12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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12 Years a Slave: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
An old man named O’Niel calls on Epps and asks to buy Solomon—a conversation overheard by Phebe, and quickly relayed to Solomon. Solomon tells Phebe that he hopes O’Niel will buy him, but their conversation is overheard by Mistress Epps, and quickly relayed to Epps. Solomon tells the reader that “nothing will more violently enrage a master […] than the intimation of one of his servants that he would like to leave him.” For this reason, Epps mercilessly whips Solomon.
Once again, slavery is a means for Epps to be cruel toward other humans. Had Epps not known that Solomon wanted O’Niel to buy him, Epps may have gladly sold Solomon for the right price. It seems that Epps purposefully wants Solomon to be unhappy, echoing the time when Freeman refused to sell Eliza’s daughter, Emily, just to ensure the family was separated.
Themes
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Solomon writes that Epps’ aging slave, Abram, is often the recipient of overwhelming cruelty. One day, Solomon returns to his cabin to find Abram lying in a puddle of blood. Abram says that he has been stabbed by their intoxicated master for making a small mistake while spreading cotton. The wound, though not fatal, had to be sewed up by Mistress Epps, who severely reprimanded her husband for his “inhumanity.”
Abram is stabbed for making what should have been an inconsequential mistake, emphasizing that Epps uses the institution of slavery to justify his own violent impulses. It’s interesting that Mistress Epps scolds her husband for his “inhumanity” when she is just as inhumane to Patsey (most clearly seen in the events that are about to unfold).
Themes
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Solomon recounts the cruelest whipping that he ever saw, which was given to Patsey. Epps partakes in “an infernal jubilee over the girl’s miseries,” just like his jealous wife. On Sunday, while the slaves are washing their clothes, Epps calls for Patsey, but she is nowhere to be found. She turns up shortly, explaining that she was visiting her friend Harriet Shaw to get some soap, since Mistress Epps doesn’t give her soap (though she gives it to all the other slaves). Thinking that Patsey instead went to see Harriet Shaw’s white husband, Epps becomes jealous and angry.
Patsey is trapped in an unjust cycle of punishment. Epps and Mistress Epps’ own behavior is always the reason for Patsey’s punishment. Epps’ frequent sexual abuse of Patsey makes Mistress Epps punish Patsey out of jealousy, even though it is Epps’ fault. Similarly, Mistress Epps purposefully and spitefully doesn’t give Patsey soap. When Patsey manages to get soap from a friend (who happens to have a white husband), Epps also punishes Patsey out of jealousy.
Themes
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Epps orders Solomon to secure four stakes into the ground. He forces Patsey to strip and secures her face down by tying her wrists and feet to each stake with rope. Procuring a thick whip, Epps commands Solomon to whip Patsey, and Solomon is forced to oblige. Meanwhile, Mistress Epps “gazes” on the “demoniac exhibition” looking pleased and pitiless. After forty strikes, Solomon refuses to whip Patsey any further. Epps grabs the whip and applies it “with ten-fold greater force” than Solomon had.
Patsey is tied to the stakes by each hand and foot, evoking the image of Jesus being nailed to the cross in each hand and foot. Before being crucified, Jesus was whipped almost to death by the Romans, mirroring Patsey’s inhumane whipping unwillingly administered by Solomon, then gleefully by Epps. This connection between Jesus and Patsey emphasizes that both were unjustly punished by wicked tormenters.
Themes
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Solomon writes that the day Patsey was brutally beaten “was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight,” and “peace and happiness seem[ed] to reign everywhere, save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him.” Solomon can do nothing but think to himself that Epps is a devil who will one day be punished for this sin. After her brutal treatment, Patsey is never the same. She weeps constantly, screams for mercy in her sleep, and dreams of Heaven, which she believes is a place of pure rest.
Solomon shows that Epps’ behavior is sinful and goes against God. Epps corrupts the “Sabbath of the Lord,” which is supposed to be a holy day of rest and worship. Patsey has lived her whole life as a slave, so her understanding of the world and religion stems from what scarce teachings she’s received from her owners or fellow slaves. She seems to have no understanding of Christian doctrine except for the idea of rest that underpins the Sabbath. Since she hasn’t experienced rest in her earthly life, she assumes that Heaven must be pure rest. Even her limited understanding of Christianity provides her with hope.
Themes
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Related Quotes
Young Master Epps, Epps’ ten- or twelve-year-old son, also treats the slaves with extreme cruelty. He enjoys “playing the overseer,” a game in which he rides out into the fields just to whip the slaves. Solomon knows that Epps’ son doesn’t know that “in the eye of the Almighty there is no distinction of color.” Much like his father, Young Master Epps views the slaves as nothing more than animals.
Young Master Epps’ behavior shows that racism is learned from a young age—it is not an idea that humans are born with. It is normal for children to model what their parents say or do, and Young Master Epps does just that when he plays his cruel game. Solomon points out that racism is manmade behavior and is not condoned by God.
Themes
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