The Underground Railroad (novel) Summary & Study Guide

Colson Whitehead
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The Underground Railroad (novel) Summary & Study Guide Description

The Underground Railroad (novel) Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on The Underground Railroad (novel) by Colson Whitehead.

The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. First edition. Doubleday, 2016.

The story’s main narrative, set in the Southern United States during the slavery era (the early 1800’s), is introduced and occasionally interrupted by a number of short chapters that give information about the identity, situations, and stories of secondary characters. The use of the terms “colored” and “nigger” in the book and in the analysis reflects the language of the time: in other words, the terms in the book are historically appropriate, and are used throughout this analysis with the same intention of accuracy.

The book opens with the story of Ajarry, grandmother of Cora, the book’s central character and protagonist. Narration describes how Ajarry took ownership of, and maintained control over, a small plot of land in the slave area of the Randall plantation in the Southern state of Georgia where she lived most of her life. Both Cora’s mother Mabel and Cora herself inherited that land, and took pride in maintaining it. There is also reference to how Ajarry insisted that attempts to escape were hopeless; how Mabel made a successful escape anyway; and how Cora refused an initial invitation from fellow slave Caesar to make her own attempt.

Eventually, after a series of painful incidents on the plantation, Cora changes her mind and agrees to join Caesar in an escape attempt. Their initial night of running is interrupted first by the arrival of another slave, Lovey, who figured out what they were doing and ran to join them. Next, they have an unexpected encounter with a group of hog rustlers. The encounter turns into a fight, during which Lovey is captured and Cora kills one of the attackers.

Eventually, Cora and Caesar make it to the first stop on the underground railroad, a sub-surface train network that takes them into the first stop on their escape route: a town in South Carolina. There, Cora and Caesar are given new names and identities, and start new lives in which they become increasingly comfortable, refusing a series of opportunities to take the underground railroad even further towards the North, and freedom. Their sense of complacency and safety is shaken by the discovery that they and the other refugee slaves in the town are being used and exploited by the white citizens; and then destroyed when Ridgeway, leader of an angry group of patrollers and slave catchers, tracks them down. Cora manages to escape, taking the underground railroad to North Carolina, where she is given refuge with Martin and Ethel Wells.

Cora’s time with the Wells’ is spent as a prisoner in their home. Eventually, she is discovered and turned over to Ridgeway, while the Wells’ are left to face the anger and violence of the community’s racist citizens. Cora is then taken into Tennessee, a passenger on Ridgeway’s journey to capture yet another slave before taking Cora back to the Randall plantation where, Ridgeway says, Lovey has already been severely (and fatally) punished for her escape attempt and where, he adds, an even worse fate awaits Cora.

With the help of a man with whom she happens to make eye contact on the street, Cora manages to escape, fleeing with the man (Royal) to Indiana. There, she makes a new life for herself on the farm of the Valentine family, a farm where a large number of similarly escaped slaves are making similarly new lives. Eventually, the farm is attacked by a band of slave catchers, and again Cora is taken prisoner by Ridgeway. She manages to fight her way free and propels herself along the underground railroad on a handcart. She makes it to the end of the line, where she climbs to the surface and is eventually given a ride by a colored man who is part of a caravan driving out to a new life in the West.

Chapters inserted throughout the narrative explore the lives, backgrounds, and fates of several characters in the same way as the book’s first character explored Ajarry’s life. These characters include Ridgeway, Ethel Wells, Caesar, and Mabel.

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