Summary and Analysis
Arnold Ridgeway, the slave catcher who dedicates himself to finding Cora, has been a slave catcher since age 14. The son of a blacksmith, Ridgeway wanted a career in which he could excel without being trapped in his father’s shadow. The quickly expanding business of slave-catching offered the burly, six-and-a-half-foot-tall Ridgeway a perfect environment to succeed.
After beginning with local slave-catching, Ridgeway traveled north to return escaped slaves. He spent most of his time in New York City, strategizing ways to identify and capture former slaves without being stopped by abolitionists. Ridgeway gained a reputation as both effective and brutal. When Cora’s mother, Mabel, disappeared, Ridgeway was hired but failed to find her. Now he has been hired to find Cora. This new disappearance convinces him that the underground railroad must reach into Georgia. He is determined to find and destroy it.
The system of slavery transforms the landscape of Ridgeway’s ethics the same way it shapes ethics for Cora and her fellow slaves. His initial reason for pursuing a career as a slave catcher has nothing to do with his feelings about slaves; instead, he wants a career where he can make use of his tall, bulky stature, be respected, and make a name for himself apart from his father’s blacksmithing work. Slave-catching turns out to be the most convenient way of achieving this goal.
Many of Ridgeway’s fellow slave catchers are “men of bad character”; as the narrator wryly observes, “In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.” The ethical system implied by the existence of American slavery turns our instincts about ethics on their heads, making these men of bad character seem like upstanding citizens, while runaway slaves are considered criminals.
Yet simply calling Ridgeway “evil” or “immoral” would be too simple of an answer to a complex question. As Ridgeway tells his blacksmith father, they are both “working” for Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin: That is, Whitney’s invention transformed the economy of the American South. Blacksmithing supports and perpetuates this new economic structure, as does slave-catching given that slave labor is the engine of Southern prosperity. If the system itself is evil, then perhaps Ridgeway and his father are equally to blame. If the system is morally neutral, then what makes Ridgeway’s business savvy and obsession with making money any more evil than his father’s?
This is the logic Ridgeway uses to justify his actions. On the one hand, he demonstrates that existing within an evil system makes everyone complicit with that evil. But Ridgeway’s logic also relies on the total dehumanization of African slaves. By regarding his slave-catching business as equivalent to blacksmithing, he necessarily argues that the slaves he captures are equivalent to the pieces of metal his father shapes. As the rest of the novel reveals, Ridgeway consistently treats slaves like objects instead of people; he even refers to them by the impersonal pronoun “it” instead of the personal pronouns “he” or “she.”