The Underground Railroad


Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad: Chapter 5: Stevens Summary & Analysis

A man named Aloysius Stevens works night shifts on fellowship at the Anatomy House of the Proctor Medical School in Boston. Someone called Carpenter arrives at midnight along with an associate and offers Stevens a sip of liquor. The narrative zooms out to explain that Carpenter is a grave robber; if caught, he will be hanged, and his body donated to medical research. Carpenter does it, though, because there has been a “body shortage” since the study of anatomy took off. Professional body snatchers sell corpses to medical schools, and Stevens heard a rumor that Carpenter even sold the bodies of his two dead children. Body snatchers tend to be prone to drinking and ruthless behavior, and Carpenter sometimes conducts elaborate stunts that let him sell the same body twice. Eventually, once the body theft game became notorious, snatchers like Carpenter began to stick to taking the bodies of black people, who had no power to fight back. Stevens dislikes racism and, as a poor Irishman, actually feels a certain affinity with black people; however, he knows it is necessary to use their bodies in order to advance medical knowledge.
This short chapter elaborates on the idea that the seemingly positive field of medical science has a very dark side: violence and violation (particularly of black people). The chapter also underlines the notion that black people in America are valued not as human beings but as commodities—objects from which white people can profit. Stevens does not have a particularly racist or negative attitude toward black people, but he nonetheless accepts that their bodies are what will allow him and other medical students to conduct research. This evaluation proves that even seemingly well-intentioned white people are happy to view black people as a means to an end, a necessary sacrifice in the larger project of building medical knowledge (or building the country).
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Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
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