Summary: Chapter 15

Solomon describes the intensive work required on a sugar plantation and explains that slaves are given a break only once a year, at Christmas time. He says that they look forward to this celebration all year, and they come together from different plantations to eat, dance, and play music. Solomon reveals that his violin has been a great source of comfort to him during his many years of slavery, allowing him to earn money, make friends, and find moments of peace and respite. 

Summary: Chapter 16

Solomon explains that he wishes to get a letter to his acquaintances in Saratoga, in the hopes that they will deliver papers that prove he is a free man. Solomon is able to steal a sheet of paper and make his own ink, but he has no way of delivering the letter to the post office. Without revealing the letter’s contents, Solomon asks Armsby, the overseer on the plantation next door, if he would mail a letter for him. Armsby agrees, but the next day, Epps confronts Solomon, saying that Armsby told him that Solomon wanted to mail a letter. Solomon denies this, and satisfied with Solomon’s response, Epps leaves. Solomon throws his letter into the fire. He says that rescue is his only source of hope, but his hope is constantly crushed. 

Summary: Chapter 17

Atter Wiley—another slave on Epps’s plantation—attempts to escape, Solomon confesses that he has not gone a day in captivity without thinking about escaping. However, he knows that an escape attempt is likely to get him caught or killed. Solomon dreams of other ways of getting his freedom back, such as the Mexican army invading their land.

Analysis: Chapters 15–17

Northup details the few days’ relief of Christmastime on the plantation at the start of this section to build on the fleeting nature of joy as a motif. Solomon, while enjoying the rest and camaraderie, still holds the celebration in perspective. This is the one day a year in which he can rest and find joy, contrasted to the rest of the year, every single day of unending labor. Here, for the first time since before his capture, Solomon plays his violin in joyful solidarity with his fellows. Setting up the coming scene, the marvelous ability of the slaves to find joy in their despair is lovingly described by a grateful Northup. It is this community, beaten and broken down, that kept him alive through his terrible twelve years’ enslavement. But in tragic style that underscores the inherent tragedy of slavery, the joy cannot last as the dreadful sequence of events in Chapter 16 proves beyond any doubt.

Solomon’s attempted letter to Saratoga returns hopelessness and despair to the narrative as a thematic undercurrent in Solomon’s enslavement. In his letter, he pleads for release from illegal servitude. But his attempt is yet another failure, and Armsby’s betrayal throws Solomon into deep despair. This betrayal contrasts with the joyfulness of the Christmas scenes described just before. All of Solomon’s careful work, acquiring paper, boiling tree sap for ink, and fashioning his own pen from a feather, shows the impossibly steep climb any slave must undertake to gain freedom. Freedom always on his mind, Solomon witnesses another slave’s escape attempt and dreams of it himself, but his narration details his own thinking retrospectively and highlights the despair and hopelessness he was going through at the time.