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Twelve Years a Slave : Chapitre 1 (commentaire composé)

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12 Years a Slave

Commentaire composé

Chapitre 1


The text considered here is the first chapter of Twelve years a slave, an autobiographical

novel written by David Wilson in 1853, under the dictation of Solomon Northup, a black man

who lived slavery through southern U.S. during twelve years. It establishes the axis of exposure

of his subject and settles back, as a door towards his real-life experience. This work established a

major turning point of the so-called slavic narratives, autobiographical texts more or less

precise and fictional telling and denouncing the condition of the slaves in America, and often

published after the emancipation of the author. This literary movement had a major impact on

the trigger mechanism of the American Civil War and abolitionist movement, because it

sensitized the readers – in particular of the North – about the inhumanity of this system and the

total contradiction which it carried in it against the fundamental values of the United States. This

work in particular is very representative and considered as one of the most valid historically. The

author did every effort there to bring a maximum of credibility to his reader to make him

thinking, understanding, and reacting.

How does Solomon Northup succeed in establishing, through his incipit, the starting

point of a major work of the anti-slavery fight ?

At first we will analyze the search for credibility established by the author, then we will see

to what extent he creates the beginnings of a closeness between his situation and the reader, to

end on his will to include the audience in the full center of the problem and creating a powerfull


I – Establishment of credibility

• More than just autobiographical works, slave narratives were political tools used to fight

the practice of slavery and push even higher the abolitionism ideals.

→ Necessary to establish credibility, validity.

• The reader quickly knows that the facts will be subjective but sincere. There is no

omniscient point of view. The reality is trully around the words.

→ «I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation [...]»

→ Sincerity, honesty, frankness.

• Solomon also quickly and clearly give his goals : «My object is to give a candid and

truthful statement of facts : to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration...»

• He gives a lot of details : places, dates, names... without pseudonyms nor


→ Ex : the description of his house before he has been kidnapped («the old yellow

building [...] at the southern extremity of Ford Edward village.»)

• Everything (absolutely) is verifiable. He describes each place he worked and visited («myancestors [...] slaves in Rhode Island», «settled at Hoosic, in Rensselaer county»,

«Slyborough [...] in the farm of Clark Northup», «the church yard at Sandy Hill», «Eagle

tavern», «Canada [...] Montreal», «United States Hotel», «Champlain canal», ...),

associated with precise dates («On Christmas day, 1829», «January, 1853», «July 1808»,

«22d day of November, 1829», «winter of 1831-32», «March, 1834», «during the

construction of the Troy and Saratoga railroad»...), and full names («Henry B. Northup

[...] a distinguished counselor», «the farm now owned by Russel Pratt», «Anne Hampton,

a colored girl», «Timothy Eddy [...] a magistrate», «Mr. Baird, proprietor of the Eagle

Tavern», «William Van Nortwick was superintendent», «Dyer Beckwith and a Mr. Bartemy»,

«another contract with Medad Gunn», «Mr. Cephas Parker and Mr. William Perry», ...).

→ Anyone can check the veracity of the facts he relates. He's creating a context of

credibility for his entire story.

• Solomon uses frankness. He's not manichean and doesn't hesitate to say things like the

fact that some masters are good, some are bad, some slaves are good, some are bad, etc.

(«[...] and although at all times [his father was] cherishing the warmest emotions of

kindness, and even of affection towards the family, in whose house he had been a

bondsman [...]»).

→ This kind of attitude creates a powerfull authenticity that would convince the


II – Search for proximity

• Solomon establishes a familiar bond with the audience by sharing his personal life.

→ Talks about his father («my ancestors», «Mintus Northup, my father», ...)

▪ He indicates that he was a slave but when his master died he accessed to freedom.

→ Solomon was born as a free man, in the North.

> This kind of story implies tenderness. A long and difficult road to freedom that

will be broke, as explained by the main title.

▪ He shares the life principles of his father.

→ Talks about his family's history and road (many details about the places they lived and

moved, etc, linked with dates and feelings)

→ Talks about his education (religion, values, work, ...)

→ Talks about his hobbies, and passions : violin, books, with tender terms.

▪ It creates a link of closeness with the audience, the reader has the feeling that he's


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