The Juxtaposition of Beauty and Brutality in Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave

During an interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Steve McQueen commented on the juxtaposition between beauty and horror in his film adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave (2013). I have written about this before in regards to the scene where Tibeats attempts to lynch Nortup. Today, I want to expand upon that discussion some more, especially after recently rereading Northup’s narrative. This time around, I noticed specific passages that present the landscape of central and south Louisiana as beautiful while the specter of slavery and brutality lurks just beneath the surface.

Speaking with McQueen in 2013, Gates asked the director to “[t]alk about the tension between portraying the South as beautiful and conveying the horrors of slavery.” McQueen responded with by saying that audiences commented on the beauty of the film, something I noticed the first time I watched it. He says, “People have said to me ‘It’s so beautiful,’ and that’s because it is so beautiful. Horrific things happen in beautiful places. I can’t put a filter on life. Life is perverse.”

spanish-moss

McQueen brings a visual image to this stark juxtaposition; however, the conflicting beauty and horror manifest themselves again and again in the written narrative from 1853 as well. Most notably, Northup points to the contrast during the scene where Epps calls upon him to whip Patsey for going to Shaw’s Plantation. After Northup flogs her and throws down the whip in disgust, Epps picks it up an continues to scourge Patsey until Northup “thought that she was dying.” As Patsey’s cries fade, Northup shifts our focus to the surrounding landscapes and the accompanying sounds.

Northup notes ” [i]t was the Sabbath of the Lord. The fields smiled in the warm sunlight—the birds chirped merrily amidst the foliage of the trees—peace and happiness seemed to reign everywhere.” Immediately, though, Northup undercuts the serenity of the “warm sunlight” and chirping birds that bring “peace and happiness” with the hate and violence embedded within Epps, his wife, and other witnesses. The landscape produced tranquility “save in the bosoms of Epps and his panting victim and the silent witnesses around him.” Northup’s construction here brings the beauty of the setting face-to-face with the ugliness of the “peculiar institution,” highlighting that even amongst tranquility horror awaits.

In the next sentence, Northup notes the disjuncture between the environment and the actions of Epps, driving his point home: “The tempestuous emotions that were raging there were little in harmony with the calm and quiet beauty of the day.” The “tempestuous emotions” clash with the “calm and quiet beauty,” erupting in a deluge of violence that completely erases any semblance of the innocence that Northup attributes to the landscape at the beginning of the passage.

This scene is not the first time that Northup brings the beauty and violence to the reader’s attention. The word “beauty” appears in three chapter descriptions, In Chapter XII, Northup deploys the beauty and immediately undercuts it with images of oppression and subjugation. For Chapter XII, one of the subheadings reads, “Beauty of the cotton field,” followed by “The slave’s labors.” Northup describes the fields in relation to the purity of fresh snow, saying, “There are few sights more pleasant to the eye, than a wide cotton field when it is in the bloom. It presents an appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, new-fallen snow.” Again, the land appears innocent and devoid of horror.

The very next paragraph, though, reveals the labor intensive process of cultivating and harvesting the cotton field. Northup describes how enslaved individuals would walk down the rows of cotton picking the bolls, leaving some for subsequent groups. He notes the attention a person must take when picking the boll so as not to break the branches off the stalks as well, an act that would cause the branch to stop producing. All of this description seems like normal, agricultural work, except for the fact that Northup makes it clear, from the start of the paragraph, that slaves pick the cotton. The paragraph concludes, though, with the threat of punishment to the “purity” of the scene at the hands of Epps or another master: ” Epps never failed to inflict the severest chastisement on the unlucky servant who, either carelessly or unavoidably, was guilty in the least degree in this respect.” If an enslaved individual broke a branch, left bolls, or in any other way hindered the crop, Epps would inflict punishment, inserting violence into the serene landscape.

northup88The threat of violence entering the landscape is not the only instance of slavery tainting innocence. When Eliza and her children enter Williams’ Slave Pen, Northup describes Emily by noting the young girl’s beauty: “Emily, the child, was seven or eight years old, of light complexion, and with a face of admirable beauty. Her hair fell in curls around her neck, while the style and richness of her dress, and the neatness of her whole appearance indicated she had been brought up in the midst of wealth.” As the daughter of Eliza and their master, Elisha Berry, Emily faces physical and psychological violence because owners desire her not just for her labor in the fields or the house.

At the slave auction in New Orleans, Eliza cries when William Ford wants to buy her but not her children. When Ford realizes this, he offers to buy Emily, but Theophilous Freeman refuses to sell her, telling Ford, that she would eventually fetch a large sum of money when she got older. Northup describes the scene in this manner:

But to [Ford’s] humane proposal Freeman was entirely deaf. He would not sell her then on any account whatever. There were heaps and piles of money to be made of her, he said, when she was a few years older. There were men enough in New-Orleans who would give five thousand dollars for such an extra, handsome, fancy piece as Emily would be, rather than not get her. No, no, he would not sell her then. She was a beauty—a picture—a doll—one of the regular bloods—none of your thick-lipped, bullet-headed, cotton-picking niggers—if she was might he be d–d.

While he does not state it explicitly here, Freeman sees in Emily what Epps sees in Patsey, a slave to use and abuse how he, or her owner, sees fit. This is the violence that awaits the “beauty” of Emily. It is not her fault, far from it. However, what Freeman and whoever purchased Emily saw was not “her” but “it.” Nrothup even slips into this language when Emily pleads with Eliza to take her with her. Northup writes, “screamed the child, as its mother was pushed harshly froward.” Linguistically, the auction house strips Emily or her identity; her beauty becomes nothing more than property, chattel.

The above are only a few examples of where Northup brings beauty and violence together in the narrative; I’m sure there are other instances. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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