At a Glance
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a runaway slave who travels from state to state on railroad cars physically under the ground of the American South.
Persuaded by a fellow slave named Caesar, Cora escapes from the Georgia plantation where she was born and travels north, riding in the boxcar of a secret underground train. However, the slave catcher Ridgeway is in pursuit, all the more determined to catch her because of his failure to catch her mother when she ran away years before. Ridgeway follows Cora and Caesar to South Carolina, where he captures Caesar. Cora continues alone to North Carolina, where she spends months hiding in an attic before being discovered and captured. Her subsequent journey of escape and capture and escape takes her through Tennessee and Indiana and finally out West, each time riding along the mysterious underground train tracks called “the underground railroad.”
Written by: Colson Whitehead
Type of Work: Fiction
Genre: Antebellum fiction
First Published: 2016
Setting (primary): Georgia
Settings (secondary): Ouidah, Benin; South Carolina; North Carolina; Tennessee; Indiana; Virginia; “the North”
Main Characters: Cora; Caesar; Arnold Ridgeway
Major Thematic Topics: Freedom; the roots of violence; the difficulty of labeling people “good” and “evil”; how the past influences the present; subtle forms of racial oppression
Major Symbols: Cora’s plot of land; the underground railroads; the Declaration of Independence; sterilization; dead bodies; the Bible; Gulliver’s Travels
The three most important aspects of The Underground Railroad: First, The Underground Railroad is unique because of its realistic blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Although what historians now call “the Underground Railroad” happened above ground and rarely involved trains, this book imagines the underground railroad as an actual network of underground tunnels with locomotives running through them. None of the characters ever explain where these tunnels could have come from or how they could exist for so long without being discovered. They are clearly metaphorical rather than literal, making Cora’s story seem a bit fantastical. At the same time, however, other parts of the story are painfully real and true to history. Several of the chapters start with historically accurate announcements of runaway slaves. The lurid violence depicted against fugitive slaves really did occur (and the Civil War did not put an end to this kind of racial violence). Racially motivated forced sterilization, as inhumane as it seems, has also been a part of American history. The blend of fantasy and history forces readers to ponder more carefully the shameful events that occurred—and those that are still occurring—in American race relations.
Second, the novel showcases the damage that can be done by well-intentioned people who think they are being “liberal” and kind. For instance, the less harsh form of slavery that Caesar experiences in Virginia makes many people feel like slavery itself isn’t such a bad institution. Yet this form of slavery still has the power to send Caesar to the Randall plantation, making it part of the same evil as its harsher Georgia counterpart. Ethel considers herself noble and compassionate because she wanted to be a missionary to Africa and because she reads the Bible to Cora. However, she has no interest in Cora’s freedom, and her attitude of racial superiority is part of the same logic that made slavery an accepted part of American society. Throughout the book, examples such as these demonstrate that people who think they are simply “being nice” and are not responsible for the evils of slavery are often still participating in slavery’s continuation.
Third, the book demonstrates the complexity of the boundaries between “good” and “evil.” As Ridgeway points out to Cora, she has killed a white boy, making her a “murderer” in the eyes of the white community. Cora regrets the situation that led to the white boy’s death, but she does not feel guilty: She did what she needed to do to survive. Ridgeway argues that he is motivated by the same survival instinct as Cora. Neither of them is inherently good or evil; both are simply human—and therefore complicated. Of course, Ridgeway’s logic doesn’t hold up, as Cora observes: Ridgeway kills for money or convenience, as well as for survival. But Cora is also baffled by Ridgeway’s kindness to Homer. Ridgeway does not seem to be purely evil, just as Cora does not feel herself to be good. All of the novel’s characters are forced to make moral choices within a system that limits their options, a system that sometimes makes ethics and survival incompatible.