12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One day, one of Solomon’s fellow slaves, Wiley, sneaks out at night to visit a friend and returns home late. Without a pass, Wiley is captured by white patrollers and is forcibly returned to Epps, who beats him severely for many days. Wiley decides to run away and slips out in the night without telling his wife. Wiley is missing for three weeks. Just when the other slaves consider him dead, Wiley returns to Epps’ plantation, having been caught by a white patroller. Epps subjects him to yet another “inhuman flogging,” and Wiley never tries to escape again.
It seems that regardless of what Wiley does, Epps punishes him severely for it. Even escaping punishment eventually earns Wiley a more severe punishment. The subtext here is that Epps is intent on whipping his slaves no matter what they do, once again showing that he uses slavery to justify his own barbarity.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Every day, Solomon thinks of ways to escape, but the “thousand obstacles thrown in the way of the flying slave” render it impossible. Solomon does manage to make Epps’ dogs afraid of him by whipping them at night while he hunts for racoons and opossum to eat. Solomon says many slaves are willing to run away and endure whatever later punishment comes upon them just to have a few days of rest.
Solomon knows that the racism that saturates the American South means it is almost impossible for him to run away and restore his own freedom.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
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Related Quotes
Solomon meets a slave named Celeste who escaped from a cruel owner at a neighboring plantation. Celeste’s skin is whiter than that of her owner, and Solomon thinks that a stranger would never guess that she is a slave. For most of the summer, she lives in the swamp near Epps’ plantation, sustained by the small amounts of food that Solomon brings her. Eventually, she is too scared of the wild animals to stay any longer in the swamplands, so she returns to her master.
Solomon points out that Celeste’s skin is lighter than that of her cruel owner, suggesting that sometimes racism and slavery don’t seem to be about skin color as much as they are about human wickedness. The system itself is so arbitrary as to be almost ridiculous if it weren’t the cause of so much suffering.
Themes
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Solomon tells the reader that the year before he arrived in Louisiana, a large number of slaves in the Bayou Boeuf area planned a rebellion under the leadership of a slave named Lew Cheney. When Cheney realized that the rebellion was going to fail, he made himself look innocent by turning in all of his fellow slaves that were involved. Cheney was greatly rewarded by his master, and all of the other slaves involved in the rebellion—even innocent slaves who were merely suspected of being involved—were hanged. Solomon writes that Cheney is still alive but is deeply hated by every slave in the area.
Even though Solomon must frequently lie to stay safe during his enslavement (for example, lying about his identity and where he came from so that no one knows he was free), he is careful to point out that lying to cover up one’s crimes and avoid punishment is immoral. By mentioning that Lew Cheney is still alive, Solomon gestures back to his goal of accurately recording all of the people, places, and events of his slavery to prove that his experiences really happened and to accurately depict the barbarity of slavery.
Themes
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Truth and Justice Theme Icon
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Even though Solomon knows that taking part in a rebellion is fruitless, he knows that one day, there will be “a terrible day of vengeance, when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.”
Solomon implies that slaveholders will one day face severe political and religious consequences and justice will be restored. The “terrible day of vengeance” suggests the Last Judgment when God judges Christians based off of their earthly conduct. This passage also foreshadows the Civil War, which is less of a “terrible day” and more of a terribly bloody four years.
Themes
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