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Solomon becomes very sick soon after beginning work at Epps’s plantation. Before Solomon has recovered, Epps orders him out to the cotton field, but after Solomon proves unskilled at picking cotton, he’s sent to work at the ginhouse instead. Solomon says that Epps is a brutal man who torments his slaves daily, sometimes forcing them to dance for hours at night and whipping them if they dare to stop for rest. Solomon describes an enslaved person’s life as one invariably filled with fear, exhaustion, and suffering. He also goes into detail about a fellow slave named Patsey. Solomon describes Patsey as beautiful, strong, spirited, and lightning-quick at picking cotton. Patsey is the victim of terrible abuse from Epps and his jealous wife; the former rapes and whips her, and the latter takes delight in seeing her suffer. Solomon reveals that Patsey has more than once asked him to take mercy on her and kill her.
The cotton crop on Epps’s plantation has been destroyed by caterpillars, and Solomon and others are sent to work on sugar plantations. Solomon is hired out to a man named Judge Turner, who assigns him the role of “driver” in his sugar house, a role that entails Solomon whipping any slaves who appear idle (if he doesn’t, he’ll be whipped instead). Solomon says that it is the custom in Louisiana that slaves receive compensation for any work they do on Sundays, and that they generally spend the money on basic items like utensils, kettles, knives, ribbons, and tobacco. By playing his violin, Solomon is able to earn seventeen dollars, and he gets satisfaction from counting his money and imagining what he might buy with it.
While Solomon is absent from Epps’s plantation, he learns that Epps has been whipping Patsey with horrible frequency and brutality, partially to satisfy his jealous wife. Solomon is unable to help Patsey, and she suffers terribly. At the end of the chapter, Solomon says that it isn’t a slaveholder’s fault that he’s cruel as much as it is the fault of the society in which slavery flourishes; he describes the institution of slavery as cruel, barbaric, and inhumane.
Northup’s introduction of Patsey, a fellow slave he describes vividly, in Chapter 13 brings Epps’s role as the narrative’s new antagonist further into focus. This time, Epps lusts after Patsey, which sends his jealous wife into rages. Between the two of them, their abuse and torment overwhelm Patsey. When Epps again and again refuses to sell her, Patsey tries to bribe Solomon into killing her in the swamp. She asks Solomon to take her life and end her suffering at the hands of Epps and his wife, but Solomon refuses. Yet Northup the author contemplates the impossibility of her situation and wonders if death would be a better outcome for Patsey than continued abuse at the hands of Epps. Solomon witnesses more brutality from Epps every day, and diligently chronicles the heartbreaking degradation of Patsey’s otherwise bright spirit.
In Chapter 14, Northup’s long and detailed descriptions of his fish and game traps seem almost avoidant, but he cannot escape haunting episodes of Epps’s violence toward Patsey for long and revisits the cruelty of chattel slavery as a major theme in the narrative. Notably at end of this section, Northup muses on the nature of enslavement and cruelty and wonders at the ability of the masters to treat fellow human beings so brutally. This is, in effect, Northup’s first conceptual confrontation with slavery outside the narrative of his earlier life. As author, Northup speaks directly to his audience. He reveals his own ideas on the perpetuation of slavery and inhumanity in almost startling directness. Northup has been slowly developing the theme of slavery’s brutality and here speaks of the continuity of that brutality. He posits that slavery, practiced over time, perpetuates the cruelty of the slave masters. A society which allows for such extreme cruelty, the cruelty dealt to Patsey for example, can only breed more and more cruel personalities in the master’s house.