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Literature / The Underground Railroad

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"The world may be mean, but people don't have to be, not if they refuse."

The Underground Railroad is a 2016 novel by Colson Whitehead and winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and 2016 National Book Award.

Cora is a third-generation slave on the Randall plantation on one of the sea islands of Georgia. Her life is the life of an American slave: degradation, savagery, misery, despair. Her mother, Mabel, is the only slave to have ever escaped from the Randall plantation, having disappeared when Cora was ten, her fate unknown, leaving Cora all alone.

Cora has been something of a social outcast among the slaves ever since she was orphaned. Her isolation only increases after she intervenes in the caning of a slave named Chester. Soon after that James Randall, the passively evil owner of the plantation, dies, and is succeeded by his much more actively malevolent brother Terrance. Thus, when a slave named Caesar approaches Cora and invites her to make an escape attempt with him, she does. They then go on the Underground Railroad—which in this novel is a literal underground railroad, with locomotives on subterranean tracks, bearing slaves to freedom in the north.


In 2021, the novel was adapted to a Prime Video series, directed by Barry Jenkins and starring Thuso Mbedu as Cora.


  • Alternate History:
    • First there's making the Underground Railroad an actual underground railroad. The book also makes further changes to history for the sake of symbolism. For example, in South Carolina the state is buying slaves from owners and putting them to work, something that didn't happen in real life, The state of North Carolina banned slavery...and also banned all black people.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: The ads for fugitive slaves (real ones from contemporary newspapers) are from all different years, 1820, 1839, etc. The Anachronism Stew further confuses the time period. Some characters in the book live long enough to see World War I, suggesting a time no earlier than the 1840s or 1850s.
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  • Anachronism Stew: Whitehead makes deliberate tweaks to technology. In the book, a building in South Carolina is twelve stories tall and has elevators. In Real Life, buildings that tall weren't constructed until the 1880s. There are also references to forms of surgical birth control that date to around the same time. Slavery, of course, ended in 1865. South Carolina is also essentially running the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which in real life didn't happen until the 1930s.
  • Born into Slavery: Most of the slaves on the Randall plantation, the transatlantic slave trade having been outlawed by this setting (1820).
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Various horrifying tortures are inflicted on slaves. One escaped slave is brought back in a cage, put up in wooden stocks, and then flayed and mutilated for three days before he is burned alive while the other slaves watch.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The South Carolina town where Cora and Caesar settle at the first stop of their journey is initially presented as idyllic: while they are still formally owned (by the state) the black inhabitants are treated as freemen and given decent accommodations and good, paying jobs. Then it is revealed that the black men are used as unwitting guinea pigs for syphilis experiments, while the women are forcibly sterilised.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Ridgeway the brutal slavecatcher carries the severed heads of two slaves in a bag to prove that he did in fact catch them.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Royal, shot three times, dying in Coral's arms as the whites wipe out the farm.
  • Distant Prologue: The first chapter offers a brief summary of the sad life of Cora's grandmother Ajarry, and how she was kidnapped and brought to America, before the rest of the book picks up Cora's story.
  • Droit du Seigneur: Terrance Randall would on occasion visit slaves on their wedding night to rape the wives.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: After all that suffering and death and tragedy, Cora defeats Ridgeway and makes it to freedom in the West in a wagon train.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Cora's spirit and will are demonstrated in a flashback early in the narrative, when, after she was orphaned, a slave named Blake attempted to seize the three square yards of land by her cabin that Cora used for a vegetable garden. Blake builds a doghouse for his dog over the little plot. Cora gets a hatchet and chops the doghouse to the ground.
    • In the TV series, she helps spoonfed and elder and faces the whip while protecting a child.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Racist, cruel and a believer of manifest destiny he may be but Arnold Ridgeway still abhors the idea of actually owning slaves himself (not that that stops him from making a living catching slaves, mind). He genuinely cares for his young ward Homer and he even seems disturbed by the wanton massacre at Valentine.
  • Flashback: Supporting characters Ethel and Caesar both get POV chapters explaining their backstory after they meet ghastly ends.
  • Final Solution: The good folks of North Carolina decided that the thing to do was 1) end slavery and 2) kill all the black people in the state. Any black person found in North Carolina is lynched.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Ridgeway has captured Cora and another escaped slave named Jasper. They stop for lunch. Cora notices that Jasper is not partaking and says "He's not eating." Ridgeway then makes a point of responding "Then it doesn't eat." Afterwards he shows this to be a habit, continually referring to individual slaves as "it".
  • It's Personal: Ridgeway takes particular pleasure in psychologically torturing Cora because he is still angry that he failed to catch Cora's mother Mabel.
    Ridgeway: I take it as a personal injury.
  • Karma Houdini: Fiona is rewarded handsomely for giving away Cora's location in North Carolina.
    • Averted in the TV show where she's physically punished for essentially burning the village in her quest to remove impurities, in a way to demonstrate that she sucked up to a white supremacist society that would never really accept her.
  • Made a Slave: The first chapter recounts how Ajarry was kidnapped by African slaversnote  and taken to America to be a slave.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: It eventually becomes clear that some of the Artistic License – History practiced by Whitehead is to draw a parallel between the slave South and Nazi Germany. South Carolina practices forced sterilization as Nazi Germany did. North Carolina is executing the Final Solution, as Nazi Germany did.
  • Perspective Flip: Caesar's single POV chapter, a flashback in the latter half of the book, recounts from his POV his decision to ask Cora to come with him on the escape.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Most of the book follows Cora but a few chapters switch to other POV characters. One follows Ridgeway, the slavecatcher chasing Cora, filling in his backstory. One follows a graverobber providing corpses to medical schools—his signficance to the narrative is not spelled out but it seems likely he robbed the corpse of Caesar. One follows Ethel, a relucant helper on the Underground Railroad, revealing that she is a closeted lesbian deeply unhappy with her life.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Brutal whippings are a common form of punishment. Cora is viciously flogged for stepping in and taking the blow when Terrance canes a young slave named Chester.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: James Randall was already a terrible person but his brother and successor Terrance is so much worse it prompts Cora to run away.
  • Underground Railroad: A literal railroad, underground, ferrying slaves to freedom.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • To demonstrate that some encounters will tragically go their separate paths, Cora never finds out that Fanny Briggs, her attic companion, for sure survives the fire. When Fanny Briggs survives and reaches a train, she wants to reunite with Cora but the audience knows that's a slim chance.


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