The Underground Railroad

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The Underground Railroad Chapter 8: Tennessee Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter begins with another runaway ad, a 16-year-old biracial girl called Peggy. The narrator then describes Cora’s journey with Ridgeway, during which another captured slave, Jasper, won’t stop singing. Jasper does not have a nice singing voice, his features are crooked, and—like Cora—he is unlucky. People stare at the group of them: Cora and Jasper, Ridgeway, his accomplice Boseman (with the necklace of shriveled ears), and 10-year-old Homer. Although Homer is so young, he has the mannerisms of an “elderly house slave.” He doesn’t seem to feel any sense of connection to Cora and Jasper, the only other black people present. As well as driving the wagon, Homer is Ridgeway’s book-keeper. One night, Ridgeway tells Cora that he has never owned a slave apart from 14 hours between the moment he purchased Homer for $5 and 14 hours later, when he signed Homer’s emancipation papers. Ridgeway has taught Homer to read and write, and Cora asks why Homer doesn’t leave. Ridgeway explains that Homer has seen enough of America to know this wouldn’t be a good idea, even if he is technically free. At night, Homer voluntarily handcuffs himself to the wagon and “snores like a rich old man.”
The three black people traveling with Ridgeway’s crew—Cora, Jasper, and Homer—behave in remarkably different ways, each of which can be interpreted as a different reaction to the brutality and trauma of life as a black person under slavery. Cora remains lucid and rebellious, questioning Ridgeway and pointing out the logical flaws in his answers. Jasper seems to have reached a point of total mental incapacitation, singing relentlessly even though it leads to physical punishments from Ridgeway. Homer’s manner of being, however, is the strangest of all. Legally free, Homer chooses to stay with Ridgeway, witnessing the horrors of life on the road with a slave catcher and even voluntarily shackling himself at night. While it may seem like Homer wants to be enslaved, in reality the trauma of his life has likely given him a form of Stockholm Syndrome.
Themes
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Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
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Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Boseman has been riding with Ridgeway for three years; their crew used to be bigger, but the other men gradually left. Cora encourages Boseman and Ridgeway to tell stories, as this gives her “time to consider her options.” Ridgeway explains that they are on what was once Cherokee land, and he tells Cora about the Trail of Tears. Ridgeway feels no sympathy for Native Americans, who he argues should have learned to understand that white settlers would never stick to their treaties. They enter Tennessee, the first time Cora has crossed state lines without the help of the underground railroad. They pass through a town that has been destroyed by fire and see poor white families camping out in tents. Boseman suggests that the townspeople must have angered God, but Ridgeway replies that it was probably just a “spark that got away.” Cora has learned to walk wearing irons, her feet covered in sores. She attempts to run away once while Ridgeway and Boseman are urinating, but she is caught and whipped by Ridgeway.
It is striking that—unlike many of the white people Cora encounters (particularly those in South Carolina)—Ridgeway presents a rather honest and accurate view of American history. He openly proclaims that they are on Cherokee land and tells Cora of the brutal and unjust ways in which white settlers came to seize that land from its indigenous inhabitants. Clearly, Ridgeway subscribes to a harsh, nihilistic view of the world that states that whoever has the most power and wealth deserves to exploit, deprive, and even kill others. While the way Ridgeway presents this view makes it seem unusually sadistic and cruel, some would argue that he is simply following the principles on which America was founded.
Themes
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Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
Having learnt to orient herself by the sun from Caesar, Cora notices that they are heading west, not south. She asks Ridgeway where they are going, and he explains that he has orders to find a runaway called Nelson who fled Georgia and is now living openly as a trapper in Missouri, thereby making a fool of his master. Ridgeway adds that once they catch Nelson, Cora will be returned to Randall. Ridgeway clearly dislikes Terrance, and tells Cora that he killed Lovey by hanging her from a metal hook through her ribs. Cora attempts to stifle a scream, but fails. She lies on the ground for 10 minutes while various townspeople simply step over her on their way elsewhere. Ridgeway thinks it is little wonder the enslaved people on Randall are so miserable, given the cruelty of their master. Ridgeway reflects that money has had a corrupting influence on Terrance, and that he would have liked to have slapped him. Ridgeway goes on to tell Cora that it took days for Lovey to die, and that Fletcher was discovered too. He asks Cora if it was Fletcher who helped Mabel get to freedom, but Cora doesn’t reply. She attempts to ask Jasper about his life, but he only sings in response.
