The Underground Railroad


Colson Whitehead

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Underground Railroad, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon

The Underground Railroad depicts the full spectrum of brutality and violation that defined the institution of slavery. Violence is such a large part of ordinary life in the world of the novel that Cora and the other characters are unsurprised by even the most sadistic and gruesome events, such as Big Anthony’s punishment after he is caught attempting to run away. At the same time, Whitehead is careful to show that Cora and other black people in the book are not numbed to the violence that surrounds them, even if they are often forced to suppress their emotions to avoid further punishment from white people. For example, when Ridgeway tells Cora that after being caught Lovey was hung by her ribs on a large metal spike, “Cora covered her mouth to keep in her scream. She failed.” This incident highlights the way in which Cora and other black people hide their reactions to the brutality of slavery as a self-protective gesture, a defence mechanism against the seemingly endless sadism of whites.

The fundamental injustice of slavery also leads some of the black characters to commit acts of violence themselves with apparent indifference. Early on in the novel, Cora is gang-raped by four male slaves and later she kills a 12-year-old white boy while escaping from Randall. When reflecting on whether or not she feels guilty for killing the boy, Cora concludes that she doesn’t because it was necessary for her escape. Cora has endured so much violence that the notion of avoiding committing violence herself is absurd. Indeed, considering Cora’s experiences in life, it is perhaps surprising that she doesn’t have a more vengeful attitude toward white people. Even when she has the chance to kill Ridgeway, she chooses only to kick him three times before letting him live—a decision that comes back to haunt her when Ridgeway and his gang arrive at Valentine’s farm. This turn of events suggests that showing any mercy to white slave-owners and slave-catchers is an unwise and dangerous choice.

Indeed, many white people in the novel are shockingly indifferent to the suffering of black people, and several seem to take great pleasure in subjecting black people to unimaginable tortures. One of the most disturbing scenes in the book comes early on, when Terrance Randall and his guests eat while Big Anthony is punished in front of them: “Big Anthony was whipped for the duration of their meal, and they ate slow.” This moment highlights the way in which the sadistic torture of black people is not only treated as a necessary tool to maintain white domination, but as a source of pleasure and entertainment for white people. The notion that white people gain pleasure from the suffering of black people is most heavily emphasized through the many examples of the sexual violation that was ubiquitous during slavery. This is particularly pronounced in the character of Terrance, who boasts: “I like to taste my plums,” meaning the enslaved women that are legally his property. The behavior of Terrance and other white men who delight in raping black women conveys the fact that even though slavery is primarily an economic system whose main focus is to produce profit, sadism and sexual desire are also important drivers in the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy.

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Brutality and Violation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Brutality and Violation appears in each chapter of The Underground Railroad. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Brutality and Violation Quotes in The Underground Railroad

Below you will find the important quotes in The Underground Railroad related to the theme of Brutality and Violation.
Chapter 2: Georgia Quotes

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:

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:

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:

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:
Chapter 3: Ridgeway Quotes

The cotton gin meant bigger cotton yields and the iron tools to harvest it, iron horseshoes for the horses tugging the wagons with iron rims and parts that took it to market. More slaves and the iron to hold them. The crop birthed communities, requiring nails and braces for houses, the tools to build the houses, roads to connect them, and more iron to keep it all running. Let his father keep his disdain and his spirit, too. The two men were parts of the same system, serving a nation rising to its destiny.

Related Characters: Arnold Ridgeway (speaker), Ridgeway Sr.
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:
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:

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:

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:

Perhaps they would prefer not to know, Caesar said. What were these rumors compared to what they had been freed from? What sort of calculation would their neighbors make, weighing all the promises of their new circumstances

against the allegations and the truth of their own pasts? According to the law, most of them were still property, their names on pieces of paper in cabinets kept by the United States Government. For the moment, warning people was all they could do.

Related Characters: Caesar
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6: North Carolina Quotes

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:

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:

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:
Chapter 10: Indiana Quotes

We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing's going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers. Here's one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can't. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick-yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.

Valentine farm is a delusion. Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life's suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history, it can't exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are.

And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes––believes with all its heart––that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.

Related Characters: Elijah Lander (speaker)
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:
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: