The Underground Railroad

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The Underground Railroad Chapter 2: Georgia Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter is preceded by a “runaway ad” from 1820 seeking the capture of an enslaved girl called Lizzie and warning people not to harbor her. The chapter begins with the narrator stating that Jockey (the oldest enslaved person on the plantation) is having a birthday, which comes once or twice a year and always on a Sunday, the slaves’ half-day. Everyone attends the feast except those who have taken extra work. It would not be possible to use Jockey’s birthday as an excuse not to work because “everybody knew niggers didn’t have birthdays.” Normally, Cora contributes something from her garden for the birthday feasts, but there is nothing in the soil today. Cora’s friend Lovey asks which day she would choose if she could pick her birthday. Lovey is a simple young woman who enjoys dancing at the celebration days—birthdays, harvests, and Christmas. Cora doesn’t dance. She replies that she has already told Lovey that she was born in winter, although she doesn’t know the exact date and can only guess that she is about 15. Mabel used to tell Cora about her difficult delivery, in which Mabel almost bled to death. Cora tells Lovey that you can’t pick your birthday, and Lovey replies that she better cheer up.
The celebration days play a complex role in life on the plantation. On one level, they provide rare moments of happiness for the enslaved population. Furthermore, characters like Jockey choose to find a positive aspect within the fact that enslaved people do not know their birthdays (and are even considered not to have them) by randomly choosing “birthdays” that coincide with half-days of work. Lovey is happy to buy into this excuse for a celebration and seize whatever joy she can through dance. Cora, however, has a different relationship to the celebration days. Although the narrator doesn’t say so explicitly, it is clear that Cora finds the celebrations sinister, a way of subduing the enslaved population and suppressing any chance of rebellion.
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With or without a feast, Cora spends every Sunday afternoon tending to her garden. Ajarry used to tend to it, before Randall plantation became as prosperous as it is now. Fourteen new cabins have been built since Ajarry’s time, but it seems like they have been there forever. Just as white settlers “squabble” over land, so do enslaved people fight for small patches of earth to call their own. Mabel tells Cora that Ajarry defended her garden fiercely, threatening to hammer in the head of anyone who “so much as looked at it.” This is hard for Cora to imagine, but she knows it must be true because the garden was passed down to Mabel. When Mabel runs away, Cora becomes a “stray.” Although she is only ten or eleven, she decides to take over tending the garden. Ajarry had been well-respected among the enslaved population at Randall, but now everyone who knew Ajarry is dead, leaving Cora to fend for herself. Eventually, another woman named Ava grows resentful of Cora and strikes a deal to have Cora placed in Hob.
Plants and gardens often symbolize hope and the possibilities that come with new beginnings. Yet it is arguably incorrect to say that Cora’s garden is a hopeful space. After all, there is little hope that Cora will ever escape the plantation and experience freedom and happiness for herself. Rather, the garden is more a symbol of survival, inheritance, and endurance. Three generations of her family have tended to it, and, as the story of Ajarry’s husbands and children shows, the seemingly simple event of something being passed down through three generations of enslaved people is a miracle given the fact that slaves were systematically denied the rights to own property, live with their families, and often even to live.
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Hob is where “the wretched” are exiled—enslaved people who have been “broken” either physically or mentally by the torture of plantation life. At first men lived in Hob, but now it is women, many of whom call out the names of their dead children in the night. Soon, an enslaved man named Old Abraham decides that it isn’t right for Cora to have a small garden for herself. Not long after, a group of men arrive on the plantation, including Blake, an enormous man with a “miserable personality.” Blake decides to tie up his dog in Cora’s garden, and he builds the dog a little hut. Cora attempts to “call in a few debts owed to her mother” in order to get Blake to remove the dog, but everyone she approaches refuses. One morning, Cora wakes up to find her growing cabbages destroyed. The whole community watches to see how she will react. Furious, she takes a hatchet and destroys the doghouse, cutting off half the dog’s tail in the process. Blake approaches her and at first it seems like there will be a conflict. However, the breakfast bell sounds and everyone disperses, not wanting to miss out.
Cora is an exile within the enslaved population of Randall plantation, making her exiled in a double sense: as a black enslaved person in a white supremacist country, and as a stigmatized “Hob woman” in the only community she has ever known. Furthermore, with her grandmother dead and her mother gone, Cora has no one around to look out for her. Cora’s intense isolation makes her already unbearable life on Randall even worse. It also highlights the way in which slavery can drive enslaved people to treat one another in a selfish and vicious way. Life as an enslaved person is so brutal and survival is so difficult that there is often no choice but to look after one’s own interests at the expense of others.
