Summary and Analysis Chapter 12


The North


Ridgeway, wanting to see the underground railroad for himself, orders Cora to lead him and Homer there. Cora guides them to the abandoned station. She asks Ridgeway to undo her shackles so that she can help dig out the entrance, and he agrees. Once the entrance is open, they begin down the stairs, Ridgeway following just behind Cora.

Cora throws herself around Ridgeway and sends both of them tumbling down the stairs. Ridgeway hits his head and breaks both his legs in the fall. Homer follows after them, carrying a lantern, to tend to Ridgeway. Cora crawls onto the handcar, and Ridgeway either can’t see her in the dim light or ignores her.

Seeming to have forgotten that he is chasing Cora, Ridgeway tells Homer he has an idea and asks him to write it down in his journal. As Ridgeway talks to Homer about the “American imperative,” Cora begins pumping the handcar and traveling the track away from her captors.

Cora travels for days in the darkness, first on the car and then by foot, and dreams about Royal. Finally she emerges from the tunnel into an overgrown cave, and from there into the open air. She walks until she reaches a path and sees three wagons traveling west. The driver of the third wagon, an old black man named Ollie, offers her a ride. He tells her they are going to Missouri and from there to California. Cora wonders where this man came from and how far he needed to travel in order to escape his past.


The strategy Cora uses to free herself from Ridgeway is consistent with her character. Back in Georgia, when she destroyed Blake’s doghouse, Cora demonstrated that she was willing to retaliate against oppressors even if doing so created a greater risk for her own life and earned her nothing but revenge in return. Attacking Ridgeway is a physical manifestation of this principle: She wraps herself around him and ensures that both of them will fall, not knowing which of them will suffer the worst of it. The move doesn’t guarantee her freedom, and it might cost her everything—but at least it offers her a chance at retaliation.

Like so many other moments in the novel, this final chapter’s outcome is heavily foreshadowed before it occurs. Because Royal has proposed that Cora might discover where the abandoned tunnel leads, she will have an opportunity to do just that; because Cora has spent her days in Indiana wishing to stop running, she will be forced to run again; and given the chapter’s title, Cora will escape her captors somehow and end up in “the North.” The tone of the writing is not so much suspenseful as inevitable. And this inevitability mimics the way that Cora herself experiences her life. Forces beyond her control have always guided and limited her decisions. She feels powerless to respond to these forces in any other way than by continuing to fight for her own survival.

Despite this inevitability, Cora finally shows something that she has shown very little of in previous chapters: regret. Although she (wisely) has not blamed herself for most of the disasters that have befallen her, she finds herself wishing that she had told Royal she loved him. This, it seems, is the one thing Cora can still control in an otherwise out-of-control world: She chooses whom to love, and she loved Royal. Unlike her fantasies of freedom, which have always been outside her control, Cora’s fantasy of consummating her love with Royal is one that she could have made a reality if she had chosen to do so.

Consistent with the rest of the novel, Cora’s emergence from the tunnel in some ambiguous part of “the North” does not signify the end of her journey. She has not “arrived” at freedom. She is still on the way to somewhere, which is why she finds herself wondering about where the wagon driver has come from and how far he needed to run to escape it. Cora herself hasn’t yet found a home the way Caesar predicted she would—she is still running.

Notice, too, that Cora’s escape from Southern slavery doesn’t signify a complete escape from the evils of the American system. Ridgeway’s comments to Cora in Tennessee and his final words to Homer in this chapter call attention to the American belief in Manifest Destiny. According to this attitude, white Europeans’ occupation of North America and their expulsion of the land’s native inhabitants in the process was “destiny.” This belief is what prompted the westward migration Cora joins at the novel’s close. In this sense, then, Cora still has not escaped the oppressive system that has always determined her life. She will never escape it because no avenue of escape is available.

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