Religious turmoil that took place in the early modern period had a huge impact on the way people perceived physical pain, and it created a moment that historian Karen Halttunen calls ‘pornography of pain’. This is the guilt pressure that people derive when they see sufferings of others. In the case of Solomon Northup’s award winning narrative, he recounts how he was born as a free person in New York, only to be kidnapped and taken into slavery before being freed and reunited with his family after 12 years (Northup, 2013). There has been a common perception of the moral or religious need to undergo suffering so as to gain redemption. Moreover, attitudes have been steadily but slowly changing towards infliction of pain and suffering. This includes bear baiting, mutilations by whipping, public executions, chopping off ears, branding, and many more, which were taken lightly in the past century but their popularity declined with time as the century progressed.
‘Pornography of pain’ is evident in Northup’s narrative, where he is brutally whipped by James H. Burch, a slave trader based in Washington, after he protests that he is a free man. The notorious trader places Northup in a slave pen that is filled with other slaves. Eliza is one of the slaves to whom Northup relates the sad history in detail. After being handcuffed, slaves are transported in mass using steamboats and cars to Richmond and New Orleans (Northup, 2013). Readers come to learn about the miserable experience at the steamboats, where Northup says that seasickness made them the place, where people were confined to be disgusting and loathsome. Together with other slaves, Northup organizes a mutiny, which becomes unsuccessful after one of the slaves contracts smallpox and later dies.
After Eliza and Northup managed to survive the smallpox epidemic, they are sold to William Ford who is a Baptist preacher. During the winter of 1842, Northup is sold to John Tibeats, a carpenter, who is regarded as hot-tempered and never satisfied. He overworks his slaves starting from very early in the morning until late night. He also inflicts pain on his slaves by whipping them on dubious grounds (12 Years a Slave, 2013). When he tries to subject Northup to the same punishment, Northup fights back and he beats Tibeats until his arm starts to ache. Tibeats gangs up with two associates and they plan to lynch Northup. Luckily, Northup is saved after a kind overseer takes a gun and intervenes since Tibeats is yet to pay the full amount of purchasing Northup.
There are several instances of slave brutality that are portrayed in the film Twelve Years a Slave, where various cases of ‘pornography of pain’ can be depicted. For instance, Northup is attacked by Tibeats using a hatchet but luckily the slave manages to overpower his master. Northup manages to escape from the plantation and in the process he is chased by hounds (12 Years a Slave, 2013). He escapes from the plantation by swimming through the swamp, where he tries to evade alligators and water moccasins. He manages to reach Ford’s plantation and he is lucky since he is protected from torture and harm. Northup is told that Eliza has died as a result of malnourishment and the grief she has suffered after she lost her daughter. Later on, Northup is sold by Tibeats to another slave master known as Edwin Epps. According to Northup, Epps is a ‘coarse and repulsive’ cotton plantation owner who lacks any form of redeeming qualities.
Halttunen has provided several instances, where slave masters derive pleasure when they subject their slaves to tortures and punishment. This guilty pleasure illustrates the dark side of humanitarianism. Torture was a common aspect of slavery, where several people were executed, beheaded or burnt after flimsy accusations by their slave masters. In the past, people lived in an environment, where infliction of pain was profoundly sanctioned and was recognized as part of cultural setting (Northup, 2013). Infliction of pain is a crucial aspect that separates the early modern period from today’s world. Halttunen gives an example of cases, where anesthetics were intrinsically combined with the perception of pain. Revulsion from pain is described by Halttunen as conspicuously modern and natural. Moreover, there is the universal perception that people should suffer for the benefit of their souls, which is only restricted to specific periods, circumstances, places, and individuals.
Halttunen is of the opinion that starting from the 18th century, the ‘pornography of pain’ portrayed pain as obscene due to the fact that the humanitarian society viewed it as a taboo that was unacceptable. In Northup’s narrative, there is a clear description of the kind of life that used to exist on the cotton plantation. Readers are informed about the process of cultivating, planting, and picking cotton. There are also notes about lives of fellow slaves as well as the degree of punishment that was mated for different kinds of offences (Northup, 2013). Northup gives a detailed description of the despair and misery of field-slaves working on the plantations. Just like other narratives written by slaves, Northup’s narrative portrays the wry humor that enabled him to endure his slavery situation.
Northup managed to write several letters to his friends and families while he was still in captivity. The slave narratives were first composed as propaganda tools for abolitionism. Slave narratives were an indication that slaves managed to beat the odds and escape their captivity and learn how to write and read. After escaping from captivity, slaves contacted abolitionists and told them tales about what they had encountered during their bondage. The central theme of Northup’s narrative is extreme violence, where he puts emphasis on the fact that the authority of the slave owner was only maintained by terrorizing the slaves (Northup, 2013). Viewers are able to learn about psychological and physical violence consisting of paddles, whips, stocks, and shackles. Northup says that scenes of brutality and sadistic events were traumatic such that he could still remember them long after time had passed.
‘Pornography of pain’ motivated reform movements of some social reformers and abolitionists as readers are told about several instances of punishment that slaves had to endure. Northup says that he thought he would die beneath the lashes and he cannot compare his suffering to anything else apart from burning in hell. The narrative also brings out the unrelenting and constant hardships that slaves encounter on the plantations (12 Years a Slave, 2013). The labor that Northup endures on the plantations of Louisiana brings out images of shear monotony, exhaustion, and fear, with slaves suffering both psychologically and physically.
Readers are told that slaves are woken up an hour before the start of daylight and they are not allowed to rest until the end of the day. Due to exhaustions, slaves fear that they may oversleep in the morning, a factor that will lead to severe punishment. The imprisonment of slaves had a huge physical and emotional toll and this is the daily life that all the slaves had to go through (Northup, 2013). Readers also learn about the ‘pornography of pain’ in terms of the detailed experiences that slave women were subjected to. Northup gives a detailed explanation of a 23 year old slave known as Patsey, who suffered from a jealous mistress and licentious master. Patsey was abused by her master and this exposed her to jealous wrath of her white mistress. According to Northup, Patsey basically lived a life of torment and fear.
Despite the fact that Patsey was a slave who faithfully worked for the profit of her master, she was made a hapless victim of lust for her master. Instead of the mistress blaming her husband for sexual abuse, she vented her jealous anger on Patsey. Northup says that nothing managed to delight the mistress more than making her female slave to suffer (Northup, 2013). On several occasions, the mistress tried to bribe Northup so that he can kill Patsey and bury her in some lonely region near the swamp. Patsey had to endure psychological torments and sexual terror of her mistress and master. Her story is a clear indication of the kind of slave brutality that was experienced by bondswomen. Sexual exploitation of women slaves was normalized, and this indicates stigmatization and racist perception of black women.
The reason for choosing this prompt is the fact that from the narrative readers are able to learn how Northup was born a free man but was kidnapped illegally and subjected to slavery before reuniting with his family after 12 years. Northup says that nothing makes masters to derive more pleasure than seeing their slaves suffer. Moreover, the authority of slave master is derived depending on the level of punishment that is subjected on his slaves. Social reformers were motivated by the ‘pornography of pain’ to carry out their reform movements, taking into consideration that extreme violence and constant hardships were experienced on the plantations. Both men and women slaves were subjected to constant physical and psychological abuse at the pleasure of their masters.