Summary and Analysis
Chapter 9 leaps back in time to describe Caesar’s life on the Randall plantation. After living a comparatively privileged life as a Virginia slave, Caesar was bound to try to escape from the more obviously oppressive Randall plantation—although he had needed Fletcher’s encouragement to put the plan in motion. As Caesar watched Cora from a distance and heard stories about her from other slaves, he became convinced that she had the resolve it would take to escape successfully.
After approaching Cora about his escape plan and being turned down for the first time, Caesar remained confident that she would say yes eventually. While he was waiting for her to agree, Caesar snuck regularly into an abandoned schoolhouse to read from a book that Fletcher had given him. The book, Travels into Several Remote Nations (better known today as Gulliver’s Travels), made Caesar think hopefully about his own journey home with Cora at his side.
Caesar’s comparatively “privileged” upbringing as a Virginia slave offers yet another case study in the dangers of a “liberal” kindness that still tolerates slavery. Compared to his Georgia slave counterparts, Caesar’s young life is charmed. He learns to read, attends far better parties than the Randall slaves, and certainly knows his own birthday. Thus, despite its inhumanity, Virginia slavery looks far more humane than the slavery of the Randall plantation. Yet they are still part of the same slavery system. Being a slave in Virginia makes it possible for Caesar to be sold down to Georgia; having one “humane” master is no guarantee that the next will be equally humane. Virginia slavery is “kindly” compared to Georgia slavery, Caesar observes, because “they didn’t see fit to kill you fast. One thing about the south, it was not patient when it came to killing negroes.” And yet, fast or slow, both states still participate in a system of killing.
The book that Caesar reads as he waits to escape is Gulliver’s Travels, a famous satire by Jonathan Swift about the corruption of government and human nature. The book is meaningful for Caesar because, like the fictional Gulliver, he longs to embark on a journey that ends by finding his way home. And yet, unlike Gulliver, Caesar does not begin from the “home” where he hopes to end, and he has no idea where that home might be. This particular book is also an ironic symbol in the sense that the human corruptness Swift satirizes is, on some level, the same corruptness that has led to Caesar’s enslavement and will ultimately bring about his death.
As with Ethel’s narrative in Chapter 7, Caesar’s words end hopefully, creating a dramatic irony given that readers now know that Caesar will die in South Carolina. Because the language of “going home” is often used in religious circles to describe the journey to the afterlife, this moment in the novel is the one that most strongly implies the possibility of hope after death. And yet, given the otherwise total absence of religious hopefulness in the text, the possible reference to heaven here is nothing more than a passing dismissal. Instead of promoting an optimistic afterlife, Caesar’s hopes come across as naïve, and the text implies that he is sure to be disappointed.