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After this incident, Cora becomes the most “infamous” resident of Hob. While other Hob women are sold or commit suicide, Cora remains. Cora uses Blake’s doghouse to store firewood, while Blake and other people in the community begin telling false stories about Cora that make her seem sinister and insane. Soon after Cora goes through puberty, she is gang-raped by four of the enslaved men on Randall. Three weeks prior, Blake had run away, but then he was caught. Cora might have felt that Blake deserved it, but his punishment was so awful it “made her shiver to think about.”
Being exiled and perceived as “crazy” by the community has both advantages and disadvantages. Cora does not enjoy the protection or friendship of other members of the enslaved community at Randall (save the women of Hob, who are themselves exceptionally vulnerable). On the other hand, Cora’s defiance allows her to store firewood in Blake’s doghouse, and will eventually enable her to dream of running away.
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Back at Jockey’s birthday feast, the cook, Alice, asks Cora if she has brought anything from her garden. Cora tells her it’s too early, and she remembers noticing that last year Alice threw the two cabbages she’d brought into the slop bucket. However, Alice is “beloved” of the Randall family, and thus there is no point in Cora confronting her. James Randall, who runs Cora’s half of the plantation, is rather reserved, but his younger brother, Terrance, is aggressively cruel. There are no feast days permitted on Terrance’s half. Where James is content with the stable profits produced by the plantation, Terrance is always scheming to find ways to make more money, including by growing more and more brutal toward the slaves. Cora sets up the children’s race at Jockey’s feast. She looks out for a boy called Chester, who is also a stray. He is already tall and strong, and Connelly, the overseer, has predicted he will grow up to be “a top picker.” Chester runs fast, but Lovey always chooses her “favorites” as the winners. Cora assures Chester that he almost won.
The social dynamics of the enslaved community on Randall are far from simple. Each person looks out for their own interests, as well as for those they prioritize for one reason or another. While in another context such social dynamics might seem superficial or frivolous, for enslaved people they are essential to survival. This is because, lurking in the background of the lives of the enslaved population are the sinister designs of the Randall brothers and the other bosses. As is made clear in this passage, the behavior of both James and Terrance Randall is motivated by economic interests. Although the brothers possess different attitudes about running their respective halves of the plantation, both choose their approach on financial grounds.
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Cora asks Jockey how old he is, recalling that at his last birthday he claimed to be a hundred. In fact he is only about fifty, but he is still the oldest enslaved person that anyone on Randall has ever met. Cora thinks she must be 16 or 17. It has been one year since Connelly told her to “take a husband,” two since she was raped, and six since Mabel ran away. Since the rape Cora hasn’t received any further attention from men because of her perceived “lunacy.” Jockey is scarred and crippled, but in his old age the white overseers choose to leave him alone. Cora reflects on the fact that it might be her own birthday today without her realizing. While the rest of the crowd drifts off to eat, Caesar lingers and asks if he can talk to Cora. James Randall bought Caesar a year and a half ago; Cora has seen him carving wood and spending time with one of the housemaids. Caesar tells Cora that he is planning on running away to the north and that he wants Cora to come for “good luck.” Cora finds the idea ludicrous, and tells Caesar she isn’t trying to get herself killed.
This scene draws a distinct contrast between the kind of “freedom” Jockey is afforded as an old man and the kind Caesar seeks by running away. Because Jockey’s life is unusually long for an enslaved person, in his old age he is given small permissions, such as being allowed to randomly choose birthdays for himself and to escape the harassment of the white men who run the plantation. However, Jockey’s scars and injuries raise the question of what these minor freedoms actually mean for someone whose entire life has been defined by servitude and brutality. Clearly, Caesar believes that it is better to risk death than to live a long life as an enslaved man. Although Cora feels ambivalent about having a life like Jockey’s, she still at first thinks Caesar is crazy to plan an escape.
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Even after she returns to the rest of the crowd, Cora is still thinking about Caesar’s “idiocy”; their brief conversation is the most that any man has spoken to her since she was moved to Hob. Wrestling matches take place, and Lovey comments that she would like to wrestle with a young man named Major. Following the wrestling comes the dancing, during which time the tensions of the community are eased. Through dance, members of the enslaved population are able to reconnect with one another as people, momentarily disregarding the disputes that arise as a result of the brutality to which they are subjected. Cora doesn’t dance. She is anxious about the possibility of being touched by a man, even one with kind intentions. The music stops. Sometimes enslaved people can lose themselves in a temporary zone of freedom, such as while dancing, before being jerked back to reality.
