Summary and Analysis
Cora has no way of knowing how long she remains trapped underneath Sam’s house in the darkness. As she waits, she worries about what has become of Caesar, wishing the two of them had left South Carolina when they had the chance. A train finally appears but passes Cora without stopping. Cora races after it, yelling, and it stops. The young engineer explains that this stop was not on his schedule: He is only supposed to be testing the railroad lines, not picking up cargo but lets her board. He leaves Cora at an abandoned-looking station in North Carolina.
The station seems to have caved in, and Cora fears that she is trapped underground again. However, a station agent named Martin Wells appears, helping her move aside the rubble and get above ground. Martin is very worried by her presence, saying she shouldn’t be there. Nonetheless, he gets his wagon and transports Cora to his house. On their way, he stops to show her a gruesome trail of dead black bodies called the “Freedom Trail.”
When they reach the Wellses’ home, Cora meets Martin’s wife, Ethel, who angrily declares that Martin will get them killed. They hide Cora in a small nook above the attic, warning her that if anyone overhears her, including their maid, Fiona, all three of them will be reported and killed. From her hiding place, Cora can see out a window to the public park next door. A few days after her arrival, the town holds a festival in the park. The centerpiece of the festival is the hanging of a runaway slave girl, which the whole town watches and cheers.
Cora stays with the Wellses for several months. During this time, Martin comes regularly to talk with Cora, explaining how North Carolina has gradually become a more hostile place for former slaves. Fearing that a high population of blacks will put them at risk of a slave uprising, North Carolina’s inhabitants are now trying to eliminate the black population and rely on white immigrant labor instead. The laws have become increasingly harsh, and nearly every North Carolina town holds public executions such as the ones Cora witnesses, hanging the bodies on display along the Freedom Trail as a warning to others.
During one of their talks, Martin explains to Cora how he became involved in the underground railroad. His father, Donald, had asked on his deathbed that Martin “finish his work.” Donald left a map leading to the underground railroad station, where Martin found his father’s diary and learned that Donald had been an active abolitionist and had established the only underground railroad station in North Carolina. Thus, the timid Martin inherited his father’s abolitionist work against his will.
After a series of “bad omens”—accidentally knocking over a chamber pot, nearly being found by a group of “night riders” searching for runaway slaves, and watching a white family be executed for hiding two black boys—Cora becomes feverish. Martin and Ethel give Fiona a few days off so they can bring Cora down from the attic nook and nurse her back to health. Ethel begins softening to Cora and sits with her for hours reading from the Bible.
Cora is nearly healthy again, but still in bed downstairs, when a group of men declare they want to search the Wellses’ house during the town’s weekly Friday festival. They find Cora inside and drag her out to the crowd, where Martin and Ethel are being held. Fiona announces from the crowd that she knew they were hiding someone and that the reward belongs to her. Ethel tries to absolve herself of guilt, claiming that Martin hid Cora without her knowledge.
Although the crowd wants to execute Cora, Ridgeway appears and insists that he has the legal right to return her to Georgia. As Ridgeway carries off Cora, she sees Martin and Ethel being tied to the hanging tree and stoned to death by the community.
By necessity, the novel is very vague about how the underground railroad system works. Cora’s encounter with the young conductor in this chapter is especially vague: His reasons for being unable to take Cora with him farther, and his decision to leave her at what appears to be an abandoned station, make little sense. Yet this kind of confusion and unfortunate compromise were typical of the historical, figurative Underground Railroad. Historically, being “on the railroad” was not a guarantee of temporary safety—as it seems to be in the novel. As historical realities brush up against the novel’s metaphoric construction, the fault lines within the analogy serve to highlight the complexities of the fugitive slave experience.
Another assumption often made about the historical figures who operated the Underground Railroad is that they were all heroic and selfless, driven solely by their righteous hatred of slavery. However, Martin and Ethel portray a very different side of involvement. They are reluctant participants, drawn in against their will and more interested in personal survival than they are in improving others’ lives. Yet both of them have some measure of kindness as well. They don’t have the heart to turn Cora in. And so, just as they had been passive supporters of slavery in the past, now they become passive resisters.
When Martin describes their role in the underground railroad to Cora, he says that he and his wife are at the mercy of fate. Cora feels no sympathy for him. “You feel like a slave?” she asks. Unlike the Wellses, Cora actually knows what it feels like to have no choice. And yet both Cora and the Wellses feel like victims of circumstance, yielding to necessity without the power to shape the world that gives them impossible choices. The Wellses don’t want to be underground railroad agents any more than Cora wants to be a fugitive slave.
For Cora, one of the impossible choices she faced was killing the white boy during her escape from Georgia. She isn’t proud of killing the boy, but she also doesn’t feel guilty for refusing to give herself up. She recognizes, though, that her actions make her “one of the vengeful monsters” that the people of North Carolina fear so much. Knowing that people such as Cora exist—people who might fight against white violence with violence of their own—the North Carolina government has decided that it is safer to eliminate the African population altogether. And although Cora is far more than a vengeful monster, she also doesn’t deny the accusation. “The whites were right to be afraid,” she thinks. “One day the system would collapse in blood.” Racism has created a system in which violence is both the input and the inevitable output. Cora doesn’t celebrate this reality, but she doesn’t apologize for it either.
A further complication in this chapter’s exploration of ethics is Cora’s arguments with Ethel about the Bible. Ethel, who has grown up believing that the Bible condones slavery, considers the biblical support for slavery unambiguous. Cora also remembers the slave overseer Connelly on the Randall plantation reciting (misquoted) Bible verses as he beat them. But Cora hears what seem like contradictions in the Bible’s message about slavery; there are also places in the Bible where slavery is condemned. Indeed, many abolitionists—including Mr. Fletcher—are against slavery because of their Christian beliefs. Like every other ethical system Cora encounters, “following the Bible” turns out to be a messy ethical goal that can yield different answers.