Twelve Years a Slave (2013 film)

Twelve Years a Slave (2013 film) Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Violin (Symbol)

Solomon is a violinist, and we see his changing relationship to the instrument throughout his life, first as a free man, and then as a slave. In the beginning, the violin symbolizes Solomon's connection to the free world, his ability to make his own money, and to create joy and art for himself and others. When he is given a violin at Ford's plantation, the instrument represents something positive in the midst of the horrible experience of being a slave, but it is still a dimming of Solomon's once completely autonomous and positive relationship to his instrument. Now, he must rely on the charity of his master to give him a violin. He carves the names of his wife and children into the side of it, a way of remembering them and his distance from them.

At Epps' plantation, Solomon uses his violin, but it is to serve Epps' perverse displays of domination in his house. In the middle of the night, Epps makes his slaves dance for him while he and his wife watch; in these moments the violin becomes a symbol for Solomon's servitude and complete subjugation at Epps' plantation. Towards the end of the film, disheartened by life on the plantation, Solomon destroys the violin Ford gave to him. In this moment, the violin represents his spirit being crushed by slavery and all the violence he has seen. It also represents, in a complicated way, Solomon's refusal of his masters' patronage.

Nature (Motif)

Much of the film is set in the South on lush plantations. While the narrative is often about the disturbing and horrifying potential for human evil and violence, director Steve McQueen often shows the viewer the natural world surrounding the plantation. We see beautiful sunsets, haunting weeping willows, thick forests. These images of nature serve as a backdrop to the action, a jarring contrast to the nightmares of plantation living.

Solomon left hanging (Symbol)

Tibeats, one of the white workers on Ford's plantation, develops a strong disliking for Solomon, and hates him so much that he becomes set on killing him. At one point, he begins to hang Solomon from a tree as a way of killing him, but not so high that Solomon dies. Chapin chases Tibeats off, but does not cut Solomon down from the tree. He hangs there, his feet just touching the ground, and a slave girl brings him some water. The image, of Solomon hanging from the tree without anyone cutting him down is a symbolic image, representing the ways that slavery not only takes away people's humanity, but also takes away others' abilities to provide care for those in need. The other slaves are afraid that if they help Solomon, they will be punished as well, so they are discouraged from cutting him down.

Burning the Letter (Symbol)

At one point, while working on Epps' plantation, Solomon thinks he has found an ally in Armsby, the indentured servant. He convinces Armsby to send a letter to people in Saratoga for him, but Armsby tells Epps about Solomon's plan. After convincing Epps not to punish him by suggesting that Armsby is lying, Solomon must burn the letter that he intended to send, a symbol of his dashed hopes of freedom, and the ways that his education and communicative abilities must be suppressed to ensure his survival.

Soap (Symbol)

Towards the end of the film, Epps becomes furious with Patsey, imagining that she has traveled to Shaw's plantation to have an affair with Shaw. Patsey protests, insisting that she went there for soap, since Mistress Epps will not give her soap and she wants to keep herself clean. Epps does not believe her, even though she is holding the soap, and whips her against a tree. After the brutal whipping, we see Patsey's soap on the ground at the foot of the tree, a symbol for her humiliation, victimhood, and dashed hopes for dignity and self-respect. While she had simply wanted to wash herself, Epps' punishment strips her of her autonomy, eventually knocking both her and her soap—the one object that might make her feel better about herself—to the ground.