12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Solomon explains to the reader that most plantations have an overseer who ensures the slaves are working efficiently. Overseers are armed with pistols, a knife, a whip, and dogs. Solomon says that “the requisite qualifications in an overseer are utter heartlessness, brutality, and cruelty.” Besides an overseer, many plantations have drivers, which are slaves who, on top of their regular responsibilities, are given the task of whipping their fellow slaves for not working fast enough. If the driver fails to whip the other slaves enough, the driver himself is whipped.
The overseer is the embodiment of all of the evil qualities of slavery itself, including “heartlessness, brutality, and cruelty.” The typical overseer is also armed with four different types of weaponry just to oversee the slaves’ work in the fields, pointing to the way that racism serves as a justification for human brutality.
Themes
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Epps enlists Solomon as a driver. Solomon knows that Epps is always watching and will know if Solomon doesn’t use the whip as he is supposed to. To satisfy Epps’ violence while protecting his fellow slaves, Solomon learns how to crack the whip without actually touching any of the slaves, “throwing the lash within a hair’s breadth of the back, the ear, [or] the nose.” The slaves scream in pretend pain at Solomon’s painless lashes, and Epps is satisfied.
Unlike Epps, Solomon refuses to treat the slaves with violence for the sake of violence. Demonstrating his empathy toward his fellow slaves, Solomon manages to restore a little bit of justice (and again shows his resourcefulness) by coming up with a method that protects the slaves and appeases Epps.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
One day, Epps arrives at the fields clearly intoxicated and motions for Patsey to follow him. Patsey begins to cry, “aware of his lewd intentions,” and Solomon whispers for her to continue working. Enraged at Solomon for interfering, Epps grabs Solomon by his shirt and pulls out a pocket knife, prepared to cut Solomon’s throat. Solomon manages to loosen himself out of Epps’ grasp, and Epps chases him around the field, knife in hand.
Once again, Solomon demonstrates his empathy toward his fellow slaves by intervening in Epps’ “lewd intentions” to rape Patsey. Solomon shows the reader the sinfulness and barbarity of slavery by detailing the way he was almost unjustly murdered for opposing his master’s sexual abuse.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
Mistress Epps watches the “half-serious, half-comical maneuvers” from the distance, and Solomon runs to her for protection and tells her what’s going on. Epps, now mostly sober, “attempt[s] to look as innocent as a child.” Mistress Epps screams at her husband, but he accuses Solomon of lying. Solomon is forced to stay silent, since “It is not safe to contradict a master, even by the assertion of a truth.”
Epps’ attempt to murder Solomon is “half-serious, half-comical,” connecting back to when he forced his slaves to dance, spurred by his whip, to satiate his need for violent entertainment. Solomon also shows the reader the danger of telling the truth and standing up for morality in an unjust society such as the American South.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
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Solomon tells the reader that throughout his enslavement, he was constantly on the lookout for an opportunity to write to his friends and family. Nine years into Solomon’s slavery, he finally obtains a single piece of paper when Mistress Epps sends Solomon into town to buy several things, including a stack of paper. Solomon steals a single sheet and hides it under the wooden plank that he sleeps on. After much experimentation, he also discovers how to make his own ink and pen. Solomon writes a lengthy letter to a longtime acquaintance, explaining where he is and asking to be rescued.
Solomon once again proves his resourcefulness, adding ink and pens to his repertoire of other items he has successfully made by hand, including rafts, looms, and fish traps. By emphasizing that it took nine full years before he was able to acquire a single sheet of paper, Solomon shows how slaves are unjustly and intentionally cut off from society and robbed of their ability to communicate with others (especially since most slaves were prohibited from learning to read or write at all).
Themes
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Solomon secretly keeps the letter for a long time, until one day, he finally finds a potential opportunity to send it. A poor white man named Armsby comes to work at Epps’ plantation among the slaves. Solomon tries to befriend him, and eventually asks Armsby if he would mail a letter for him in town. Unsure as to Armsby’s trustworthiness, Solomon doesn’t tell Armsby that the letter is already written or that he managed to find paper. Armsby agrees to send a letter for Solomon and promises to keep it a secret.
Racism and slavery both block Solomon from being able to send a letter on his own, which is why he must enlist help from a white man. Despite his skepticism regarding Armsby’s trustworthiness, Solomon still asks him for help, showing Solomon’s desperation at this point.
Themes
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The next day, Solomon’s suspicions are confirmed. Epps enters Solomon’s cabin, whip in hand, and confronts him about the letter. Solomon pretends to be confused, asking Epps how he could possibly write a letter without ink and paper. Faking innocence, Solomon tells Epps that he doesn’t even have friends to write to. Solomon shifts the blame onto Armsby, calling him a “lying, drunken fellow” who is merely trying to get the slaves in trouble so that Epps will hire him as overseer. Epps believes Solomon’s story, and Armsby is removed from the plantation. With his hopes crushed, Solomon burns the letter in the fire.
This situation illustrates the way that racism limits truth and justice. Epps initially believed Armsby because he is white and assumed Solomon was guilty because he is black. Of course, Solomon did really ask Armsby to send a letter for him, but Epps’ race-based judgment is flawed. This interaction foreshadows a moment at the end of the narrative, when Solomon is judged in court based solely on his skin color and is not given the opportunity to speak the truth because of it.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon