The novel jumps back in time. In a series of diary entries, starting in January 1796, Sanders Senior relates his life on the plantation. Ever since the death of his wife, Caroline, five years ago, he has felt bored, lonely, and convinced that no one will ever be able to replace her. He refuses to tell his son, Sanders Junior, how his mother died, although Sanders Senior does tell his son that she is in heaven. Sanders Senior admires the slave Whitechapel’s skill, knowledge, and hardworking attitude, but this does not keep him from treating his slaves severely, which Mr. Whitechapel often criticizes.
Sanders Senior’s longing for his wife and general feelings of dissatisfaction set the foundation for his frustration, which later translates into aggressive behavior, such as his sexual violence against Cook. The overseer’s brutal attitude can also be understood as a reflection of his disdain for slaves, whom he does not consider worthy of fair treatment. Mr. Whitechapel, by contrast, seems at least minimally committed to ensuring that his slaves are treated with respect.
Sanders Senior believes that slaves are cattle and should not be given more food, despite Mr. Whitechapel’s new orders. After a few female slaves die on the plantation, he needs to find new slaves and decides to look for a fifteen-year-old girl at the market. He ultimately chooses a woman (later called Cook) who looks about twenty-two, despite her claim to be fifteen, and is satisfied with her work on the plantation. He notes that Whitechapel also likes her very much.
The mention of the slave market highlights the extent to which slaves are considered economic commodities, capable of being sold and bought against their will, instead of being respected as dignified human beings. Cook’s name also highlights that Sanders Senior only sees her as a person meant to exercise a given function, not as an individual whose identity is separate from her tasks on the plantation.
Sanders Senior tells Sanders Junior that slaves are intellectually inferior. When his son replies that Whitechapel can tie a knot that his father cannot replicate, Sanders Senior considers this a joke but concludes that Whitechapel’s knot-tying ability is not a sign of intelligence. His son then wonders about the reasons for the difference in people’s skin colors: specifically, why slaves are “dark” while his father and he are “bright”—a word choice that amuses Sanders Senior.
When Sanders Senior’s normal cook gets sick, he decides to use the new girl (Cook) in the kitchen, who turns out to be a wonderful cook. He decides to give her a permanent position as cook and caretaker of his child, and she seems relieved to escape the hard work in the fields. Despite Sanders’s frequent dreams about his dead wife, Caroline, he realizes that he feels attracted to Cook but that, at the same time, Whitechapel has become a good friend of hers, which seems to indicate romantic interest. He jokes to himself about Whitechapel’s twelve daughters, which he believes are the cause of his wife’s death, and concludes that the slave should contain his sexual ardor.
Cook’s relief at changing tasks reveals the harrowing conditions that slaves endure in the fields, where most of them spend their lives doing draining work. At the same time, this change places Cook under a new (and possibly more direct) threat: her vulnerability to Sanders Senior’s actions. The possibly violent danger of Sanders Senior’s attraction to Cook derives from the evident power dynamics at play in this relationship, as well as the potentially volatile situation between Whitechapel and him, which seems to involve romantic rivalry.
When Sanders Senior is caught beating a slave, Mr. Whitechapel reprimands him, which irritates the overseer. On Sanders Junior’s birthday, which is also the anniversary of Caroline’s death, Sanders Senior can smell what Cook has baked in the kitchen and realizes that it reminds him of his wife. Later, when Whitechapel asks Mr. Whitechapel if he can marry Cook, Sanders feels resentful, as he believes she will soon be pregnant and thus less useful to him. He says that Whitechapel should simply use one of his daughters for sexual comfort instead.
The fact that Sanders Junior’s birthday is on the same day as his mother’s death anticipates Sanders Senior’s later revelation that Caroline died giving birth to the boy. Sanders Senior’s anger at Whitechapel and Cook’s marriage possibly hides sexual jealousy more than a mere concern with the running of his house. The overseer’s mention of incest as a potentially acceptable practice only highlights his lack of morals and empathy.
A few days later, Sanders Senior scolds Cook for answering one of Sanders Junior’s questions about death, while Whitechapel teaches him to click his heels, which annoys his father greatly. Meanwhile, Sanders Senior continues to dream about Caroline and, at the same time, feels increasingly attracted to Cook. He decides to postpone Whitechapel’s marriage because he still has not found a replacement cook—a decision to which Whitechapel reacts with his usual smile, which impresses Sanders in its capacity to disguise any potential feeling of impatience or anger.
