In Twelve Years a Slave  by Solomon Northup, how does his portrayal of family life in the south shape his narrative and his critique of slavery? Specifically, how does his portrayal of women...

In Twelve Years a Slave  by Solomon Northup, how does his portrayal of family life in the south shape his narrative and his critique of slavery? Specifically, how does his portrayal of women (particularly Patsy and Mrs. Eppes) shape his critique of slavery?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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While Northup's work repudiates the "peculiar institution" of slavery, its critique exists on different levels.  One particular aspect exists in how the institution of slavery denies humanity to those who come into contact with it.  Northup shows this in his portrayal of family life in both White culture and in the culture of Africans who were held as slaves.

Northup's work displays how slave owners did not honor family bonds between slaves.  Northup's capture reflects this.  It makes no difference to his captors that he is both a free man and that he has a family who is being abandoned. This shows how slavery degrades the bonds between family members in its lack of acknowledgement of such connection. Northup shows slavery to continue this degradation in terms of how slaves interact with one another.  Solomon is placed in charge of punishing other slaves.  Northup's inclusion of this detail shows how little in way of emotional fortification that the institution of slavery generated.  Slaves were not allowed to show anything in way of solidarity or even compassion towards one another.  Northup has to subvert this by perfecting a means of "whipping" that makes it look like he is whipping the slaves, when in actuality it is not.  Developing survival techniques become essential for the life of a slave because the acknowledgement of human connections could result in savage brutality or even death.  This is a condition that Northup critiques in his narrative.

Northup's critique of slavery is one which human emotions are not able to be authenticated.  This is seen in how slave owners disregard the emotional bonds between slave family members.  For example, Eliza is shown to love her children despite the institution of slavery into which she and her family have been forced:  "Then would she commence weeping again—kissing the sleeping children—talking first to one, then to the other, as they lay in their unconscious slumbers, with their heads upon her lap."  When Eliza is forced to see her children sold off, it becomes one of the most stinging indictments of slavery:

The same man also purchased Randall. The little fellow was made to jump, and run across the floor,  and perform many other feats, exhibiting his activity and condition. All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She besought the man not to buy him, unless he also bought her self and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived.

Northup's critique of slavery is definite and pronounced.  It is an institution that would willingly and openly barter for a human being over the cries of a mother's sorrow.  This is enhanced when the purchase is made:

The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her...  Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously not to separate the three. 

Northup's critique is pointed with language such as "She kept on begging" and how she "shrunk before him" as a result of Eliza's family being broken up. Northup's rationale for including this is to show the truly dehumanizing effect of slavery.

The withering of bonds between humanity is shown to impact both Blacks and Whites.  Northup's account displays how a significant horror of slavery was how it dehumanized both races as its evil became replicated. Attacker and target are both victimized by the dehumanization of slavery.  Mrs. Epps and Patsey both reflect this.  They are both women who are victimized by the same man. Epps disrespects his wife through his lustful affairs with Patsey, who in turn is victimized by a man who has power over her:

If she uttered a word in opposition to her master's will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection; if she was not watchful when about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood, or a broken bottle perhaps, hurled from her mistress' hand, would smite her unexpectedly in the face. The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort of her life.

At the same time, Mrs. Epps fails to recognize that her own husband is the cause of her unhappiness. Rather, she projects her own pain and hurt onto Patsey.  Northup's reflection speaks to how slavery dehumanizes both the victim and perpetrator, as Mrs. Epps lacks moral judgment to deliver justice upon that who does her wrong.  Instead, she targets Patsey with all of her wrath:

As surely as he came from Holmesville, elated with liquor—and it was often in those days—he would whip her, merely to gratify the mistress; would  punish her to an extent almost beyond endurance, for an offence of which he himself was the sole and irresistible cause. In his sober moments he could not always be prevailed upon to indulge his wife's insatiable thirst for vengeance.

The emotional degradation that is intrinsic to slavery extends to all family members.  Slaves are not able to cherish family bonds and emotional contact. At the same time, Northup's work speaks to how Whites who owned slaves found their own emotional compass degraded as a result of their interaction with slavery.  Women like Patsey and Mrs. Epps are victims to the institution of slavery.  The former's voice is silenced by it and the latter has lost her sense of moral righteousness as a result of it.  Slavery is shown to be "peculiar" in how its evil infects both perpetrator and target.  It is in this light where Northup's critique of slavery acquires both political and moral dimensions.

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