The Underground Railroad

Cora (aka Bessie) Character Analysis

Cora is the heroine of The Underground Railroad. She was born on Randall plantation in Georgia to her mother Mabel, and she never knew her father, Grayson, who died before she was born. Her grandmother, Ajarry, was born in Africa before being kidnapped and brought to America. Cora is brave and rebellious; the narrator suggests she inherited her capacity to endure obstacles and brutality from Ajarry, and her stubborn instinct for resistance from Mabel. Even so, Cora at first finds the prospect of running away with Caesar ludicrous. It is only once she has tasted freedom for herself—and overcome numerous near-escapes in which her friends such as Caesar and Lovey are captured and killed—that Cora becomes fearlessly dedicated to the pursuit of a free life in the north. While living in South Carolina, Cora assumes the fake identity of a woman named Bessie Carpenter in order to avoid being recognized as a runaway and wanted murderer. Toward the end of the book, in Indiana, she has a romantic affair with Royal, which is prematurely ended when Royal is killed by Ridgeway. Cora’s fate is never determined, but the book ends on an optimistic note, with Ollie offering her food as she joins him on the road to the north.

Cora (aka Bessie) Quotes in The Underground Railroad

The The Underground Railroad quotes below are all either spoken by Cora (aka Bessie) or refer to Cora (aka Bessie). 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 numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer 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:

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There was an order of misery, misery tucked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Alice
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

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Cora was still squinting over his idiocy when she got her first bowl of the soup. White man trying to kill you slow every day, and sometimes trying to kill you fast. Why make it easy for him? That was one kind of work you could say no to.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

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They were exiles, but Hob provided a type of protection once they settled

in. By playing up their strangeness, the way a slave simpered and acted childlike to escape a beating, they evaded the entanglements of the quarter. The walls of Hob made a fortress some nights, rescuing them from the feuds and conspiracies. White men eat you up, but sometimes colored folk eat you up, too.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Related Symbols: Hob
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

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Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn't look like it. When it was a dream of new shoes.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Lovey
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

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This was the farthest she had ever been from home. Even if she were dragged

away at this moment and put in chains, she would still have these miles.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 4: South Carolina Quotes

Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom's bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell. A child. Her company would have made the escape more difficult, but Cora hadn't been a baby. If she could pick cotton, she could run. She would have died in that place, after untold brutalities, if Caesar had not come along. In the train, in the deathless tunnel, she had finally asked him why he brought her with him. Caesar said, "Because I knew you could do it."

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Mabel
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

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As she moved through the examination, Cora got the impression she was being conveyed on a belt, like one of Caesar's products, tended down the line with care and diligence.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar
Page Number: 112-113
Explanation and Analysis:

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Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that's what you do when you take away someone's babies––steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when

they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

Related Characters: Dr. Aloysius Stevens (speaker), Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 6: North Carolina Quotes

At one point the girls started for the attic but reconsidered after a discussion about the habits and customs of ghosts. There was indeed a ghost in the house, but she was done with chains, rattling or no.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

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Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account. Terrance Randall provided a model for a mind that could conceive of North Carolina’s new system, but the scale of the violence was hard to settle in her head. Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Terrance Randall
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

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Colored labor had erected every house on the park, laid the stones in the fountain and the paving of the walkways. Hammered the stage where the night riders performed their grotesque pageants and the wheeled platform that delivered the doomed men and women to the air. The only thing colored folks hadn't built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Lumbly
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

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What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn't stand.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 8: Tennessee Quotes

At the auction block they tallied the souls purchased at each auction, and on the plantations the overseers preserved the names of workers in rows of tight cursive. Every name an asset, breathing capital, profit made flesh. The peculiar institution made Cora into a maker of lists as well. In her inventory of loss people were not reduced to sums but multiplied by their kindnesses. People she had loved, people who had helped her. The Hob women, Lovey, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher. The ones who disappeared: Caesar and Sam and Lumbly.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Lovey, Fletcher, Lumbly, Sam, Martin Wells, Ethel Wells (née Delany)
Related Symbols: Hob
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 10: Indiana Quotes

How could such a bitter thing become a means of pleasure? Everything on Valentine was the opposite. Work needn't be suffering, it could unite folks. A bright child like Chester might thrive and prosper, as Molly and her friends did. A mother raise her daughter with love and kindness. A beautiful soul like Caesar could be anything he wanted here, all of them could be: own a spread, be a schoolteacher, fight for colored rights. Even be a poet. In her Georgia misery she had pictured freedom, and it had not looked like this. Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Chester, Molly
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

