Summary and Analysis
Chapter 11 jumps back in time to the night Mabel escaped from the Randall plantation. She left Cora behind with an apology to the sleeping girl, carrying a sack of vegetables dug up from her garden.
She remembered how Moses, one of the slave bosses, had been raping her, threatening to rape Cora if Mabel refused him. She wondered how her life would have been different if Grayson, Cora’s father, had lived for more than a few weeks after Cora’s conception. Grayson had optimistically promised that he would buy their freedom—even though Old Randall didn’t allow slaves to buy freedom.
Tired from running, Mabel rested in a swamp. She savored the feeling of being off the plantation, the feeling of freedom. Suddenly she decided that this taste of freedom was enough for now; she needed to return to the plantation to be with Cora. She began journeying back.
She hadn’t gotten far before a cottonmouth snake bit her. As she stumbled onward, she felt the poison killing her. Giving up on making it back to the plantation, she lay down on a patch of moss, said, “Here,” and disappeared into the swamp.
Although Mabel has been absent from the entire novel as a living character, her presence is felt throughout it: Because of Mabel’s legacy, Caesar decides he should invite Cora to run away with him; because of Mabel’s legacy, Cora eventually says yes. Terrance Randall takes Cora’s disappearance more personally because of Mabel, and Ridgeway is far more determined to catch Cora because of Mabel. While Cora is in South Carolina and Indiana, she dedicates herself to trying to find any trace of her mother, and she daydreams about the free life her mother might have finally made for herself in the North.
And yet this legacy that Mabel leaves behind is based on faulty assumptions. Everyone assumes that Mabel escaped successfully and was never caught—which is why she represents such a hopeful figure for Caesar and such a maddening figure for Ridgeway. But in fact, Mabel’s freedom lasted only a few hours. Had the other characters known the truth about Mabel, they would have interpreted her legacy far differently. Caesar wouldn’t have regarded her as a good omen. Ridgeway couldn’t have thought of her as a success story. And Cora herself might not have felt so abandoned, so maddened by her mother’s legacy, if she had known that Mabel was trying to return to her.
Does it matter, then, who the “real” Mabel is? Because of the nature of her death, it’s impossible that anyone other than Mabel herself can know what really happened to her. The legacy she leaves behind is dependent on other people’s perceptions of her, and these perceptions have the power to change people’s actions regardless of whether or not they are based in reality. Thus, the Mabel that is most influential is not the real Mabel but the imagined Mabel.
Then again, it might also be too simplistic to say that the “real” Mabel failed in her efforts as a runaway. On the contrary, when she reached her farthest point away from the Randall plantation, she felt a taste of total freedom. Unlike Cora, who always longs to stop running but never seems able to do so, Mabel had the privilege of choosing for herself precisely where to stop running and sink into the swamp. In that sense, she died a free woman. She would not have chosen this particular freedom for herself, certainly, but as the novel affirms again and again, people caught within an oppressive system have a limited set of choices available to them.
Mabel’s chapter also provides an opportunity to reflect on what it is within an evil system that corrupts people. Mabel’s character study is Moses, a fellow slave who begins raping her and serves as one of the catalysts for her escape. Moses, she remembers, suffered a number of hardships as a slave, but none of these made him “mean.” Instead, it was when he became a boss on the plantation and gained power over other slaves that Moses became a cruel person. Thus, Mabel concludes, people are not inherently evil; when they are caught up in evil systems, they become evil. “Men start off good,” she reflects, “and then the world makes them mean.”