The ninth chapter tells Caesar’s perspective back on the Randall plantation. The night of Jockey’s birthday celebration, Caesar retreats to the broken-down schoolhouse for some peace and quiet. During the day he goes there when he can to read a page of a book in secret, but at night he can’t risk the candle light.
Caesar’s plan is to run away before Jockey’s next birthday. Back in Virginia, on the white woman’s farm where he grew up, they had real celebrations. Caesar and his parents visited relatives and freemen for long, festive feasts. Slaves on Randall can barely celebrate at all, Caesar thinks. At least he knows his birthday and the names of his parents.
Caesar watches the celebrations through the schoolhouse window. He notices the way Cora smiles at Chester and Lovey and the Hob women. He has figured out that Cora conserves her energy for her own personal joys. One night, drinking with the other men on the plantation, he asked for the gossip about Cora. Another slave, Martin, told him the story of Cora’s garden and Blake’s doghouse. Martin also said he heard that Cora fornicates with the swamp animals. Caesar dismissed this as stupidity but thought the story of Cora and Blake lined up with his assessment of her. The cruelty of life on the Randall plantation has made most of the men dumb, he thinks. Their fear is revealed in their nightmares.
Still watching Cora from the schoolhouse, Caesar wishes he could carve her profile in wood, but his hands are too rough now from the cotton picking. Once, Caesar thought he could be and do anything: but his old master, the white woman in Virginia, lied to his family. His parents would be dead by now, unused to the viciousness of plantation life in Georgia, where his mother was sold, and Florida, his father. Caesar knows he is alone now.
He approaches Cora to ask her to run away with him after the races. He isn’t surprised, however, when she waves him off. Freedom is too big of an idea for her to agree to so quickly. Caesar knows he can’t run away without her. She’ll say yes eventually, he is certain. His thoughts are confirmed by the violence after the party. When Cora steps in to shield Chester from Terrance Randall’s cane, Caesar knows she is a stray.
After the beating, Caesar risks a candle in the schoolhouse for the first time. It’s worth it to read a page of his book in secret. Fletcher gave him Travels into Several Remote Nations, but cautioned him against taking it with him to the plantation. It will get you killed, he said. But Caesar needs to read to feel human, to escape the totality of slavery.
The protagonist of the book, Gulliver, goes from trouble to trouble on his adventures. If Caesar escaped, he wouldn’t keep traveling. He would make a home. For that, he needs Cora.
The chapter on Ethel comes immediately after readers watch her lynching at the hands of her fellow townspeople in North Carolina. Similarly, this chapter on Caesar’s backstory arrives immediately following the moment when Cora learns of Caesar’s death, back in South Carolina. This narrative structure adopted by Whitehead is a way of eulogizing characters who die throughout the novel. It also aligns with Cora’s habit of making lists. In the previous chapter, she writes a list in her head of those who have helped her along the way. The structure of the chapters mimics that list.
This chapter also provides precious insight into Caesar’s perspective on Cora, a point of view readers have missed until now. Caesar watches Cora from the schoolhouse window. This removed gaze allows readers to step outside the story that we already know from Cora’s narration—Jockey’s birthday, the dancing, the beating of Chester and Cora. From Caesar’s detached perspective comes an opportunity to step back and reflect on the story that has transpired thus far.
Caesar knows how to read, a rare and dangerous ability for a slave. The book he reads in the schoolhouse, a gift from Mr. Fletcher, is Gulliver’s Travels. Caesar refers to the book as Travels into Several Remote Nations, the original title of the book, published anonymously in 1726 by Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift. The use of the original title is perhaps a historically accurate reference; it also, however, mimics the trajectory of Cora’s adventure. Gulliver’s Travels was a travel novel, a genre that has a painful relationship to the genre of a fugitive slave narrative. The same title could apply, after all, to Cora's forays through different states in the American south, each distinct in its horrors; but rather than travel of her own volition, Cora is on the run from slavery.
Gulliver’s Travels, however, was also a satirical commentary on English politics of the day. Indeed, it was a parody of the standard travel novel genre. The reference to this particular book raises a provocative question to readers: is The Underground Railroad also a parody? Literary critic Matthew Dischinger makes this claim in his article, “States of Possibility in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.” He describes the book as “speculative satire,” pointing out that Whitehead has produced a large body of satirical work.
Regardless of the presence of satire in The Underground Railroad, Caesar draws different lessons from the book. He learns from the protagonist’s “guile and pluck,” and resolves to seek a true home, rather than continue wandering (235).