Dancing is an important and beloved activity for the enslaved population, and thus Cora’s unwillingness to participate further marks her as an outlier exiled from the community. There are several reasons why Cora does not like to dance. As the narrator mentions in this passage, her vulnerability as an unprotected teenage girl and the trauma of her rape make her uneasy about physical contact with men, even in the happy context of dance. Perhaps more fundamentally, however, Cora refuses to participate in an activity that can, however briefly, convince enslaved people that they are free.
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The Randall brothers walk out of the house and into the crowd. The slaves step back and Jockey greets the brothers as “Master James” and “Master Terrance.” Terrance says he doesn’t want to disturb them, but that they heard the music and found it a “god-awful racket.” The brothers are drinking wine from cut glass goblets and seem to be drunk. James doesn’t spend a lot of time on the plantation and he rarely speaks to the slaves. Terrance, however, makes a point of interacting with the slaves and he rapes the women from his half of the plantation, boasting: “I like to taste my plums.” He even sometimes visits newlywed slave couples on their wedding night to rape the bride before the marriage is consummated. James leaves the women of his half alone; James’ valet gossips that James visits a brothel in New Orleans where he likes to be whipped by prostitutes.
Although Terrance is far crueler than James, the behavior of both brothers toward the slave population is governed by perversion. Terrance’s sense of ownership of and entitlement to enslaved people causes him to violate every boundary of respect and decency. He takes sadistic pleasure in raping enslaved women and treating them as objects of his possession. James, meanwhile, seems to be ashamed by (or at least uninterested in) the reality of plantation life. This shame manifests itself in his masochistic desire to be whipped by prostitutes, just as the enslaved people on Randall are also whipped.
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Terrance says he remembers James telling him about an enslaved boy on James’ half of the plantation who could recite the Declaration of Independence. Moses, one of the bosses, informs the brothers that the boy in question, Michael, is dead. Michael had been taught by a former master to recite long passages of text. The master showed Michael off to guests, who would then discuss the unintelligence of black people. When Michael arrived on Randall, he had been mentally incapacitated by some unknown torture, and Connelly beat him to death. James is angry, saying he should have been informed of Michael’s death. He turns to go, but Terrance insists on one more song. Terrance demands that the slaves dance, which they do, performing with vigor and joy that they do not really feel. Suddenly, Terrance roars in anger; Chester has bumped into him and splashed wine on his shirt. Terrance lifts his cane to beat Chester, and at that moment—despite all the unimaginable brutality she has been forced to passively witness over the years—Cora feels a sudden urge to bend over to shield Chester. Terrance beats both of them viciously.
This passage illustrates multiple different myths that define life during the slavery era. Michael’s former master and other white people remain committed to the myth that black people are inherently unintelligent, even when presented with Michael’s skill at memorization. Furthermore, the fact that it Terrance requests to hear the Declaration of Independence is significant. The Declaration is famous as a statement on human rights, which emphasizes equality and liberty. These ideas were directly contradicted, however, by the reality of slavery, which seriously undermines the idea that America is a country founded on freedom and equality for all. The final myth is the performance of happiness the slaves are forced to make while dancing for Terrance.
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There are 7 women in Hob that year. One of them is prone to fits, and another two have been traumatized into a state of mental instability. Another two never speak; one of them has had her tongue cut out. Two other women have recently committed suicide, which is not unusual. This leaves Nag and Cora. Two weeks have passed since Jockey’s birthday, and Cora’s face has still not healed. Although Terrance’s blows to her face were bad, the whipping she received the next day was much worse. Connelly has been at Randall a long time, and he was especially angered by what happened at Jockey’s birthday. He was interrupted in the middle of raping an enslaved woman, and he whipped both Chester and Cora three days in a row, ordering that their wounds be doused in pepper water in between whippings. After this incident, Chester never speaks to Cora again. Cora collapses at the end of each work day, crippled by her injuries.
This passage explores what it actually means to endure the brutality of slavery. While rebellion means sadistic punishment and often death, endurance can mean the same thing. The woman of Hob have all been broken in various ways by the violence and trauma of slavery. Furthermore, the system of punishment that governs slavery discourages solidarity and mutual support, as Cora’s punishment for shielding Chester shows. Due to the intensity of this brutality, enslaved people often have little choice but to turn away from one another, such as Chester does from Cora.
