive, and talented as they might be.
Themes
The Power of Music Theme Icon
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Solomon briefly recounts his young adult life. He married a beautiful girl of mixed race named Anne in 1829. The pair spent their early years of marriage working several jobs in order to afford their own home. One of Solomon’s jobs is raft-making, which later in his life (and later in the narrative) allows him to “render profitable services to a worthy master.” During other seasons, Solomon works as a wood cutter, a farmer, and a fiddler, while Anne’s reputation as an excellent cook earns her high wages at a coffee shop.
This passage reveals that Solomon is a master of all trades who learns quickly and enjoys working with his hands—traits that will be critical to his survival later in the narrative. Solomon’s wide variety of jobs also illustrates his dedication to providing for his family, just as his father did for him.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
The Power of Music Theme Icon
Solomon and Anne move to Saratoga Springs in New York State in 1834, where Solomon works on the railroad and at the United States Hotel. During this time, Solomon forms a close relationship with two shop owners, Cephas Parker and William Perry. Solomon then interjects, noting that these two men later proved instrumental in his rescue from slavery. While working at the United States Hotel, Solomon meets several slaves visiting New York with their masters, and all of the slaves secretly confess to him that they long for freedom. Solomon encourages each and every slave he meets to keep a watchful eye for an opportunity to escape.
Although most people probably wouldn’t forge a deep connection with their local shop owners, it’s clear that Solomon treats everyone he meets almost like family. He is also steadfast in his anti-slavery convictions and belief in justice, shown by the way he encourages every slave he meets to escape as soon as they can.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Living in Saratoga Springs, Solomon and Anne live a humble life. They have three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. Solomon writes that his children’s voices “filled our house with gladness” and “were music in our ears.” Solomon is a caring, tender father to his children.
Comparing his children’s voices to music, Solomon shows that his children bring him comfort and joy just as his fiddle does. These memories of small moments, like hearing his children’s voices in the house, give Solomon strength and purpose throughout the narrative.
Themes
Family Theme Icon
The Power of Music Theme Icon
Solomon writes that, thus far in his account of his life, everything has been normal, “nothing but the common hopes, loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, making his humble progress in the world.” However, he warns the reader that what’s to follow is dark and dreadful—like a cloud whose "thick darkness” would soon engulf him.
Once again, Solomon appeals to his white Northern audience by showing them how he is just like them—a hardworking family man who lives a life of love and hope. This is also the first appearance of the cloud, which represents the darkness and evil nature of slavery, blotting out light, joy, justice, and peace.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
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