12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 10 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Solomon’s services are no longer needed at Tanner’s plantation, he is returned to Tibeats. He knows that Tibeats will try to kill him at any given moment, so he always keeps one eye on his work and one eye on Tibeats. One day, when Chapin is gone, Tibeats tries to attack Solomon with a hatchet. Solomon knows that if he runs, Tibeats can easily aim for his back. Solomon writes, “I felt as if I had a serpent by the neck, watching the slightest relaxation of my grip, to coil itself round my body, crushing and stinging it to death.”
Solomon compares Tibeats to an aggressive, deadly serpent, which feels reminiscent of Satan transforming into a serpent in the Garden of Eden to trick Eve into sinning. By conflating Tibeats with a serpent, Solomon gestures to the way that slavery—as well as those who perpetuate it—is inherently sinful.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
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In a moment of quick thinking, Solomon kicks Tibeats and snatches the hatchet from his hand. As the two grapple, Solomon thinks, “life is dear to every living thing; the worm that crawls upon the ground will struggle for it.” Solomon nearly suffocates Tibeats, then tosses him aside and begins to run. Terrified and alone, Solomon runs to the far edge of the property and climbs a high fence, which allows him to see the entire plantation spread out before him. Soon, other slaves shout for Solomon to run, and Solomon sees that Tibeats and two other men, along with a pack of vicious dogs, are headed toward him.
Even though there have been times throughout the narrative when Solomon thinks he would rather die than be a slave, this moment shows that he is still filled with determination and grit.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Running toward the swamp, Solomon realizes that he’s never heard of a single slave who escaped from Bayou Boeuf. As he runs, Solomon chokes out a prayer to God, asking for strength. Solomon reaches the Great Pacoudrie Swamp, whose waters erase Solomon’s scent and confuse the dogs. The swamp consists of forty miles of dense swamplands, uninhabited by humans but teeming with alligators, bears, and poisonous snakes.
Solomon turns to God for strength even in the midst of a chaotic, dangerous situation, showing that he is steadfast in his Christian faith. Meanwhile, the swamp is an illustration of the impossibility of escape in Bayou Boeuf—trudging through the swamp seems even more dangerous than staying put with a barbaric master.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
With the dogs no longer on his tracks, Solomon pushes through the swamp, striking the water with a step before each step to make sure he doesn’t accidentally trample a poisonous snake or alligator. By midnight, the swamplands become nearly impenetrable, and Solomon is forced to turn back. He eventually makes it back to the beginning of the Great Pacoudrie Swamp, where he first shook the dogs off of his trail.
Solomon’s description of the swamp serves two purposes. First, it shows the reader how slavery is nearly impossible to escape for slaves in Bayou Boeuf. Secondly, the detailed and accurate description of the landscape functions as evidence that Solomon’s experiences are true—pointing back to his opening statement.
Themes
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He decides to turn north-west, aiming for the Great Pine Forest, where Ford lives. Along the way, he runs into a white man at a small plantation. Solomon knows that because he doesn’t have a pass, the white man will capture him and send him back to Tibeats. He also knows that he looks like a fugitive—his clothes are tattered, and his entire body is coated with mud. Assuming a false air of confidence, Solomon marches up to the white man and asks for directions to Ford’s plantation.
The slave pass system was a means for surveillance that allowed fugitive slaves to be returned to their “rightful owners.” Slaves could only travel outside of the bounds of their master’s plantation with a pass—written permission from their owner, stating the date, who the slave was, and where they were going. Since slaves were usually not taught to read or write, there was little danger in slaves forging such passes.
Themes
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The man, clearly frightened by Solomon (who looks more like an “infernal goblin” than a human), gives him directions and does not demand a pass. Solomon quickly departs, reaching Ford’s home a few hours later. When he arrives, Solomon is in such a sorry state that Mistress Ford hardly recognizes him.
Just like a scared child runs to its father for safety and comfort, Solomon turns to Ford to protect him from Tibeats’ wrath. The fact that Solomon looks like an “infernal goblin” underscores how he must endure inhumane treatment and conditions as a slave.
Themes
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Family Theme Icon
That evening, Ford listens sympathetically to Solomon’s story about fleeing from Tibeats and traveling through the swamp. Ford feeds Solomon and sends him to the cabin to rest. As he sleeps, Solomon dreams of his children.
Once again, Ford acts like a father figure to Solomon by lending him a sympathetic ear, feeding him, and sending him to bed. Ford is the closest thing to family that Solomon has in his current waking life—he can only see his real family in his dreaming life.
Themes
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