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Before being placed in Hob, Nag was Connelly’s favorite, “spending most nights in his bed.” Nag was proud of her status as a favorite and was dedicated to her seduction of Connelly, even as he sent the children they had together to the other half of Randall. Once Connelly lost interest in Nag, she was moved to Hob. She takes care of Cora following her injuries, singing to her lost children “through” Cora. Cora suffers from dizziness and a terrible pain in her head. Nag worries about whether it would be worse for Cora to hide during Terrance’s visit the next day, or appear and be visibly sick. James has fallen ill and there are rumors that Terrance will take over James’ half of the plantation. That night, Cora sits outside, reflecting on the prospect of running away. Mabel never set foot outside Randall until the day she disappeared, never to return. One night, Cora fell asleep lying on Mabel’s stomach and woke up never to see her again. An aggressive search effort was launched, but it came to nothing. Mabel was the only person to escape Randall successfully. Everyone else was caught and punished gruesomely before “being permitted to die.”
Once again, life on Randall shows that social dynamics, connections, and preferences are a matter of life and death. While Nag is Connelly’s “favorite,” she enjoys a privileged and protected position herself. When Connelly rejects her, though, she becomes an exile and must live with the other outcasts in Hob. This passage also illustrates the way in which the traumatic separation of families under slavery creates new forms of attachment between enslaved people. When Nag looks after Cora, Cora becomes a substitute for the children that have been taken from Nag, and Nag becomes a substitute for Mabel, who abandoned Cora on the plantation.
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Following Mabel’s disappearance, Ridgeway, an “infamous slave catcher,” visited Randall, accompanied by an associate wearing a necklace of shriveled ears. He returned two years later to apologize for his inability to catch Mabel and to let Old Randall know that there were rumors that the underground railroad was being extended into this part of the state, which Old Randall dismissed as nonsense. When Mabel left, she packed useful items like a machete, flint, and tinder. She left Cora the garden, which is Cora’s “inheritance.” Back in the present, Cora watches over her garden in the darkness. Terrance’s visit the next day is mostly uneventful. Cora tries to hide from him in the fields, but he sees her and tips his cane at her. Two days later, James dies. Unlike Old Randall’s funeral, which was overflowing with friends of the much-admired slave owner, James’ funeral is “sparsely attended.”
Slave owners and their allies do everything they can to convince the enslaved population that they are in total control and that any person who runs faces certain death. However, a few details in this passage disprove this myth of control. Not only does Mabel escape without being noticed or apprehended, but after a two year search Ridgeway is forced to admit that she has escaped his grasp completely. Ridgeway’s news about the underground railroad further confirms that the power of slaveholders is being threatened. Although Old Randall is dismissive of the news, his nonchalance cannot change reality.
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The fact that Terrance is taking over the entire plantation seems as good a reason as any to attempt an escape, and an enslaved man called Big Anthony seizes the moment to do so. He is the first person to run away since Mabel, and he makes it 26 miles before being caught and returned in an iron cage. On the night that Big Anthony’s punishment begins, Caesar comes to visit Cora at Hob, and Cora takes him to talk in the abandoned, rotting schoolhouse. Although previously Cora thought Caesar was “a fool,” now he strikes her as mature and wise. He asks her again if she will come north with him, and Cora is puzzled. When Caesar was forced to watch Cora being whipped, rather than turning his head away (as others did) he kept a steady gaze. Caesar comments that life on Randall is about to get “bad.” Terrance ordered new, ornately engraved stocks to be constructed for Big Anthony. On the second day of Anthony’s punishment, Terrance entertained guests who sat outside and ate lunch while Anthony was whipped in front of them. On the third day, the slaves were forced to watch as Anthony was covered in oil and burned alive, although they could not hear him scream because on the first day his penis had been cut off and sewn into his mouth.
More than any other moment in the narrative, Big Anthony’s failed escape attempt, capture, and punishment demonstrate why so many enslaved people did not consider running away. The monstrous brutality with which Big Anthony is treated is clearly not motivated solely out of vengeance for Anthony’s having dared to rebel (although this is undoubtedly a factor). Rather, the punishment is intended to deter other enslaved people from even dreaming of running away. Instead of a life of peace and freedom, slaves are forced to associate escape with the image of Big Anthony being burned alive in the stocks. Cora mentions that it is conventional for slaves to look away as much as possible when they are made to watch someone be punished. The fact that Caesar refuses to look away during Cora’s whipping highlights Caesar’s defiant courage and unwillingness to ignore or brush aside the reality of slavery.