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Cora had come to cherish the impossible treasures of the Valentine farm so completely that she'd forgotten how impossible they were. The farm and the adjacent ones operated by colored interests were too big, too prosperous. A pocket of blackness in the young state. Valentine's negro heritage became known years before. Some felt tricked that they'd treated a nigger as an equal and then to have that uppity nigger shame them with his success.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), John Valentine
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

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Seeing them all in one room, Cora got an idea of how large they were for the first time. There were people she'd never seen before, like the mischievous little boy who winked at her when their eyes met. Strangers but family, cousins but never introduced. She was surrounded by men and women who'd been born in Africa, or born in chains, who had freed themselves or escaped. Branded, beaten, raped. Now they were here. They were free and black and stewards of their own fates. It made her shiver.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Homer
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 12: The North Quotes

On Randall, on Valentine, Cora never joined the dancing circles. She shrank from the spinning bodies, afraid of another person so close, so uncontrolled. Men had put a fear in her, those years ago. Tonight, she told herself. Tonight I will hold him close, as if in a slow dance. As if it were just the two of them in the lonesome world, bound to each other until the end of the song.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Arnold Ridgeway
Related Symbols: Dance
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

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Cora (aka Bessie) Character Timeline in The Underground Railroad

The timeline below shows where the character Cora (aka Bessie) appears in The Underground Railroad. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: Ajarry
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
When Caesar first asks Cora to flee to the north, she says no; this refusal is related to the experiences... (full context)
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
...least grateful that the children are not sold off. The only child who survives is Cora’s mother, Mabel. Eventually, Ajarry dies from a brain hemorrhage while standing in the cotton fields.... (full context)
Chapter 2: Georgia
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
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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... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
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After this incident, Cora becomes the most “infamous” resident of Hob. While other Hob women are sold or commit... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Cora asks Jockey how old he is, recalling that at his last birthday he claimed to... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
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Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Cora and Caesar enter a swamp, and soon after they hear a voice—it is Lovey. She... (full context)
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Cora and Caesar confirm that neither of them mentioned the underground railroad to Lovey. They arrive... (full context)
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When Cora awakens, they enter a barn with thousands of shackles hanging from the wall. Some of... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 3: Ridgeway
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...for years over his inability to capture Mabel, and thus the chance to chase down Cora fills him with determination. He vows to find and destroy the part of the underground... (full context)
Chapter 4: South Carolina
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...house” of the Anderson family: Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, their two children, and their nanny, Bessie, who cannot read or write. Mrs. Anderson is a philanthropist who is raising money for... (full context)
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Bessie is able to walk through town “as a free woman,” although she is careful to... (full context)
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Cora was given the name Bessie Carpenter when she arrived from Georgia. The train journey felt... (full context)
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Miss Handler, Cora’s teacher, is relentlessly patient even with an old man in Cora’s class who “sputtered and... (full context)
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After her meeting with Miss Lucy, Cora is so overcome by emotion that another dormitory resident asks if she is alright. Cora... (full context)
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Back in the present, it is almost time for the social, and Cora puts on her beloved blue dress. When she first arrived in South Carolina, she was... (full context)
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Cora asks Caesar about Sam, and Caesar mentions that there is a train leaving in a... (full context)
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Miss Lucy tells Cora that she has been given a new placement at a museum. Cora asks Lucy about... (full context)
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One realistic element of the plantation scene is the coarse “Negro cloth” Cora is forced to wear, which makes her feel intensely ashamed. There are two other “types”... (full context)
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Cora leaves the hospital feeling dizzy and furious with the idea that some women are forced... (full context)
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Soon after, Cora notices that the lights in number 40 are out, and someone explains that the women... (full context)
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...allow white people to eventually free the enslaved without worrying about being killed in revenge. Cora says that they must tell everyone living in the dormitories that they’re being lied to,... (full context)
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Cora suddenly remembers the woman who ran across the green screaming, “They’re taking away my babies,”... (full context)
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That evening, Cora goes to see Miss Lucy and asks about the women in number 40. Lucy says... (full context)
Chapter 6: North Carolina
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...another runaway ad, this time for a 21-year-old called Martha. The narrative then returns to Cora, who believes it has been one day since Sam’s house collapsed, though she isn’t sure.... (full context)
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The train speeds into the station, and at first flies past Cora. She screams after it and the conductor stops and backs up. The engineer offers her... (full context)
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...of explosive powder lying around from where the rock was blasted away. The engineer tells Cora they are in North Carolina, explaining that in the past it was “a popular stop”... (full context)
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Martin lifts the tarpaulin and tells Cora that he wants her to see something. It is a long line of rotting corpses... (full context)
