The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Summary and Analysis of Chapter 12: The North


Cora, Ridgeway, and Homer head away from the destroyed Valentine farm. The white mob continues to ransack the farm and other surrounding black farms. Ridgeway and Homer chain Cora to her old spot in the wagon. Ridgeway puts a pistol to her head and forces her to lead them to the Underground Railroad station in the woods.

They ride away from the farm. Ridgeway looks diminished and unkempt, in much worse condition than he was before Cora escaped in Tennessee. He tells Cora they buried Boseman in one of the plague cemeteries, an event that would have greatly dismayed him. Cora isn’t listening. She thinks about Royal, wondering why she put him off for so long and why she never told him she loved him.

Cora misses the turn off to the station twice. Ridgeway slaps her across the face and tells her she is going back to the plantation after he gets a look at the Underground Railroad. She leads them to the house and opens the cellar. Ridgeway hands her a candle and tells her to go down first. Homer undoes her chains so she can dig for the trapdoor.

They lift the trapdoor and Cora enters. She hesitates at the thought of exposing the Underground Railroad to her enemy. She decides to drag Ridgeway down. He descends after her and when he reaches the third step, she turns around and hugs him tightly, dragging him off balance. The two fall down the stone steps in an embrace.

Ridgeway hits the ground first at the bottom. Cora injures her leg in the fall but is able to crawl towards the handcar in the station. Homer rushes to Ridgeway’s side, who mutters to him as he lies there, gravely injured.

Cora pumps her arms on the handcar, propelling herself forward in the tunnel. She thinks about all of the men and women who built the Underground Railroad, who make it run. All of them must be transformed by their labor. After hours of pushing the handcar through the tunnel, she falls asleep, exhausted. When she wakes up, she walks, running her hand along the surface of the tunnel.

Cora sleeps two more times in the tunnel. She dreams of Royal in her bed. In her dream she tells him her life story, just as she did on the farm, and then they make love. She wakes up weeping and walks further into the tunnel.

She reaches the end of the tunnel and exits into the sun. She walks north, guided by the sun, and comes to a trail, where she perches on a rock. A caravan of wagons rides past. The first two wagons have white riders, and she ignores them. The third has an elderly black man. He introduces himself as Ollie and gives her some of his food. She notices a horseshoe brand on his neck. He tells her he is headed to St. Louis and then to California. Cora says she is from Georgia and is a runaway. She gets in the wagon and curls up in a blanket as they ride on.


The title of this chapter deviates from the previous chapters, signaling the approach of freedom. Each chapter before it that tells Cora’s story goes by the name of the state where the action takes place: first Georgia, then South Carolina, then North Carolina, Tennessee, and finally Indiana. The chapters in-between give other characters’ backstories, and have their names as corresponding titles. This chapter, however, is titled “The North.” In it, Cora escapes a final time from Ridgeway, carries herself through a tunnel of the Underground Railroad, and hitches a ride west. This twist in the chapter title suggests Cora makes it to freedom, a which the metonymy of “North” signals.

In her final escape from Ridgeway, Cora reclaims the motif of an intimate couple’s dance to use for her own empowerment. Cora has denied herself the joy of dance throughout the story because of her trauma from sexual assault back on the plantation. In the final moments of her conflict with Ridgeway, Cora resolves to use the power of dance for the first time. She embraces Ridgeway as if a lover on the dance floor, and uses that embrace to hurl him off the steps. In this way, Cora reclaims a reminder of her trauma and disempowerment, transforming it into a tool used for her own escape.

In this last trip on the Underground Railroad, Cora does it entirely alone. Certainly her experiences on the Valentine farm demonstrated the importance of community and relying on others. But now, in the final moments of the novel, Cora is truly alone for the first time. She uses the strength of her own arms to propel herself on the cart through the tunnel, and when she tires, she walks. This self-reliance is a skill that Cora has cultivated her entire life as a stray. Indeed, this final chapter turns the shameful status of an outcast into something powerful, an experience that gives Cora the strength to persevere even all on her own.

The darkness Cora moves through in the Underground Railroad tunnel is similar in concept to the limbo between the Randall plantation and the forest. Putting distance between herself and the slave catcher, just as she has done numerous times before, Cora moves towards “northness,” which means freedom (303). Just like the swamp, the darkness of the tunnel is a place where Cora relies on her determination to get to freedom. Running towards it exhausts her in both the swamp and the tunnel, but she continues.

While she moves through the tunnel, Cora reflects once more on the value of labor. The slaves who built the tunnel facilitated her “deliverance” into freedom (303). There is something holy about this labor. Cora thinks of it as redemption — labor as transformation, through which freedom is already attained. Her reflections harken back to the biblical language that surfaces occasionally through the novel, especially in the Tennessee landscape. Cora thinks the underground railroad is a “miracle,” and so too is her escape to freedom (304).