Sanders Senior’s irritation at Cook and Whitechapel’s actions reveals that he believes slaves should never overstep the basic functions they are meant to perform, even if their actions bring joy and amusement to the overseer’s very son. Sanders Senior’s postponement of Whitechapel’s marriage highlights the rivalry between the two men. It foreshadows danger, as it remains ambiguous whether the overseer’s attraction for the young slave influenced his decision.
When Sanders Senior and Mr. Whitechapel go to the market to look for a new slave, they discuss Abolitionists’ increasing protests. Sanders makes a joke about the fact that they do not need Abolitionists on Mr. Whitechapel’s plantation, since slaves are treated well there. This makes Mr. Whitechapel laugh so hard that Sanders thinks he is overreacting, as the joke was not that funny.
The mention of Abolitionists sets this story in its greater political and geographic context. It shows that, beyond the microcosm of Mr. Whitechapel’s plantation, political activists are fighting against racism and trying to put an end to slavery. Even though Mr. Whitechapel benefits from slavery, his laughter implies that he might be willing to accept that Abolitionism is not an unreasonable, terrifying threat.
After the visit to the market fails to bring a new slave on the plantation, Sanders Senior finds excuses to invite Cook to his room. On one occasion, he scolds her for once again talking to Sanders Junior about issues unrelated to her position and, as a punishment, slaps her, which makes her cry. To apologize, he holds her against him, thinking she might actually be fifteen after all. However, he soon begins to feel sexual desire and tells her to leave. The thought of her keeps him awake at night. Whitechapel later asks Sanders if he has succeeded in finding a new cook, and the overseer sarcastically replies by asking him if he thinks he might be better at finding a slave himself, to which Whitechapel replies with his usual smile, once again impressing Sanders with his impassivity.
Sanders Senior’s violent action toward Cook is as irrational and disproportionate as his subsequent reaction (hugging her forcefully) is sexually inappropriate. Both actions show how Cook is vulnerable to the overseer’s whims, which makes her a constant, potential victim of abuse. By contrast, Whitechapel’s smile reveals his emotional complexity and capacity to resist authority, as he is capable of using an external symbol of obedience (smiling respectfully) as a form of resistance, showing that the overseer’s decisions will not be able to provoke him.
On Christmas Eve, a time that reminds Sanders Senior of Caroline, the overseer grabs Cook, draws her to his bed, and rapes her, seeking to get out of his system what he feels as an uncontrollable sexual urge. To keep her from telling anyone about what has happened, he agrees to let her marry Whitechapel immediately. Despite his fear that Whitechapel might find out about the rape and kill him, Sanders Senior feels reassured by Christmas dinner at Mr. Whitechapel’s house, where he laughs with the master’s family about finding a wife and feels protected.
Sanders Senior’s disdain for his slaves here reaches its peak, as he uses Cook to assuage his sexual urges, thus using his power to dispose of her body as he will. His subsequent fear that his authority on the plantation might not protect him from violent retribution does not show any sincere remorse or any fear of superior justice. Rather, he is purely moved by practical considerations about his own safety, not by guilt or shame about what he has done.
On the first of January, Whitechapel and Cook get married. Sanders Senior reflects that most slaves on the plantation belong to Whitechapel’s family, and worries about the possibility of mass rebellion. When Cook asks to return to the fields, Sanders refuses but learns that she still has told no one about being raped, which makes him feel relieved. A few days later, though, despite Cook’s fierce efforts to fight him back, Sanders Senior rapes her once again, noting that he only feels relief, not pleasure. He promises her it will not happen again.
Sanders Senior’s fears of mass rebellion do not come true in this story. However, as history later showed, slaves’ desperation to be free did lead to violent revolts. At the same time, the overseer’s fears reveal that he knows that slavery is cruel and unsustainable. In other words, Sanders Seniors knows that his violent actions are unacceptable, as slaves, too, feel the need to be treated in a respectful, dignified way.
The next day, Sanders Senior is summoned to a meeting with Mr. Whitechapel, Whitechapel, and Cook. He knows the meeting will be about the rape and does not attempt to lie, despite his trust that, as a white man, his word would be infinitely more powerful than that of a slave. As retribution for the rape, Mr. Whitechapel forces Sanders to apologize to both Whitechapel and Cook, fines him, and urges him to find a male cook. Sanders wants to hit Cook out of anger but is forced to remain calm.
