Summary and Analysis
Upon arriving at Epps’ plantation, Platt is instructed to make an axe handle. He makes a curved one, similar to what he’d known in the North. Epps, used to seeing only straight handles, is surprised and impressed by Platt’s work. Platt then becomes very ill and almost dies before Epps finally calls a doctor to help. After he recovers, Platt is put to work picking cotton in the field—a job to which he is poorly suited. At length, Epps assigns him to other hard labors instead.
Epps is known as a “nigger breaker,” and on his farm, “it was rarely that a day passed without one or more whippings.” Slaves were whipped for falling short of their cotton picking quotas, for breaking a branch in the field, for appearing to be idle in the field, for quarrelling with cabin-mates, and more. When drunk, Epps also had a peculiar habit of rousing his slaves at all times of the night and forcing them to dance for his entertainment. Those who danced too slowly were whipped. Platt was required to play the violin.
Northup finishes this chapter by introducing the other slaves on Epps’ plantation, including Abram, Wiley, Phebe, Bob, Henry, Edward, and Patsey. Patsey is given special attention, described as “a splendid animal,” skillful, industrious, and the best cotton picker of all. She is also the most abused of all Epps’ slaves, a victim of her master’s frequent rapes and the hatred of her master’s wife.
The further Northup progresses in his narrative, the more frequently he finds it necessary to distinguish himself from the “common slave” with whom he has been quartered. This doesn’t appear to be a design for belittling his fellow slaves, but rather an unconscious reminder of his self-worth and status as a free, educated black man from the North.
For example, previously in Chapter VII, Northup highlighted his ingenuity and acclaim for devising a method of logging via waterway. Here in Chapter XIII, he makes a point of telling about his construction of an axe handle. To him, it is important that the handle he created mirrored the design of those commonly used in the North. In his eyes, those curved handles are superior to the rude, straight axe handles used in the South. He takes delight in the fact that even his white master, Edwin Epps, is “forcibly struck with the novelty of the idea” and that his master keeps it in the house as a conversation starter among his friends. In this way, the axe handle serves as a symbol for Northup himself. Although surrounded by non-educated slaves and assumed to be inferior, he, like the curved axe handle, is at heart something much more.
Additionally, though he views his fellow slaves with genuine fondness and even admiration, his depictions of them reinforce an unconscious attempt to distinguish himself as better, or smarter, or somehow more worthy than them. For example, Abram is tall and strong but “enfeebled [in] his mental faculties.” Northup, on the other hand, is educated and intelligent, as his curved axe handle has already demonstrated. Phebe is a “faithless spouse,” while Northup has remained ever true to his absent wife. Even with his fondness for Patsey, Northup refers to her condescendingly as an “animal,” whose intellect is “enshrouded…in utter and everlasting, darkness.” A necessary part of his survival, it seems, was to keep himself emotionally superior to his fellow captives and to distinguish himself as a Northerner deserving of better than the average Southern slave.