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...patrollers lynched three times that number of black people in revenge. One night, Martin visits Cora, speaking to her in a whisper because his neighbor’s son is a night rider. Patrollers... (full context)
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...The men decided to encourage white people to come to North Carolina to pick cotton; Cora remarks that she has never seen a white person pick cotton before, and Martin replies... (full context)
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...to conduct random inspections on any person’s home, and Martin’s house was searched twice before Cora arrived. Martin apologizes for Ethel’s behavior, telling Cora that it is not her fault—however, Cora... (full context)
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The heat in the attic is sometimes so intense that Cora loses consciousness. She grows thin from lack of food and suffers from violent nightmares. At... (full context)
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A week before the summer solstice, there are a series of “bad omens.” First, Cora accidentally knocks over her chamber pot, and the only reason why Fiona doesn’t notice is... (full context)
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Cora watches the townspeople who linger in the park after dark because they are “too afraid... (full context)
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That night Cora becomes very ill and violently throws up. Ethel cares for her, adopting a newly gentle... (full context)
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Cora looks at Fiona and is astonished by how young she is. Martin says to Fiona,... (full context)
Chapter 7: Ethel
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...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.... (full context)
Chapter 8: Tennessee
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Cora reflects on the institution of slavery, how it turns human lives into little more than... (full context)
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Cora walks past a freeman, who—rather than looking away when he sees her chains—stares back at... (full context)
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Cora requests to use the outhouse, and the moment she shuts the door on Ridgeway is... (full context)
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Later, Boseman sneaks over to Cora, putting a hand over her mouth. Cora has been preparing for this moment, and Boseman... (full context)
Chapter 9: Caesar
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...father being broken by labor on whatever plantation they were taken to. When Caesar approaches Cora, he knows she will say yes even before she does. The fact that Cora shielded... (full context)
Chapter 10: Indiana
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...Sukey, who is “very neat in appearance” and a devout Methodist. The narrative returns to Cora, who is once again in a classroom. This time, the children in the class are... (full context)
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...residents prepare for an evening feast, and the smell of smoked meat fills the air. Cora shares a cabin with Molly and her mother, Sybil. They are proud of the house... (full context)
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...most of whom are under 5. Georgina notes that “liberty makes the body fertile,” and Cora thinks of the women sterilized against their will in South Carolina. On this night, Valentine... (full context)
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...the community should stay put, but should limit its size by kicking out runaways (like Cora). Mingo has an impressive reputation; he raised enough money through extra work to purchase freedom... (full context)
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Just as the dancing begins, Cora heads home, where Royal is waiting for her. He has a black eye but tells... (full context)
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Back in Tennessee, after leaving Ridgeway and his crew behind, Royal had introduced himself to Cora; the other men were called Justin and Red. Royal apologetically blindfolds Cora, explaining that it’s... (full context)
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...the Freedom Trail searching for their bodies, but never found them. When Red learns that Cora killed the 12-year-old boy, he comments: “Good.” He was the one who encouraged Royal to... (full context)
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...Valentine residents, which helped ensure the farm’s safety within the local community. When Royal showed Cora the railroad station, he explained that he wanted her to know it was there. However,... (full context)
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In November, Sam arrives at Valentine, and his reunion with Cora is emotional. Sam tells Cora that Ridgeway found Caesar at the factory before he had... (full context)
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...during which two teams participate while joyful music plays in the background. The night before, Cora let Royal kiss her. She confesses that she’s been thinking about Terrance; she knows that... (full context)
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One day, John joins Cora in the library. Cora is ashamed by her debt to him so she usually avoids... (full context)
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Cora realizes that she has forgotten how precarious life at Valentine is. She tells John that,... (full context)
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...against the farm, as this is just what white people do. The day begins normally; Cora spends it reading the latest almanac Royal has given her. By this point, she has... (full context)
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Sybil tells Cora that Lander has returned to the farm. Sybil admires Lander and is thrilled by his... (full context)
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...to Canada, where he will finally be able to settle down and have a family. Cora tries to ignore this kind of talk. Lander begins his speech by politely disagreeing with... (full context)
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...out, white men are waiting outside hollering in glee. The Valentine family escape, and, as Cora holds Royal’s head, he smiles and tells her to escape via the underground railroad. As... (full context)
Chapter 11: Mabel
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When Mabel was pregnant with Cora, she would apologize to the unborn child for bringing her into the world, just as... (full context)
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...She feels peaceful, basking in her freedom. Immediately, however, she resolves to go back for Cora. She feels that she was foolish to attempt an escape, even though the memory of... (full context)
Chapter 12: The North
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The final chapter of the novel is preceded by a runaway ad for Cora; however, unlike the other ads, this one deviates from the conventional script by announcing: “She... (full context)
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...journal. Ridgeway begins to make grandiose statements about “the American imperative,” which Homer copies down. Cora, meanwhile, pushes against the handcar pump with all her might, and eventually manages to roll... (full context)