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.
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon

All the black characters in the novel—whether enslaved or free—must constantly navigate an impossible choice between enduring the brutality of slavery and racism or risking everything in a (likely doomed) attempt to rebel. The entire system of slavery and white supremacy is designed to make black people believe that they have no hope of rebellion, for example by making it illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write. Similarly, the torture and execution of captured runaways and their accomplices—such as Big Anthony and those hanged on the Freedom Trail—is designed to serve as a warning for anyone who dreams of rebellion. Although life under slavery is unbearable, many enslaved people are forced to endure it because the only other “choice” is a grisly, sadistic death. Similarly, any white person who feels sympathy for the enslaved is confronted with the fact that if they choose to assist enslaved people, they will likely be killed along with their families. Before Cora decides to run away, she views the option of enduring slavery as the only way in which she can exercise autonomy: “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.”

Those who still choose to rebel against slavery despite the near-certainty of failure are often characterized as insane. When Caesar first approaches Cora to ask her to run away with him, Cora thinks of the idea as a “prank,” “a trick he was playing on himself,” and “idiocy.” Despite the hellish conditions on Randall plantation, the idea of running away still strikes Cora as lunacy. In this sense, it is Cora’s placement in Hob—a shack on Randall for female slaves who are considered mentally unstable or disturbed—that allows her to eventually decide to run away. By being placed in Hob, Cora is exiled from the community of other enslaved people on Randall, and, by extension, from the social logic of this community. It is only this break from the social fabric that allows Cora to begin to imagine herself free. This underlines that, for enslaved people, insanity is a form of rebellion, because it is necessary to be “insane” in order to believe in the possibility of becoming free.

Rebellion also occupies a powerful place in the imagination of white slave-owners and their allies, who live in constant fear of slave rebellion. In the early 19th century, when the novel is set, the tension between the northern states—where slavery is outlawed—and the southern “slave states” threatens to tear the country apart (and will, of course, eventually lead to the Civil War in the 1860s and abolition of slavery in all states). Furthermore, slave rebellions in parts of the south as well as in the Caribbean and Latin America make slave-owners feel increasingly uneasy about the possibility of violent resistance. Some white people even choose to leave the south due to the fear of being killed in a slave rebellion: “The specter of colored rebellion, all those angry dark faces surrounding them, had stirred white settlers to leave the south.”

Although individual enslaved people might not realize it, personal acts of rebellion are thus part of a much larger movement that will, eventually, lead to the overthrow of slavery altogether. This is brought into particular relief in the story of Mabel and Cora. Cora spends her life feeling resentful of Mabel for selfishly abandoning her, and at the end of the novel it is revealed that Mabel does not make it far from Randall before dying of a snakebite. However, Mabel’s rebellion allows Cora to rebel, and at the end of the novel Cora seems to have finally succeeded in reaching freedom. Although individual acts of rebellion can often seem selfish, risky, and foolish at the time, in reality they are part of a broader network of resistance that succeeds in gradually chipping away at the power of slavery.

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Endurance vs. Rebellion ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Underground Railroad related to the theme of Endurance vs. Rebellion.
Chapter 1: Ajarry Quotes

She knew that the white man's scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations… in America the quirk was that people were things.

Related Characters: Ajarry (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.

Related Characters: Ajarry
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
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:

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:

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:

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 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:

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:

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

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:

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: