The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Metaphors and Similes

America as the Engine of a Machine (Metaphor)

America is compared to a machine propelled forward in expansion and profit. The fuel of the machine's engine, according to Cora's observations, is violence and theft. The metaphor of the machine also conjures the technological advances that have driven America's growth, such as Eli Whitney's cotton gin.

Great Spirit as Molten Iron (Simile)

Ridgeway's father is a talented blacksmith who believes the molten iron he works with is like the “Great Spirit,” a divine thread connecting earth and all its inhabitants. The iron in his forge has a quality of “restless writhing... as it waited for purpose,” just as the Great Spirit influences humans to seek meaning in their lives (73). This almost spiritual view of blacksmith labor is at odds with Ridgeway's developing ideology, which sees iron as simply a tool in service of the cotton production in the American south that makes the nation rich.

The Pursuit of Freedom as the Construction of the Underground Railroad (Metaphor)

On several occasions throughout the novel, Cora wonders at the colossal effort it must have taken to build the Underground Railroad. This labor is a metaphor for the work required to seek freedom. Running away is akin to building a station out of a stone mountain.

Truth as a Shop Window Display (Simile)

Cora's work as a living exhibit in the South Carolina museum causes her to reflect on the nature of truth as it is reflected in the museum exhibits. She likens truth to a display in a shop window, in the sense that it is constantly changing, always out of reach, and manipulated by other hands.

Declaration of Independence as America (Metaphor)

The significance of the Declaration of Independence is debated over the course of the novel, just as the promise of America is. On Randall, a slave named Michael recites the Declaration in rote memorization. Here, the Declaration represents an America with a hollow promise of freedom at its center. Later, on the Valentine farm, the free black children recite the Declaration proudly in their schoolhouse, showing that American can indeed live up to its ideals. This tension in how America is represented is a central theme throughout the novel.