12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One year, caterpillars destroy the cotton crop, so Solomon and several others are hired out to a man named Judge Turner to harvest sugar cane. Solomon immediately excels at harvesting sugar cane. Sugar-cane harvesting, like cotton picking, is a time-sensitive process, often requiring the slaves to also work on the Sabbath. However, it is customary in Louisiana for slaves to be allowed to keep whatever they make on Sundays. With this extra money, slaves are able to buy necessities and small luxuries. Solomon makes ten dollars in total by working on Sundays.
The small detail about the Louisiana custom that permits slaves to keep their Sunday earnings is one of many pieces of evidence that Solomon employs to prove to the reader that he truly was a slave in Louisiana for twelve years, and that he has the authority to depict slavery accurately in his narrative.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
During this time, Solomon is also hired out to play the fiddle at a “grand party of whites,” which earns him seventeen dollars. Solomon writes that during this point in his twelve-year enslavement, his violin was his “constant companion,” “source of profit,” and “soother of […] sorrows.” Solomon’s fiddle-playing money makes him rich in the eyes of the other slaves. He finds great joy in planning what he’ll spend his money on, be it shoes, a water pail, or a coat.
Solomon highlights that music has the power to bring joy and comfort even in the midst of severe suffering. Music also has a practical purpose, because it allows him to charm rich, white Southerners at the “grand party of whites” and likely make more money than he could by any other means as a slave.
Themes
The Power of Music Theme Icon
Traveling through a small village on the way back to Epps’ plantation, Solomon catches a glimpse of Tibeats and notices that he looks “seedy” and “out of repair.” Solomon knows that “passion and poor whiskey…have ere laid him on the shelf.”
Solomon’s description of Tibeats implies that karma has finally caught up to him—his erratic, cruel nature has turned him from harsh slave owner to impoverished drunk.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
When Solomon returns to Epps’ plantation, he hears that Patsey has been subjected to crueler-than-usual punishment. Phebe tells Solomon that now, when Epps comes home drunk, he will whip Patsey severely, to Mistress Epps’ delight, “for an offence of which he himself was the sole and irresistible cause.” When sober, Epps usually doesn’t agree to his wife’s requests to beat Patsey.
Epps and his wife clearly enjoy hurting Patsey, once again illustrating how they use racism and slavery justify their wickedness. The offense in question is Epps’ frequent sexual abuse of Patsey, which Epps himself should be getting punished for.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
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Solomon tells the reader that Mistress Epps is “possessed of the devil, jealousy,” when it comes to Patsey, but that she has several good qualities. She is kind to all of the other slaves and feeds them well when Epps is out of town. She is also well educated and dignified.
Solomon outlines all of Mistress Epps’ positive qualities, implying that she might have had a different outlook on slavery had she grown up in the North rather than the South.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
That summer, the slaves’ bacon supply is infested with worms, making it nearly inedible. The slaves’ allowance of bacon is already barely enough to sustain life, so the slaves hunt for racoons and opossum in the swamps. Solomon also manages to construct a fish trap, which he describes in detail. The trap is a great success, allowing Solomon and his fellow slaves to always have fresh fish to eat.
Even when the slaves’ meager food supply goes bad, Epps still doesn’t give them more food, which seems to be yet another instance of him being cruel for the sake of it. Just as Solomon previously succeeded in making rafts and looms for Ford, Solomon also crafts an effective fish trap, showing his resourcefulness.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
One day, a messenger comes running to the Epps plantation, exclaiming that someone was murdered at a nearby plantation belonging to a man named Marshall. Marshall had been negotiating with a man, but “difficulty had arisen” and “high words ensued,” and Marshall killed the man. Marshall was never arrested, and his reputation didn’t suffer—instead, he was more respected “from the fact that the blood of a fellow being was on his soul.”
The man Marshall murders is most likely white, considering the two men were negotiating and possibly doing business. Marshall’s murder of the other man is clearly not justified (mere “difficulty had arisen” in the midst of the negotiation, which sounds fairly minor), but he is ultimately revered by his peers for the bloodshed. Solomon criticizes the way that slave owners praise violence toward other humans.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
Although Epps befriends Marshall to get on his good side, Marshall eventually turns on him too, challenging him to what would be a deadly duel. At the request of Mistress Epps, Epps declines. Solomon notes that, today, Epps and Marshall are intimate friends again. Reflecting on this situation, Solomon writes that the institution of slavery “has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings” of a white man. He notes that there are exceptions, like the gentle and empathetic Ford, but that most slave owners become “brutified and reckless of human life.” Solomon asserts that a slaveholder’s cruelty isn’t his own fault as much as it is “the fault of the system under which he lives.” Slaveholders are cruel because of the “influence of habit[s] and associations” in their environments and upbringings.
In attributing slaveholders’ cruelty to “the system under which he lives,” Solomon highlights that racism is a learned behavior. Slaveholders accept and perpetuate slavery and inhumanity because it comes to seem normal to them. Solomon points out that this is a vicious cycle, because perpetuating the barbaric institution of slavery only makes the slaveholder more “brutified and reckless of human life.” Although slavery is obviously worse for those enslaved, here Solomon makes the point that it is also an evil system for slave-owners, driving them towards brutality.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Solomon points out that although there are kind masters, the institution of slavery is still undoubtedly “cruel, unjust, and barbarous.” He says that many men “discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life.” These men must experience firsthand the misery, brutality, fear, and bondage of a slave.
Solomon’s narrative is meant to challenge the white Northern reader—who may be among those privileged men who “discourse flippantly…the pleasures of slave life” from the comfort of their arm chairs—to internalize the daily, lived barbarity of slavery.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon