12 Years a Slave

by

Solomon Northrup

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Chains Symbol Analysis

Chains Symbol Icon

The chains in which Solomon finds himself restrained when he first wakes up after being drugged symbolize the near impossibility of escaping slavery. Just as chains are made up of several strong links that make the entire chain unbreakable, so the slave’s life is made up of a complex suite of circumstances that make running away almost impossible, and the bonds of slavery seemingly unbreakable. The barriers facing a slave who hopes to escape are perhaps nowhere clearer than in Solomon’s one attempt at running away: as he flees Tibeats’ murderous rage, Solomon is chased by vicious dogs and men until he reaches a deep and nearly impenetrable swamp (a roadblock for most slaves who are intentionally denied the opportunity to learn how to swim), and surrounded by alligators and poisonous snakes. Thus, Solomon shows that the chains of slavery are not just the literal chains made of iron, but also the complex and interlinked set of conditions that make escape so difficult.

Chains Quotes in 12 Years a Slave

The 12 Years a Slave quotes below all refer to the symbol of Chains. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Graymalkin Media edition of 12 Years a Slave published in 2014.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Then did the idea begin to break upon my mind, at first dim and confused, that I had been kidnapped. There must have been some misapprehension—some unfortunate mistake. It could not be that a free citizen of New-York, who had wronged no man, nor violated any law, should be dealt with thus inhumanly […] I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man.

Related Characters: Solomon Northup (speaker), James Burch, Merrill Brown, Abram Hamilton
Related Symbols: Free papers, Chains
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Though suspicions of Brown and Hamilton were not unfrequent, I could not reconcile myself to the idea that they were instrumental to my imprisonment. Surely they would seek me out—they would deliver me from thraldom. Alas! I had not then learned the measure “man’s inhumanity to man,” nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain.

Related Characters: Solomon Northup (speaker), James Burch, Merrill Brown, Abram Hamilton
Related Symbols: Chains
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

I must toil day after day, endure abuse and taunts and scoffs, sleep on the hard ground, live on the coarsest fare, and not only this, but live the slave of a blood-seeking wretch, of whom I must stand henceforth in continued fear and dread. […] I sighed for liberty; but the bondman’s chain was round me, and could not be shaken off.

Related Characters: Solomon Northup (speaker), John Tibeats
Related Symbols: Chains
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chains Symbol Timeline in 12 Years a Slave

The timeline below shows where the symbol Chains appears in 12 Years a Slave. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
When Solomon wakes up, he finds himself imprisoned by chains in a small, dark room. He tries to remember how he arrived at this place... (full context)
Chapter 3
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
...of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled.” (full context)
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
...came from Georgia. Solomon continues to assert his freedom and demands that Burch remove his chains. Burch screams at Solomon, calling him a liar “and every other profane and vulgar epithet... (full context)
Chapter 9
Racism and Slavery Theme Icon
Truth and Justice Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
...children, when he had less to live for. He longs for freedom, but “the bondman’s chain […] could not be shaken off.” (full context)