Summary and Analysis
A blight of caterpillars destroys the cotton crops of Epps and his neighbors. As a result, Platt is hired out to Judge Turner’s sugar plantation to earn money for Epps. Unlike at cotton picking, Platt is a natural at harvesting sugar cane. In Judge Turner’s service, Platt becomes an overseer of sorts and is given the responsibility of whipping any of his fellow slaves who are deemed to be “standing idle.” He’s also allowed to play his violin for special occasions and given wages for any work done on the Sabbath. With his “Sunday money” and earnings from violin playing, Platt amasses a small, but significant, amount of money. Because of this, he writes, he was “looked upon by my fellows as a millionaire…the wealthiest ‘nigger’ on Bayou Boeuf.”
During this time, Northup risks asking a ship captain to smuggle him back to the North, but the captain declines out of fear. Upon returning to Epps’ farm, Platt finds Patsey hard-pressed between her master’s sexual violence and the jealous hatred of Epps’ wife. Though Epps refuses to sell Patsey, he does indulge his wife’s whim by flogging Patsey when Mistress Epps demands it. Platt can do nothing for Patsey, but he does use his ingenuity to invent fish traps for himself and the other slaves. With these traps in place, the slaves gain a steady source of free, fresh fish to add to their meager diet. Lastly, Northup tells the scandalous tale of a nearby plantation owner who kills a rival and is made into something of a local hero as a result.
Two factors are at work in the events related in Chapter XIV. First, continuing a theme from Chapter XIII, Northup again (perhaps unconsciously) emphasizes how he is both distinct from and better than the common slaves who surround him. Examples of this are plentiful. On Turner’s sugar plantation, he is the best among the slaves at cutting cane. He’s made to take the white man’s place as overseer over the other slaves. He’s given special privileges to play the violin for performances—and allowed to keep his wages. He earns so much “Sunday money” that his fellow slaves call him a millionaire. And he uses his ingenuity to become a benevolent provider of fresh food for his slave companions. All these circumstances work to argue, again, that Solomon Northup doesn’t belong in this sorry state of servitude. Not only is he a free man, he is a talented, intelligent free man—deserving better than what he and his fellow slaves must endure as part of their normal lives.
Second is a return to the moral struggle inherent in slavery. Northup’s examples of Edwin Epps and Mistress Epps reveal a level of moral depravity that is heartbreaking—and which is a direct consequence of the practice of slavery in their home and community. What Northup doesn’t address, at least not directly, is that he himself has become similarly corrupted, at least marginally, by his own forced participation in the slave system. The whip he hates so much in the hands of Edwin Epps is now placed in his own hand without complaint. His moral justification for using it to flog fellow slaves is that he will be whipped if he refuses to whip others. And so he joins in the abuses that slavery demands despite his intimate knowledge of how awful it is and despite his hatred for the cruelty of flogging. When faced with the hardest moral choice, he is unwilling to endure suffering himself in order to avoid causing the suffering of others. His actions are understandable, but not laudable, and he seems to know that. His narrative is filled with detailed descriptions of his accomplishments, yet his role as a tormentor is barely mentioned here, passed over quickly in favor of the tales of his success as the “wealthiest ‘nigger’ on Bayou Boeuf.”
Near the end of this chapter, Northup once again comments on the immorality and brutality of his white masters: “It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him.” What Northup fails to realize, or acknowledge fully, is that in this statement he now speaks of himself, too.