Summary: Chapter 18

Solomon describes the cruelty he and other slaves endured from Epps and Mrs. Epps. When Epps believes that Patsey is having an affair with a nearby plantation owner, he orders Solomon to whip her. Solomon does so to prevent Epps from whipping her even more severely, but eventually tells Epps that he won’t continue. Then, Epps takes the whip and flays the skin from Patsey’s back. When Epps grows tired of whipping her, Solomon carries Patsey to a hut where she lies in agony for days. She eventually recovers, but Solomon believes that her spirit has been broken forever. He observes that Epps’s eldest son has grown up watching his father’s brutal treatment of his slaves, and at only ten or twelve years of age he is indifferent to their suffering. He takes pleasure in riding around the plantation and whipping them, and views Black people as no different than animals. Solomon reflects that it is no wonder that people like Epps grow up to be so cruel when they are raised to treat others in such a way.

Summary: Chapter 19

Epps contracts a carpenter to build a house on his property. Solomon befriends one of the carpenter’s workers, Bass, a white man originally from Canada whom Solomon will later describe as intelligent, honorable, and good-hearted. Bass is known for his unconventional opinions. One day, Solomon overhears Bass arguing with Epps that the institution of slavery is morally wrong and should be abolished. Seeing an opportunity, Solomon approaches Bass and explains that he is a free man who was kidnapped. Solomon and Bass meet at night and write a letter to Solomon’s acquaintances in Saratoga, which Bass promises to mail. They estimate they’ll receive an answer within six weeks. After four weeks, Bass finishes his work and must leave, but he promises to visit the day before Christmas. 

Analysis: Chapters 18–19

The inevitable defeat of Patsey’s spirit is the precipice of hopelessness as a theme in the narrative. Northup takes special care to paint Patsey’s spirit in vivid colors. Here is a woman who would have thrived, and perhaps even have led her people, if not so cruelly held captive as a slave and subjected to endless tortures. Here Northup provides rare insight into his personal views on the institution of slavery, for the most part kept from the journalistic narrative. Northup strategically disarms potential critics by letting brutality speak for itself. Patsey’s treatment allows Northup to achieve two ends at once. One is to point out the destroyed potential in every Black slave, and the second is to show the cycle of cruelty in its glaring examples. Epps’s son’s cruelty proves this point. In argumentative style, Northup labels Epps as a product of his inhumane society who actively passes that cruel nature on to his son in turn. Patsey’s position is hopeless, and she despairs.

Northup introduces Bass Avery in Chapter 19 as if to break the barbaric cycle of cruelty and reintroduce the motif of escape. Avery idly argues the immorality of slavery with Epps, a character who embodies the worst of the institution. The openness of their dialogue, especially in Solomon’s range of hearing, gives Solomon a creeping sense of hope. Until now, Solomon has not encountered any kind of anti-slavery sentiment expressed by any white person on the Red River. This hope, however, must work against the failures of the last twelve years. Solomon has put his faith in others before and faced betrayal and punishment. Yet hope gradually outweighs Solomon’s acquired wariness the more he gets to know Bass Avery. And this time, Solomon’s hope will end in liberty. But the care he must take in approaching Avery is a product of his previous failures and the dreadful retribution of the masters.