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While Big Anthony burns, Terrance addresses the slaves, explaining that the plantation will now function as one whole, rather than two halves. He adds that the cotton will be rearranged to make picking more efficient and that each slave’s required quota will be increased. As he walks back and forth, he slaps a man who is crying at the sight of Big Anthony and squeezes Cora’s breast underneath her dress. Terrance explains that all feasts are banned except Christmas and Easter and that there will be a tax on any extra work performed on other plantations. Cora feels that now she truly belongs to Terrance; she tries to conjure the stories she has heard about the world beyond Randall in her mind, but they are elusive. She decides she must see it for herself. After Terrance’s speech, Cora goes to Caesar and behaves as if she had agreed to the escape plan all along.
This passage returns to the question of what enslaved people can bring themselves to endure, and under what circumstances a person is pushed to the point of absolute refusal and rebellion. What is it that drives Cora to this point of no return—the punishment of Big Anthony? Terrance groping her breast? Or is it simply the realization that she cannot truly imagine a world outside of Randall? The ambiguity of Cora’s exact reasoning speaks to a major theme in the history of slave rebellion: the question of whether horror at slavery or the desire for freedom exert a greater power over the mindset of individuals.
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Caesar was born on a small farm in Virginia owned by a mild-mannered widow, Mrs. Garner, who entrusted Caesar and his father with running the farm and Caesar’s mother with the household. Mrs. Garner believed slavery was a “necessary evil,” that black people were inherently unintelligent, and that abolishing slavery would leave black people helpless in their incompetence. At the same time, she also taught her slaves to read, let them leave the farm with some regularity, and promised to free them upon her death. Yet when Mrs. Garner died, a local lawyer acting on behalf of her niece arranged for them to be sold south, and Caesar never saw his family again. Caesar explains to Cora that he takes trips to town to sell wooden crafts that he carves in his spare time. One day he met Mr. Fletcher, a white man from Pennsylvania who hated slavery and who had noticed Caesar could read. The two began to meet regularly; Fletcher explained that most people thought the underground railroad didn’t run this far south, but that Fletcher knew of a station where he could transport Caesar.
Like Cora, Caesar has also “inherited” the idea of escape, although under much different circumstances. Mrs. Garner’s relatively mild behavior towards Caesar and his family encouraged Caesar to feel that freedom was more tangible than it has ever seemed to Cora. Furthermore, Mrs. Garner’s promise to liberate Caesar and his family upon her death further confirmed to Caesar that freedom was something that awaited him in the future. The phenomenon of slaves being sold even after their masters had promised to free them at their deaths was extremely common, one of the many injustices that comprised the immorality of slavery. For some, such a monumental disappointment was too much to bear and broke them completely. Caesar, however, remains determined to seize the freedom he is owed.
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Caesar admits that Fletcher has never helped a slave get to the underground railroad before, but he assures Cora that Fletcher is an honest man. On her last night in Hob, Cora cannot sleep and thinks about her mother. Mabel is a mystery, and Cora feels sad and resentful that she left without even a veiled goodbye. The next day, Cora furiously digs at the earth as if she is building a tunnel. She attempts to say goodbye without revealing that she is leaving by saying kind words to Lovey and having a final meal with the Hob women. Cora leaves behind her few small possessions and packs a hatchet, flint, and tinder. She digs up the yams from her garden, just as Mabel did before her. Caesar and Cora meet by the cotton and set off at a quick speed, knowing they have six hours at most before someone notices their absence.
Cora feels sad and angry about Mabel’s departure, yet ends up following in her mother’s footsteps by taking the exact same items with her that Mabel did. Furthermore, although Cora feels sure that Mabel did not say goodbye, Cora was only a child at the time and thus likely would not have understood even if Mabel had made some kind of gesture or signal. It was imperative that Cora had no idea that Mabel was leaving, otherwise she likely would have ruined her escape. Worse, Cora could have been tortured into a confession over Mabel’s whereabouts by the bosses at Randall.