In this passage, many of Cora’s fears and fantasies are bludgeoned by Ridgeway’s honesty. Although Cora knew it was highly unlikely Fletcher would survive and almost impossible that Lovey would, she still harbored hope as a way of getting through the constant uncertainty, anguish, and fear that has characterized her life on the run. Indeed, this was one of many examples in the novel of enslaved people using hopes and fantasies in order to help them endure their fate. This sense of hope is contrasted with Ridgeway’s straightforward, gruff manner as he presents the terrible news to Cora. Clearly, Ridgeway believes that the world is a cruel and terrible place and that there is no use entertaining fantasies about it. However, this is an easy attitude for Ridgeway to take, considering he has power, wealth, and freedom.
Themes
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
Jasper tells Boseman that God will see his sins and judge him accordingly. Without a word, Ridgeway shoots Jasper, and Jasper’s blood and bones splatter onto Cora’s dress. Ridgeway explains that the reward he would receive for returning Jasper was small enough to make it worth the peace and quiet that would come from shooting him. Homer checks the records and says: “He’s right.” The wildfire had blazed for miles around, leaving Tennessee looking like a scorched post-apocalyptic land. Boseman imitates Jasper’s singing to try to “lighten the mood.” They pass a sign warning that a nearby town has been struck with yellow fever, and Boseman remarks that two of his brothers died from the illness, and that it is “a miserable death.”
This passage once again highlights the extent to which slavery has totally perverted most of the characters’ sense of morality. To Ridgeway, shooting Jasper is not a question of taking a human life, but rather simply a calculation of weighing irritation against profit. Meanwhile, Boseman’s comment that yellow fever causes a “miserable death” provokes the question of what counts as miserable in a world defined by seemingly unending sadism, torture, violence, suffering, and death.
Themes
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Cora reflects on the institution of slavery, how it turns human lives into little more than “breathing capital.” Unlike slave traders, who account for slaves based on their financial value, Cora values people in terms of their kindness. At first, Cora believes that the white people of Tennessee have gotten what they deserve for their land theft, genocide, and slavery. However, she then concludes that the fire and the fever outbreak cannot be forms of justice, because Cora has done nothing to deserve her many misfortunes. A man comes over and informs Ridgeway that the town has been cleared of yellow fever, and traffic resumes as normal. It is the largest town that Cora has seen since North Carolina, and the townspeople wear the fine clothes of “settlers, not the settled.” Homer gives Cora a dark blue dress, unlocking her chains so she can put it on. Cora remarks that while she is “caught,” Homer chooses to stay with Ridgeway; Homer simply looks confused and goes back to his notebook. Cora is also given an uncomfortable pair of wooden shoes, and Ridgeway says that he is taking her for supper.
Throughout the novel, Cora remains not only on a physical journey but also a moral and intellectual one. She seeks to resolve the many unanswerable questions of America and slavery. How is it that such an immense and terrible crime against humanity just goes on without interruption? Why is it that so many good people suffer so terribly, while evil people not only escape unpunished, but continue to prosper and profit from their sins? How is it that a small minority of black people, like Homer, seem to lack any sense of solidarity with other people of their race, and even seem to lack a desire freedom? Many of these questions are impossible to resolve, but Cora continues to persevere anyway.
Themes
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Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
Cora walks past a freeman, who—rather than looking away when he sees her chains—stares back at her. Ridgeway leads her to a table at a saloon and tells her that the dress suits her. He dramatically notes that she hasn’t yet heard about Caesar’s fate, before informing her that a mob broke into the jail where Caesar was being held and ripped his body to pieces. Ridgeway refers to Caesar as “it,” as he does with all enslaved people. This time, Cora is prepared for such news, and she doesn’t give Ridgeway the reaction he craves. When Ridgeway tells her he received a reward for Caesar’s capture, she replies: “You scrape like an old darky for that Randall money.” They eat lumpy stew, and Cora points out that Ridgeway killed Jasper “in cold blood.” Ridgeway asks if Cora feels guilty about killing the 12-year-old boy, and—although Cora now realizes she does feel a kind of guilt—she tells Ridgeway she doesn’t. Ridgeway explains the idea of “manifest destiny,” which is the theory that it was the destiny of white settlers to seize ownership of American territory.
