145 pages 4 hours read

Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


The Underground Railroad, a 2016 historical fiction novel by Colson Whitehead, takes place in the early 19th century in Georgia and chronicles the life of protagonist Cora, Ajarry’s grandchild. Interspersed in the narrative are chapters that follow other characters in the same way the beginning of the book depicts Ajarry’s life. These diverse characters—including Cora’s mother Mabel, Caesar, Ethel Wells, and Ridgeway—have meaningful roles in Cora’s story.

The most prominent theme in this book is that Cora’s physical journey to freedom is also emotional and mental. Other themes include the role of memory as well as race and slavery. Even though Cora is a slave in the antebellum South, her bids for freedom from oppression and racism parallel many stories around the world.

Plot Summary

The reader is introduced to Cora as a slave on a Georgia plantation named “Randall” after its masters. Cora’s mother, Mabel, absconded from the plantation when Cora was 10 and has never resurfaced. When Cora is 16 or 17, Caesar, a fellow slave Cora does not know, approaches her with a proposal about running away. Cora, being of shrewd and practical nature, rebuffs the man initially.

Later on, Cora comes to the aid of Chester, a young and innocent slave who has never been beaten. She saves Chester when Terrance Randall, one of the plantation patriarch’s sons, arbitrarily decides to interrupt a slave festival by beating the boy. Cora receives Chester’s blows for him and sustains a star-shaped injury on her head, which will pain her with headaches for the rest of her life. When James Randall, the son in charge of Cora’s side of the plantation, dies, Terrance Randall prepares to take over management of the entire plantation. He keeps a sinister and slightly lascivious watch over Cora, whom he has clearly selected as a unique target of his violent wrath. With this change of events, Cora flees with Caesar.

Caesar arranges an escape plan with a local sympathetic merchant named Fletcher, who is an Underground Railroad operative. He and Cora set out but are surprised by Cora’s friend Lovey, who has decided to surreptitiously follow them. Cora and Caesar allow Lovey to stay with them. However, a group of white pig hunters waylays the trio. During the ensuing altercation, Cora slams a rock into the head of one of the hunters, a 12-year-old boy who has attempted to subdue her. The hunters drag a screaming Lovey away into the woods.

Caesar and Cora resume their flight and eventually make it to the home of Fletcher, who informs them that Lovey’s absence has been noted. Given the mortal wounding of the boy, a large-scale effort to bring Cora and Caesar to “justice” has already begun. Despite this, Fletcher is able to bring Cora and Caesar to an Underground Railroad station. The Underground Railroad is a network of actual locomotives that runs underground and conveys fugitive slaves to various destinations.

Meanwhile, Terrance Randall enlists the services of Ridgeway, a fearsome and notoriously brutal slave catcher whom Old Randall once dispatched to bring Mabel home. A unique animus to track, hunt, and deliver Cora back to Randall propels Ridgeway due to having failed in that mission.

After a ride on the underground locomotive, Cora and Caesar arrive in South Carolina. The state, known for its investment in the “racial uplift” of black people, is unlike anything Cora has ever encountered. She is taught and ministered to by white proctors and doctors, learns how to read, and begins living in a dormitory. However, Sam, the local Underground Railroad operative, soon informs Cora and Caesar that the doctors are performing medical experiments on the black population: injecting men with syphilis, sterilizing women, and planning for the strategic genocide of the ancestral lines that they have deemed most incorrigible.

Then, Ridgeway, hot on the trail, arrives in South Carolina, but Sam cannot reach Caesar at his factory shift on time to warn him. Later, a lynch mob drags Caesar from the jail and tears him apart. By this time, Cora is locked beneath Sam’s home in the Underground Railroad station. When she makes her way to the station’s entrance, she can hear and feel that Sam’s house is burning down.

Cora spends an indeterminate amount of days trapped in the station, until an express line happens to come in, and its conductor picks her up. She is conveyed to North Carolina, where she is reluctantly taken in by a man named Martin Delany. On their way to Martin’s home, Martin bids Cora to look at the Freedom Trail: A road whose trees are heavy with countless maimed and lynched black bodies. Martin has a wife, Ethel, who loathes Cora and predicts that she will get the family killed for harboring a fugitive.

Cora spends about four months locked in the Delany’s attic hatch. North Carolina has become too dangerous to even attempt the covert transport of Cora beyond state lines. From a peephole gouged in the attic hatch, Cora watches the white community of North Carolina undertake a Friday Festival, which consists of speeches by white officials about the dangerous black horde that threatens white life, a coon show, and the climax: the ritualistic lynching of a young black woman named Louisa.

Eventually, the Delany’s Irish house girl informs regulators of her suspicions that they are harboring a fugitive slave, and Cora is hauled out onto the porch. There, she meets Ridgeway, who has unexpectedly discovered his quarry. He takes her away in chains, while the Delanys are lashed to the great oak in the middle of the park that is used for the ritual lynching. The mob descends upon them with rocks.

Ridgeway has assembled a small band, consisting of a white man named Boseman, and a peculiar, 10-year-old black boy named Homer, who wears an immaculate suit and a porkpie hat while loyally serving Ridgeway. The party picks up another runaway slave named Jasper, who refuses to communicate with anyone and instead ceaselessly sings hymns. The party travels through an area of Tennessee that has been badly scorched by a fire. When Ridgeway tires of Jasper’s singing, he shoots him in the face in front of Cora.

Ridgeway then purchases Cora a new dress and marches her, in chains, into a town to have supper. There, she is spotted by a freeman and Underground Railroad operative named Royal. Later, Royal and his partner Red, along with Justin, a runaway they have rescued, ambush Ridgeway’s party. In the ensuing altercation, Red kills Boseman by shooting him in the stomach, and Homer skulks off into the darkness of the woods. The party shackles Ridgeway to the wagon, and Cora lands three kicks to the slave catcher’s face before leaving.

After another ride on the Underground Railroad, Royal brings Cora to Valentine farm in Indiana. John Valentine, a mixed race man who can pass as white, has used his passing privilege to secure the farm and buy nearby land for black farmers. A thriving black community has therefore sprung up on Valentine and the adjacent farms, and Cora finds some of the first true happiness she has ever known there. She reluctantly begins a romance with Royal, and they sleep together once. Royal also takes Cora to an Underground Railroad ghost station nearby. Containing only a handcar and a tunnel too small to hold a locomotive, Royal does not know who made the station and where it goes, but he tells Cora that maybe she can figure it out.

A renowned mixed-race orator named Lander is a prominent presence at Valentine. He is a genius who received his education from a prestigious white institution, and he now travels the country delivering beautiful and powerful abolitionist speeches. During his turn at the lectern during a gathering at Valentine farm, he is shot by a white mob that has come to destroy the farm. Royal jumps up to aid Lander and is immediately shot three times in the back. Before he dies in Cora’s arms, he tells her to go to the station, as she can solve its mystery.

Ridgeway is among the white mob. He and Homer capture Cora. He forces her at gunpoint to lead him to the station, which he does not know is a ghost station. She acquiesces, but then wraps Ridgeway in an embrace on the stairs leading to the station and wrestles him to the bottom. At the end of the altercation, her leg is seriously wounded, and Ridgeway has a bleeding wound in the back of his head and a bone jutting out of his thigh. Homer ministers to him, and Cora operates the handcar to bear herself down the tunnel. She emerges in unknown territory and is picked up by a friendly man named Ollie. This is the last we see of Cora.