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Cora and Caesar enter a swamp, and soon after they hear a voice—it is Lovey. She tells them she knew they were “up to something.” Caesar says that Fletcher won’t take them all, but they realize that they can’t send Lovey back now. Cora is surprised by Lovey’s rebellion, but in reality every enslaved person harbors dreams of freedom. Cora is similarly stunned by Caesar’s ability to navigate his way using the stars. The items Lovey brings are of no practical use, just small treasures she has collected. The three of them become covered in mud, insect bites, and scratches. Cora asks Lovey what her mother, Jeer, will do when she discovers Lovey is missing. Jeer was born in Africa and used to tell stories about life in her village there. Lovey tells Cora that Jeer will be proud of her. Eventually, they reach the end of the swamp; however, shortly after they are apprehended by some hog hunters who had been alerted about their escape. Caesar fights viciously and Lovey howls as she is dragged off. Cora, meanwhile, is tackled by a young and slender boy, whose touch reminds her of the night she was raped. She smashes a rock over his skull and is joined by Caesar. They run off together without saying a word.
Cora’s surprise at Lovey’s willingness to take such a great risk by running away suggests that Cora does not understand that Lovey, too, has inherited the dream of freedom through her mother. Whereas Mabel never knew anything of the world beyond Randall, Jeer still had memories of Africa, which became a kind of myth that allowed other enslaved people to dream of freedom and a world completely unlike the plantation. Lovey’s naïve choice of possessions and more straightforward relationship to her mother create the impression that she is more childlike than Cora and Caesar. This is confirmed when Lovey is dragged off while Cora and Caesar successfully manage to fight off the men who apprehend them. Lovey’s abduction is thus the loss of an innocent, a fact that hardens Caesar and Cora as they continue on their journey.
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Cora and Caesar confirm that neither of them mentioned the underground railroad to Lovey. They arrive at Fletcher’s house, and he explains that Jeer noticed Lovey was missing and went looking for her, which in turn alerted the bosses, who instigated a large-scale manhunt. After being captured by the hog hunters, Lovey was returned to Randall. The boy who apprehended Cora—who was only 12—died after Cora struck him with the rock, making the white men even more desperate for vengeance. Caesar and Fletcher discuss their next steps, and decide that Fletcher will drive his cart to the next station, with Caesar and Cora hiding underneath a blanket. As they travel through town, Cora panics at the thought of being caught—Fletcher will almost certainly be lynched and Cora and Caesar will be returned to Randall for a punishment worse than Big Anthony’s. She goes to sleep to avoid thinking about Lovey.
The fact that it was Jeer who alerted the white men to the runaways’ disappearance shows that family connections can be a liability as much as they can also be a source of strength and inspiration. The incident with the hog farmers and the events that follow create a thunderstorm of emotion that completely overwhelms Cora. She is simultaneously terrified of being captured again, devastated that Lovey was taken, resentful of Lovey for putting them in danger, shocked by the death of the boy, angry at the white men who are hunting her and Caesar, and astonished by her experience of the world beyond Randall.
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When Cora awakens, they enter a barn with thousands of shackles hanging from the wall. Some of the shackles are small and thin, designed for children. Fletcher introduces Cora and Caesar to a white man with a strange accent named Lumbly. Lumbly explains that when he is not attending to the underground railroad, he leads a “quiet life” on his farm. Fletcher says goodbye and embraces Cora, who flinches, not wanting to be touched by a white man. Lumbly leads Cora and Caesar through a trapdoor and down a foul-smelling staircase. They finally reach the railroad tunnel, which astonishes Caesar and Cora. When they ask who built it, Lumbly responds: “Who builds anything in this country?” He explains that there is one train leaving in one hour and another leaving in six; they are headed in different directions. Lumbly insists that he cannot fully explain the details of either route. Cora thinks of the black people who built the tunnel and wonders if they received their “proper reward.”
Some critics of the novel have pointed out that the underground railroad was, in many cases, not an actual railroad at all but more a network of houses, people, and secret routes to the north. However, in some places the railroad was literal, rather than only a metaphor. By including a physical railroad in the book, Whitehead emphasizes the role of black people themselves in constructing their own passage to freedom. Whereas under slavery black people were forced to engage in labor and construction from which they did not personally benefit, in building the underground railroad—in both the literal and metaphorical sense—black people were able to achieve ownership of their work.
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Lumbly explains that each state is unique, and that by traveling through different states it is possible to get a full picture of America. The train arrives and Cora and Caesar climb in. The car is in a bad state and Cora worries that it will fall apart. Caesar falls asleep and Cora stares through the slats of the car, but can see only darkness. They arrive in South Carolina in the sunlight, and Cora is astonished to see a skyscraper.
The juxtaposition of the ramshackle train car and the skyscraper in South Carolina emphasizes Lumbly’s point that America—rather than being a unified and consistent whole—is instead a patchwork nation consisting of many very different worlds, each of which seem to exist in a different period of history.
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