The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Ajarry's Vegetable Garden (Symbol)

When Ajarry arrives on the Randall plantation, she lays claim to a small garden plot between slave cabins and begins growing vegetables. Mabel inherits the garden when Ajarry dies, taking care of the yams and okra. When Mabel runs away, and it is Cora's turn to inherit the plot, she protects it from intruders who hope to steal the bit of land for themselves. The plot functions as a symbol of the nourishing legacy of mothers to their daughters.

The garden is also a symbol of the importance of land. A recurring theme in the novel, land is highly valuable. On the plantation, slaves struggle for the “tiny parcels” between their plantation cabins (13). Further, throughout the nation, white men divide up territories on which to extract resources for profit, driving off Native American tribes and importing African slaves. Thus this small garden symbolizes those larger struggles that define the novel's context.

Lastly, the garden symbolizes freedom. For a few hours every week, when Cora tends to the garden, “She own[s] herself” (12). Cora is able to spend her time laboring for her own self, rather than for the profit of her white master. When she finally escapes, the turnips from her garden nourish her, leading her towards an even greater concept of freedom.

Dance (Motif)

On Randall, dance is an important way for slaves to cope with the brutality of plantation life. They form dance circles to live music on feast days and celebrations, such as Old Jockey's birthday. Yet the slaves' dance circles are also turned into a tool of humiliation by their masters. Terrance Randall drunkenly orders the crowd to dance, mimicking their earlier joy. It is during this forced dance that Chester lightly bumps Terrance's wine glass and is subjected to a violent punishment.

Cora never participates, though; she watches from the sidelines. A recurring scene in the novel, Cora watches her fellow slaves dance on Randall, her fellow workers in South Carolina, and even her friends and community members on the Valentine farm. Each time, the trauma from her sexual assault prevents her from being so close to the chaotic movements of a crowd.

The motif of dance surfaces dramatically in the last chapter of the novel, when Cora faces off with her nemesis, Ridgeway. She remembers watching couples dance intimately together all those times she remained all the sidelines, and uses that same close embrace to pull Ridgeway down the cellar steps, injuring him and thereby escaping.

Declaration of Independence (Symbol)

The Declaration of Independence makes several appearances throughout the novel, each time evoking the paradoxical promise of America. On Randall, a slave named Michael memorizes the Declaration of Independence and recites it from rote memory as amusement for his white masters. In this instance, the famous document is a symbol of the way America excludes millions of black slaves, indeed rendering them objects rather than human beings inherently deserving of freedom.

Almanac (Motif)

Almanacs appear repeatedly over the course of the novel to bring Cora hope for the future. She becomes an avid reader of almanacs while hiding in a tiny attic in North Carolina. The old almanacs contain information about tides and nature, astrological predictions, and tips and commentary. It is revealed that these almanacs were used by Donald Wells to help plan the best time for a runaway slave to escape, according to the moon, thus conjuring the idea of freedom even when it seems impossible. Later in the novel, on the Valentine farm, Royal gifts Cora newer almanacs. Cora treasures these more recent editions and they remind her of the possibilities of the future, when she might use the information collected in them to help care for children or a vegetable garden. Even Ridgeway is an avid reader of almanacs, and thus they united characters across the boundary of good and evil.

Rape and Sexual Violence (Motif)

The victimization of black women through rape occurs again and again in the novel. First, it is in Cora's lineage. Ajarry was raped on the slave ship that brought her to America; Mabel was raped by Moses, a fellow slave; and finally, Cora is gang-raped behind the schoolhouse when she is a teenager. The specter of sexual assault is raised again in Ethel's story, which depicts her father "going upstairs" to visit the bedroom of the barely-teenage slave Jasmine. Cora's trauma from her rape is part of what casts her apart. She is unable to join in the dancing of her peers, for example, for fear of being too close to so many bodies. This motif of sexual violence at the hands of both white and black men serves as a reminder of the ways black women face particular oppression.