The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Irony

The American Dream

America is often compared to an engine or machine—perhaps reminiscent of the Underground Railroad itself. The Railroad is a complex symbol: it is at times dilapidated and run-down, vague and confusing, or shiny and full of promise. These contradictions in the Railroad itself display the irony of the American Dream: alternately broken and glorious, the promise of America varies from place to place and person to person. The American Dream is available only to some, and just like travel on the Railroad, it can come at a huge cost and colossal effort.


Freedom is the goal that Cora and other characters risk everything for. Yet the novel is ambiguous about its character. Indeed, Cora realizes the irony of the promise of freedom: when she has escaped Randall but is confined to an attic, hiding to save her life in North Carolina, freedom does not seem to be what she has imagined.

Parallel between Mabel and Cora

Cora's story is in large part shaped by the parallel between the escape of her mother, Mabel, and her own. The text, in fact, rests on the assumption that Mabel made it to freedom. This is both inspiration and source of resentment for Cora; it animates Ridgeway to pursue Cora after failing to catch Mabel; it is a constant referent. Yet in a twist at the of the novel, the narrator reveals that Mabel did not, in fact, make it to freedom. Instead, she died from a snake bite not too far away from the Randall plantation. The irony here is that in the end, Cora is the first one in her line to make it to freedom.

Michael's Recitation of the Declaration of Independence

Michael, a slave on the Randall plantation, is trotted out by Old Randall for the amusement of guests because of his talent for rote memorization. The favorite passage for him to recite is the Declaration of Independence, a painfully ironic situation: Michael recites the Declaration on call but the promises contained in it do not apply to him.