Summary: Chapter 5

The brig docks in Virginia, and Solomon befriends an enslaved man named Arthur. Like Solomon, Arthur was a free man and was kidnapped on the street while returning home one night. Solomon and Arthur hatch a plan to take over the ship and sail back to New York. They bring Robert in on their plot, but before they can act, Robert dies of smallpox. A white sailor, John Manning, notices how depressed Solomon seems and asks if he can do anything to help. He brings Solomon a pen, ink, and paper, and Solomon writes a letter to his family explaining his plight. John mails the letter for him, but when it reaches Solomon’s friends in New York, they are unable find out where he’s been taken. When the ship arrives in New Orleans, a slave trader named Theophilus Freeman calls out for a “Platt.” When no one answers, Freeman tells Solomon that his name is now Platt. The kidnapped men, women, and children are taken off the ship and once again placed into a slave pen. 

Summary: Chapter 6

Potential buyers come to examine the captive men, women, and children. Eliza’s son Randall is sold, much to her grief. A man offers to buy Solomon and Eliza, and Eliza begs him to buy her daughter Emily as well so that they can stay together. The man offers to buy Emily, but Freeman says that Emily is not for sale. In a heart-breaking scene, Eliza and Emily are forcibly parted, the mother weeping as her daughter begs her not to go. Solomon reveals that Eliza never sees her children again.

Analysis: Chapters 5–6

Chapter 5 details Solomon’s first of many attempts to secure his freedom as a recurring motif and painfully describes its failure. Arthur’s presence strongly confirms the validity of Solomon’s desire to escape, and the compassionate sailor represents Solomon’s first real chance to contact his family and friends. But when Arthur is freed by companions in New Orleans and Solomon is not, Solomon despairs. And as narrator, Northup can reveal the outcome of his first letter immediately: no one comes to his rescue. Northup describes the depths to which he has sunk at this point but also the fire within him that burns for freedom. This will not be the last time Solomon attempts escape the intolerable condition in which he finds himself.

In heart-wrenching detail, Chapter 6 reports on the auction of Solomon and his fellow detainees, introducing a new thematic element to the story: the chaotic nature of life as a slave. Northup again follows the trails of the others in bondage in exacting detail to let the chaos of their lives speak for itself and to thematically support the power of his own story. Northup’s descriptions are mostly dispassionate and detached to contrast the larger-than-life nightmare he and the others experienced. But inside Northup’s proclamations of objectivity, he clearly aims to infuse his narrative thematically with the simple and terrible truth of his experiences at the whim of an inhumane system. Northup correctly assumes that his audience may have never attended an auction of human beings, and by describing this immoral auction and its tragic results for Eliza, he reveals the inhumane, chaotic nature of life as a slave to his narrative.