This episode shows Mr. Whitechapel defending his slaves against the overseer’s violence—a display of justice that appears to reinforce the vision of Mr. Whitechapel as a fair protector of his slaves. This contrasts starkly with the master’s shameful order, after Chapel’s death, to make Whitechapel apologize to Sanders Junior, who hit the old slave. In other words, Mr. Whitechapel is a highly imperfect guarantor of justice.
One day, Sanders Senior is once again convened to Mr. Whitechapel’s house, as Cook has revealed that she lost her virginity to him when he raped her the first time. Whitechapel is furious and no longer smiling. Whitechapel, it seems, now wants to abandon Cook, but Mr. Whitechapel has convinced him to stay with her. A month later, Cook discovers that she is pregnant. While Sanders hopes that it might be Whitechapel’s child, Whitechapel believes it probably belongs to Sanders. Whitechapel ultimately decides to stay with Cook because he loves her and does not want to leave her.
Whitechapel’s hesitation about leaving Cook undermines his moral dignity, as it shows him willing to blame the victim for her rape and to consider her less worthy of his love and care. In this situation, he proves just as oppressive as Sanders Senior himself, as he evaluates Cook not in terms of the young woman’s innocence and dignity, but only in terms of his self-interest. Whitechapel’s capacity to change his mind, though, reveals his intelligence and his capacity—at least in this situation—to overcome rigid societal expectations.
Over the next few months, Sanders Senior keeps on refusing to tell Sanders Junior about Caroline’s death, and Sanders Senior also makes fun of his son’s aspirations to become a scientist or a philosopher. In the meantime, Whitechapel seems genuinely happy about Cook’s pregnancy.
Whitechapel’s joy at his wife’s pregnancy shows that he has put the past behind them and is willing to invest all his energy in building a new family. At the same time, Sanders Senior’s derogatory attitude toward Sanders Junior foreshadows Whitechapel’s own disregard for Chapel’s desire for intellectual elevation and freedom.
Disaster strikes when a slave runs away, and Mr. Whitechapel removes some of the slaves’ privileges. Famished and desperate, the runaway finally returns to the plantation after hiding for days. He receives two hundred lashes, faints twice during the punishment, and Mr. Whitechapel uses this occasion to make his slaves promise their loyalty to him. In the evening, the master and his family celebrate the slave’s return, although the slave dies a few days later of a fever. Mr. Whitechapel seems worried that the slave’s wounds might have caused his death, but Sanders Senior finds this idea ridiculous.
Despite Mr. Whitechapel’s professed dislike for violence on the plantation, he celebrates whipping a slave for running away. This shows that his rejection of certain forms of punishment is only based on his consideration of practical matters, such as how effective the punishment will be at dissuading rebellion. At the same time, his concern about the slave’s death shows that he did not intend to kill him—and, therefore, that his use of the whip was a form of the extreme violence he despises.
Sanders Senior finally tells Sanders Junior that his mother, Caroline, died in childbirth, which upsets the boy terribly. In September, Cook gives birth to a son (Chapel) whose skin is dark but whom Sanders finds looks exactly like his own son. Sanders tells Whitechapel to give his son the same name, since Whitechapel will raise him as his own son. Whitechapel is overjoyed, which makes Sanders reflect that his emotions are very similar to white people’s.
Sanders Senior’s surprise at Whitechapel’s emotion shows that he truly had not previously entertained the idea that black slaves are just as fully human as white people. This reveals the prevalence of racist ideas in society, which men like Sanders Senior take for granted, even though they do not provide an accurate description of reality.
Meanwhile, after rumors begin to spread about Sanders Senior’s role in Cook’s pregnancy, Mr. Whitechapel furiously orders the overseer to find a wife to quell the rumors. Sanders obeys the master and gets married. When Whitechapel slyly asks him about his new wife, Sanders finds himself unable to imitate the slave’s typical smile and wonders if Whitechapel is secretly laughing at him.
Sanders Senior’s forced marriage shows that he, too, is vulnerable to the master’s orders and that he must obey certain forms of justice and punishment. Whitechapel’s questions about the overseer’s new wife shows his capacity to resist authority in sly and subtle ways, within the confines of his role as a slave.