In the summer, Solomon comes down with the smallpox but is still forced to work and is punished when he lags. When it is clear that Solomon is nearing death, Epps begrudgingly calls for a doctor, not wanting to lose “an animal worth a thousand dollars.” The doctor instructs Epps to feed Solomon barely enough food to keep him alive.
When he finally calls the doctor, Epps is motivated by money, not by actual care for Solomon’s wellbeing—a sharp contrast from Ford and Mistress Ford.
When Solomon has partially recovered, Epps forces him to return to work and pick cotton for the first time. Solomon ends up being unfit to pick cotton. He is whipped for his meager harvest and is sent instead to chop wood. Other slaves who fail to meet their quota are also whipped. Solomon writes, “It is the literal, unvarnished truth, that the crack of the lash, and the shrieking of slaves, can be heard from dark till bedtime” on Epps’ plantation, regardless of the season. Twenty-five lashes from the whip is “a mere brush,” fifty lashes is standard punishment for breaking a cotton branch, and one hundred lashes is “severe,” though sometimes the count increases to two hundred.
This passage serves as a reminder that Solomon’s underlying purpose in recording his life story is to present his white Northern readers with an accurate depiction of slavery in the South. He also details Epps’ punishment system to show that Epps is so barbaric that he considers twenty-five lashes to be just a slap on the wrist or “a mere brush.” Solomon seeks to shock and horrify his readers with this “literal, unvarnished truth” so that their antislavery convictions will be strengthened.
Epps frequently stumbles home drunk in the middle of the night, returning from a shooting match in a nearby town called Holmesville. Upon arrival, Epps first breaks dishes and furniture in the house, and then wanders to his slaves’ quarters in search of more amusement. Sometimes he hides in the dark yard to whip unsuspecting slaves when they pass his hiding place. Other times, he decides “there must be a merry-making,” and forces his slaves to dance while Solomon plays the fiddle. Those who dance too slow are whipped. Sometimes Mistress Epps chastises Epps for this, but other times she laughs at “his uproarious pranks.”
Epps makes cruel games out of harming his slaves, showing that barbarism infiltrates every corner of his life, work and leisure alike. This passage also contains one of the first characterizations of Mistress Epps. Although she sometimes scolds her husband for his behavior, she often laughs at Epps’ “uproarious pranks,” which reveals that she, too, uses slavery as a way to justify being cruel to another human.
Epps usually forces the slaves to “dance and laugh” until morning, rendering them so weary that all they want to do is crumple to the ground and weep. Despite being kept up so late with Epps’ antics, the slaves are still required to begin their labor at the crack of dawn. On these mornings, Epps is crueler than usual.
Solomon writes that Epps “is a man in whose heart the quality of kindness or of justice is not found.” He has a “rough, rude energy,” which amplifies his uneducated mind and greedy personality. Epps takes pride in his ability to “break” his slaves, “as a jockey boasts of his skill in managing a refractory horse.” He sees his slaves not as human beings but as “live property” just like his horse and dog, only more expensive. Solomon knows that Epps could have unflinchingly watched his slaves’ tongues ripped out and their bodies roasted over a fire and fed to the dogs, “if it only brought him profit.” Solomon notes that, at the time of his writing, Epps still resides at Bayou Boeuf.
Furthering the comparison between slaves and race horses, Solomon depicts Epps as a jockey who forces his horses into submission. Epps dehumanizes his slaves by considering them “live property” like farm animals. However, Epps’ “rough, rude energy,” glaring insensitivity, and inhumanity actually make him seem more like an animal than an intelligent human being.
Epps’ other slaves include Abram, a kindly, aging man who has lost his physical and mental strength; a quiet, middle-aged man named Wiley; his chatty wife, Phebe; her two adult sons from another marriage, Bob and Henry; Wiley and Phebe’s thirteen-year-old son, Edward; and a twenty-three-year-old girl named Patsey. Patsey is incredibly gifted at many things, “and were it not that bondage had enshrouded her intellect in utter and everlasting darkness, [she] would have been chief among ten thousand of her people.”
Solomon highlights how racism and slavery stunt Patsey’s extraordinary potential. He suggests that enslaved people can be just as intelligent, powerful, and successful as their white masters, but that slavery blocks this from happening. By noting how slavery “enshrouded” Patsey’s potential in darkness, Solomon gestures back to his analogy of the thick, dark cloud of slavery from the closing of chapter one.
Although Patsey has a joyful, lighthearted personality, she frequently weeps, suffering the constant punishment of a “licentious master and a jealous mistress.” Epps frequently rapes Patsey, earning her even greater punishment from Mistress Epps, who loves to see Patsey suffer.