Denied her freedom, Cora rebels in the only remaining way available to her—by being rude to Ridgeway and refusing to provide him with the responses he desires. Although in another context this might have been fatally dangerous, in her current predicament Cora has little left to lose. In fact, being killed by Ridgeway before being returned to Randall would likely be far preferable to whatever Terrance has in store for her. Furthermore, Cora is able to achieve a form of revenge simply by mocking and thwarting Ridgeway, for example by comparing him to “an old darky.” By now, she understands how Ridgeway’s mind works, and is able to use this knowledge against him as a way of asserting power over him (even as he maintains absolute power over her).
Themes
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Cora requests to use the outhouse, and the moment she shuts the door on Ridgeway is intensely pleasurable. However, he continues to talk through the doorway, telling her that he knows Mabel must be up in Canada laughing at him and that he takes this as a “personal injury.” He bought Cora the dress so as to imagine Mabel “wrapped up like a present” to be delivered back to Randall. He tells Cora that she and Mabel are “the best of your race,” which is why slave owners and slave catchers must make sure to suppress such individuals. Every enslaved person who successfully runs away creates hope that the system can be undone, and this is why Ridgeway is so committed to his work. Cora can hear music coming from the saloon, and she imagines patrons dancing slowly together. She thinks that such dancing is “real conversation,” unlike Ridgeway’s spew of words. Back at the wagon, Boseman admits that he went to a brothel but was too paranoid by his suspicion that the women there were sick with yellow fever.
The image of Ridgeway continuing to explain his theories about race and slavery through the doorway of the outhouse is comic, even if it is also disturbing. While Ridgeway enjoys behaving in a totally powerful and self-assured manner, if this were really the case, why would he feel the need to present this monologue to Cora? Like Ethel, Ridgeway delights in the opportunity to treat enslaved people as his possessions. Whereas Ethel wanted a “savage” with whom she could enact her religious and romantic fantasies, Ridgeway desires an audience for his ideas about the world. His resentment of Mabel seems to be rooted in the fact that he was never able to execute his performance of power in front of her.
Themes
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Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
Later, Boseman sneaks over to Cora, putting a hand over her mouth. Cora has been preparing for this moment, and Boseman is very drunk. If he unshackles her, she will run. However, moments later Ridgeway knocks Boseman to the ground, and Cora is too shocked to move. Before long, another voice emerges. It is the freeman who Cora saw in town earlier; he is holding a gun and is accompanied by two other black men who are also armed. Ridgeway tells them they are “lost,” but the men respond that they are lost only in that they don’t like Tennessee and would rather be home. The men already know Ridgeway’s name. Suddenly Homer throws a lantern, which causes a scuffle. Boseman is shot, and Cora strangles Ridgeway with her chains. The men ask Cora what to do with Homer, and she isn’t sure. They offer to shoot Ridgeway and Boseman, who is bleeding to death anyway, before adding that they’d prefer to put them in chains. Once Ridgeway is in chains, Cora kicks him in the face three times, telling herself it is in honor of three murders: Lovey, Caesar, and Jasper. However, in reality they are all for Cora herself.
Once again, Cora executes a miraculous escape, narrowly escaping death as she seizes freedom. Indeed, Cora’s quest for freedom is so closely associated with death that they become two sides of the same goal. Each time Cora survives a near-death experience and once again escapes to freedom, she must again deal with the reality of the people who do not survive the encounter—Lovey, the 12-year-old boy, Fletcher, Caesar, Ethel, Martin, and now Boseman. Cora is haunted by these deaths, but her focus remains on the future lying ahead of her. In the face of so much death, Cora has no choice but to seize the opportunity of freedom and life. This is demonstrated by the fact that she kicks Ridgeway on her own account, rather than as a way of honoring the dead.
Themes
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon