In 12 Years a Slave, author and protagonist Solomon Northup highlights how his violin brought him brief but treasured moments of joy and comfort in the midst of otherwise-horrific situations. He even attributes his physical survival under his most brutal master, Edwin Epps, to his violin. However, Solomon also reveals how the scant joy in his life, music, was perverted by slave dealers and owners.
In the opening pages of his narrative, Solomon writes that the violin has brought him joy and comfort by “beguiling my own thoughts, for many hours, from the painful contemplation of my fate.” During his most excruciating years of servitude, Solomon sees his violin as a faithful friend or family member who brings him comfort. Looking back on his years as a slave, Solomon writes, “I was indebted to my violin, my constant companion…and soother of my sorrows during years of servitude.” Like a true friend, Solomon’s violin celebrates with him in joyful times and comforts him in times of sorrow: “It was my companion—the friend of my bosom—triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad.” When Solomon can’t sleep in the middle of the night because of his misery, his violin “would sing…a song of peace,” like a mother singing a lullaby to her distraught child. In addition, Solomon’s harshest owner, Edwin Epps, occasionally rents Solomon out to other slave owners who need music for their parties. This arrangement allows Solomon “to witness scenes of jollity and mirth” from time to time.
Besides bringing happiness and comfort, music also has a practical purpose because it can aid in survival. During many of Solomon’s years serving Epps, the slaves’ food supply is infested with worms and deemed inedible. Solomon’s violin, his “source of profit,” is what keeps him alive by enabling him to purchase extra, non-contaminated food. In addition, Solomon writes that being able to play his violin at other slave owners’ gatherings “relieved me of many days’ labor in the field…and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master.”
However, like all good things, music can be perverted and used for evil. When Solomon is officially for sale and being examined by potential buyers, one of the slave dealers plays up Solomon’s ability to play the violin so that the slave dealer will make a higher profit. Later, Epps uses Solomon’s ability to play the violin as a source of torture for the other slaves and entertainment for himself. In the middle of the night, a drunken Epps forces the slaves to dance frantically to a “quick-stepping tune” that Solomon plays on the violin. If Solomon doesn’t play fast enough or the other slaves don’t dance fast enough, they are whipped.
In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup illustrates the key role that music played in his life as a slave, praising his violin for the way it brought him comfort, happiness, and survival. In outlining all of the ways that music comforted and helped him, Northup also makes himself more relatable to his white readership, as his deep appreciation of music as an art supports his overarching argument that black people are just as intelligent and human as white people. In addition, by revealing the way music was taken away from him or used to torture him, Northup draws on his readers’ empathy and humanity in order to strengthen their condemnation of slavery and consequent commitment to the Abolitionist Movement.
The Power of Music ThemeTracker
The Power of Music Quotes in 12 Years a Slave
Bent with excessive toil—actually suffering for a little refreshing rest, and feeling rather as if we could cast ourselves upon the earth and weep, many a night in the house of Edwin Epps have his unhappy slaves been made to dance and laugh.
Alas! Had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage. It […] relieved me of many days’ labor in the field […] and oftentimes led me away from the presence of a hard master. […] It was my companion—the friend of my bosom—triumphing loudly when I was joyful, and uttering its soft, melodious consolations when I was sad. Often […] it would sing me a song of peace.