The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Chapter 7: Ethel Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ethel always dreamed of being a missionary in Africa, “bringing the savages to the light.” She fantasizes about adventuring deep into the jungle and being revered by the Africans she finds there. At 8 years old, she plays missionary with her best friend, a black girl called Jasmine who is “like a sister to her.” The girls then move on to play husband and wife, kissing and quarrelling with one another. Jasmine and her mother Felice live in Ethel’s house. On Ethel’s eighth birthday, her father, Edgar, bans her from playing with Jasmine “so as not to pervert the natural state of relations between the races.” After Felice dies, Edgar rapes Jasmine at night; when Ethel asks what he is doing, he simply replies that he is “going upstairs.” Eventually, Ethel’s mother sells Jasmine, and the family buy an elderly woman to replace her.
Like almost every white character in the novel, Ethel is deeply racist, although her racism takes a new and different form than we have previously seen. She has a patronizing and possessive attachment to black people that began in childhood through her friendship with Jasmine. This attachment is also related to her sexuality. The narrator implies that Ethel’s intense feelings about Jasmine and their games of husband and wife, are—at least for Ethel—rooted in lesbian feeling. This detail emphasizes the perverse intimacy that exists between white people and black people during slavery.
Themes
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
By the time Ethel marries Martin, she has lost hope in happiness. She has little interest in men and hates sex, but is grateful for the birth of her daughter. When the family moves to North Carolina from Virginia, Ethel is horrified by the public lynchings; though she is not morally opposed to them, she finds them disturbing. She was similarly not concerned by slavery as a “moral issue,” and would argue with Martin at length about the underground railroad. Ethel feels that everything she wants has always been “denied” to her, from living her purpose as a missionary to loving people “the way she wanted.” When Cora gets sick, Ethel feels she can finally live out the dreams that have been denied. She reads Cora scripture, bathes her, and kisses her, content at last.
Ethel’s outlook on life is fundamentally selfish. Being an outsider herself doesn’t encourage Ethel to empathize with other people. Instead, her life experiences—from her friendship with Jasmine to her marriage to an abolitionist—lead her to be resentful of the fact that she personally has been cheated out of happiness and fulfillment. When Cora arrives, Ethel feels hostile to her until she realizes that she can use Cora to live out her fantasies (both in a romantic and moral/religious sense). Ethel does not actually care for Cora, but is pleased by the opportunity to “possess” her.
Themes
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon