The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Literary Elements


Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Fugitive Slave Narrative

Setting and Context

Southern Antebellum America

Narrator and Point of View

The book takes multiple perspectives. Many chapters are told from Cora's point of view, but alternating chapters are written from the perspective of secondary characters. An objective narrator describes the central character of each chapter in the third person, telling their thoughts in a detached voice.

Tone and Mood

The mood is grim and reflective. The tone is most often matter-of-fact, even when describing brutal violence or emotional challenges.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonist: Cora; Antagonist: Ridgeway

Major Conflict

Cora runs away from the Randall plantation, hoping to escape slavery and live her life in freedom in one of the northern states. Ridgeway, a slave catcher, trails her doggedly, recapturing her numerous times. Ridgeway's character is a personification of slavery and the system on which America relies, so the novel could also be read as a larger conflict between Cora and America.


Cora and Ridgeway face off in one of the stations of the Underground Railroad. Cora pushes Ridgeway down the stairs and severely injures him, escaping in the railroad car.


Key elements of both Mabel and Cora's lives are foreshadowed in the first chapter that tells Ajarry's story. Ajarry is raped by slave traders aboard the ship that takes her to America, foreshadowing the rape of Mabel by fellow slave Moses and of Cora by fellow slaves Edward and Pot. Ajarry's attempts to kill herself also darkly foreshadow Mabel and Cora's attempts to escape slavery.






The violent crime of slavery is portrayed in all its horrific detail. Slaves are flogged, tortured, and horribly abused by their masters. The landscapes that Cora travels through on her journey to freedom is also described in detailed imagery.


The great paradox of the novel is the paradox of America itself, a nation that promises freedom and yet enslaves millions.


Cora and her mother's escapes from the Randall plantation are parallel narratives. They are both pursued by Ridgeway, and both eventually escape his clutches.

Metonymy and Synecdoche



America's system of slavery, or the “peculiar institution” as it is sometimes referred to in the novel, is personified in the character of Ridgeway. The slave catcher relentlessly pursues runaway slaves throughout the country, embodying a seemingly inescapable system.