The Underground Railroad

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Cora’s Garden Symbol Analysis

Cora’s Garden Symbol Icon

The garden is a small patch of land on Randall, just three yards squared, on which Cora grows vegetables. The garden was passed down from Ajarry to Mabel, and—when Mabel ran away—to Cora. The garden is described as Cora’s “inheritance,” and thus it is a physical manifestation of the personal qualities Cora inherited from her mother and grandmother: the ability to persevere from Ajarry, and the courage for rebellion from Mabel. Endurance and rebellion are also both contained within the garden itself, as the garden presents the opportunity for Cora to take ownership over something, thereby reclaiming ownership over herself. When both Cora and Mabel run away, they bring produce from the garden to help sustain them; the garden thus becomes a symbol of life, possibility, the future, and freedom. Since familial relationships under slavery are filled with loss, trauma, and separation, tending to the garden becomes a kind of substitute for the nurture and care normally practiced within the family. When Blake tries to take over the garden for his dog, Cora fiercely defends it, foreshadowing her defense of her own life and freedom throughout the novel.

Cora’s Garden Quotes in The Underground Railroad

The The Underground Railroad quotes below all refer to the symbol of Cora’s Garden. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Doubleday edition of The Underground Railroad published in 2016.
Chapter 2: Georgia Quotes

Feast or no feast, this was where Cora ended up every Sunday when their half day of work was done: perched on her seat, looking for things to fix. She owned herself for a few hours every week was how she looked at it, to tug weeds, pluck caterpillars, thin out the sour greens, and glare at anyone planning incursions on her territory. Tending to her bed was necessary maintenance but also a message that she had not lost her resolve since the day of the hatchet.

The dirt at her feet had a story, the oldest story Cora knew.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Related Symbols: Cora’s Garden
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

It is Sunday on Randall, and the enslaved community is preparing to celebrate Jockey’s birthday with a feast. Jockey, one of the oldest enslaved people on the plantation, doesn’t know his real birthday, but he picks days at random as excuses for celebration. Lovey asks Cora which day she would pick for her birthday, but Cora dismisses her, saying you can’t choose. Rather than choosing her birthday, Cora exercises autonomy by tending to her garden. Every Sunday, during the precious hours she has away from forced labor, Cora works on maintaining her small plot of land.

At first it might seem strange that Cora, who is forced to spend almost all her time toiling in the fields, would choose to spend her few hours off working in her garden. Why add further labor to a life of bondage? However, as this passage makes clear, tending to the garden gives Cora a sense of control, autonomy, and ownership over her life. Because she spends most of her time being forced to work for others, she finds it rewarding to be able to choose to work towards creating and nurturing new forms of life; this allows Cora to endure the misery of enslavement. Furthermore, through the garden, Cora is connected to her mother and grandmother. The garden is thus one of the only ways Cora can access her dead relatives and the mystery of her ancestry.

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Cora’s Garden Symbol Timeline in The Underground Railroad

The timeline below shows where the symbol Cora’s Garden appears in The Underground Railroad. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2: Georgia
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 6: North Carolina
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
...thinks about Martin and Ethel, who are imprisoned by their own fear. She recalls her garden on Randall, which she now considers a “joke,” and she thinks of the Declaration of... (full context)
Chapter 9: Caesar
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
...Cora is able to survive on “the little she called her own,” such as her garden. Once, when Caesar was drinking whisky with another enslaved man, he asked about Cora and... (full context)