Summary and Analysis Chapter 17



Northup now recalls the sad fate of fellow slave Wiley. One night, Wiley sneaks away to another plantation for a social visit. He loses track of time and is late returning. On his way back, Wiley is caught by a roving gang of white patrollers. They whip him severely and return him to Epps, who adds another flogging. In desperation, days later, Wiley runs away for good. To everyone’s surprise, he actually escapes and is not seen for three weeks. He finally returns, carrying a message from Mistress Epps’ uncle asking Edwin Epps not to punish the former runaway. However, Epps inflicts “one of those inhuman floggings to which the poor slave is so often subjected.”

Northup then reflects on the dangers of trying to escape slavery, relating gruesome stories of those he’s known who tried to run. With great contempt he tells of Lew Cheney, a black slave who stoked a rebellion and then betrayed all his black companions. His black followers were rounded up, tortured, and executed in reprisal while Cheney himself was rewarded by his white masters. The chapter ends with commentary on the near hopelessness of a potential slave insurrection, and with a warning that white masters may someday yet be objects of the black slave’s vengeance.


In relating the stories of his fellow slaves, Northup returns to themes of freedom and justice. He emphasizes the innate human desire to be free, particularly when placed in situations of gross injustice. Wiley’s sad story is an example of that. Though generally quiet and obedient, even he has a limit. After being unfairly beaten for a minor offense, the longing for freedom prompts him to escape, for a time, from Epps’ plantation. Sadly, Wiley’s freedom is short-lived, and he is punished cruelly.

In spite of Wiley’s example, Northup himself cannot stop the stirrings for freedom that burn inside him. He writes, “There was not a day throughout the ten years I belonged to Epps that I did not consult with myself upon the prospect of escape.” Still, the many cases of failed attempts at freedom by his peers were enough to temper his actions. Yet the fact that Northup can relate so many examples of slaves risking everything to be free is again proof of Northup’s overall point: Enslavement of other human beings is an unnatural circumstance, as even the lowliest slave longs to be free.

Commenting on the many injustices southern whites have inflicted on their black slave population, Northup appeals to a final, immutable, spiritual law: Justice. In perhaps an eerie prophecy of the coming horrors of the American Civil War, he warns that there will come a day of vengeance when white slave masters will be called to account through suffering akin to that which they’ve inflicted.