The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad Themes

Freedom vs. Slavery

Perhaps the most central theme in The Underground Railroad, freedom is the goal that motivates the protagonist, Cora. Her meditations on freedom provide valuable insight into the importance of this theme.

Even more valuable than the profit that drives the system of slavery in America, freedom is "the dearest currency of all" (175). An elusive ideal, however, freedom remains just out of reach throughout the entire plot. Cora and Caesar find supposed freedom in their lives in North Carolina, only to realize they are subjects in a different kind of bondage, one where the government enforces birth control and and unethical medical studies on the black population. This false promise of freedom is cut short when Ridgeway finds them and the white townspeople murder Caesar. Indeed, Cora's freedom is interrupted again and again by Ridgeway's efforts to drag her back into the slavery.

Finally, the novel concludes with Cora heading west with a caravan. Readers are left with a sense of optimism—it seems likely that Cora will find and maintain her freedom on the frontier—but there are no guarantees. Indeed, the definition of freedom in the novel is more than the absence of slavery; rather, it is something more nuanced and ambiguous. Cooped up in a North Carolina attic, Cora is technically free from slavery, but still unable to move around freely or do as she wishes. Freedom, she observes, was something "that shifted as you looked at it" (179). In other words, perhaps, freedom is always just out of reach.

The novel depicts slavery, on the other hand, as both a literal and thematic juxtaposition to freedom. Slavery in The Underground Railroad is the particular system of bondage in America whereby African-origin human beings are enslaved on the African continent and shipped to America, where they labor for white profit until death. Some experiences of slavery are relatively mild; Caesar's childhood on Mrs. Garner's farm in Virginia, for example. Most, however, are nauseatingly violent. The Randall plantation is the prime example of a brutal master inflicting his whims on an entirely helpless slave population: Terrance Randall has his slaves whipped, dismembered, hung, and raped for the slightest offense. The novel shows how slavery is a system of profit. Innovations in technology, such as the cotton gin, lead to bigger cotton yields and promise larger profits if the numbers of slaves increase. Characters such as Ridgeway believe that this violent expansion of slavery is America's destiny. Slaves themselves, such as Cora, also recognize the necessity of their enslavement: to keep driving the profits of America, the "engine that did not stop" (117). Indeed, slavery is depicted as an inherent necessity in the expansion of the nation.

Slavery is also depicted as a long-reaching monster, one that rears its head even when characters think it has been vanquished. This aspect of slavery is personified by the dogged slave catcher, Ridgeway. Each time that Cora thinks she has found freedom—in South Carolina and then in Indiana—Ridgeway appears to drag her back.

More than a concrete system of human and profit relations, slavery in the Underground Railroad is also a metaphor for the symbolic chains that limit human beings, even the white characters in the novel. The white residents of North Carolina, for example, are slaves to their fear of black revolt. That fear keeps them in bondage, driving them to set up even more elaborate and even bloodier systems of oppression to maintain control.


Labor is centrally important in The Underground Railroad. In the novel, work is depicted as an essential aspect of life that has the potential to be either oppressive or pleasurable, depending on its context.

In any setting, labor is vitally important. On the Randall plantation, for example, the cotton fields define the parameters of the lives of slaves. Slaves labor in the fields, hard work that is only made more difficult by the presence of the overseer, Connelly, and his whip. Work songs help slaves keep their spirits up. For Ajarry, Cora's grandmother, slave labor is utterly inescapable: her death from an aneurysm takes place in the cotton fields. It is this slave labor, as well, that is the driver behind the profits of white America. Thus slave labor is essential to the functioning of the nation itself.

Yet labor exists in free society, as well. Hard work is also essential to the values of the Valentine farm in Indiana, where Cora finds love and solace among a free black community. The Valentine motto is "Stay, and contribute." Cora does her part in the laundry, the milk house, in the nursery, and in the fields growing corn. The community celebrates the harvest together, turning the old slave work songs into songs of true celebration and joy. At first, Cora struggles to avoid the connotations that labor brings; every type of work reminds her of the Randall plantation. Eventually, however, she observes that "Work needn't be suffering, it could unite folks" (272). Thus labor is a symbol of how context, either slavery or freedom, shapes experience.

Community vs. the Individual

The Underground Railroad explores the tension between the individual and community. First, many different kinds of communities are depicted throughout the novel. The ideal model of a community in the novel is the Valentine farm in Indiana. A refuge for runaways and free blacks alike, the farm offers comfort and a place to live to anyone needing it. Thus everyone on the farm is united by necessity. More than that, though, they are united in a shared goal of black progress. There are debates on how best to achieve this, with some advocating for gradual, progressive advancement, and others for a more radically inclusive vision, but a sense of community binds them all together.

The white town in North Carolina where Cora hides for months is a community, too; but it is one united by fear. The white population in that state, terrified of revolt from the slave population, have embarked on a genocidal program to eliminate slaves from state borders. This goal unites them, but it also causes them to turn on each other, creating an atmosphere where petty grievances and jealousies manifest as false accusations and then lynchings. Thus the novel shows how the power of community can be harnessed for both good and evil.

In opposition to the notion of community is Cora's status as a "stray." She is an outcast on the Randall plantation, without family or lovers. She grows close to Caesar but ends up alone again. When she and Royal fall in love on the Valentine farm, it appears her time as a stray has finally ended. Yet that partnership, too, comes to an abrupt end when Royal is killed. One hand, therefore, the conclusion of the novel confirms Cora's status as a stray, a person outside the ties of family or community. On the other hand, her transport west at the end of the novel is by caravan: by definition, a community of wagons traveling together. Thus the book suggests that the ties of community are strong, lasting even after rupture and tragedy.

Land and Landscape

An important theme in The Underground Railroad is the landscape in which the plot unfolds, as well as the land itself.

Cora travels through a few distinct landscapes over the course of the novel, each symbolizing different aspects of the story. The swamp that surrounds the Randall plantation, for example, is a no-man's land. It functions as a kind of limbo between slavery and freedom. It is in the swamp where slaves hide once they have run away, though most, like Blake, never get any farther. Cora's mother dies in the swamp, swallowed up by the in-between.

A stark contrast to the swamp, which holds the promise of freedom, are the particular racist geographies of each state Cora travels through. First, South Carolina's landscape illustrates its bureaucratic method of enforcing racial order. The town where Cora and Caesar land is shaped by the government program they are subject to: dormitories where they are watched by white proctors; emporiums where they must go into debt in order to buy proper clothing; a saloon where they are given the opportunity to socialize. In addition, the Griffin Building on Main Street, a skyscraper filled with government and private sector offices, looms over the town's black population to suggest South Carolina's authoritarian, hierarchical character.

Second, the Freedom Trail in North Carolina is a grim landscape that betrays the state's particular method of racist violence. This stretch of road through the woods is lined with bodies: black men, women, and children lynched and displayed as a warning of North Carolina's genocidal regime. In this case the landscape becomes both a manifestation and a tool of white supremacist violence: the results of weekly lynchings on public display augment white and black fear alike and reinforce compliance.

In juxtaposition to these built landscapes is the promise of open land or territory, a theme that is recurrent throughout the novel. Slaves and free people alike lay claim to land. The text describes how white men in America drove the Cherokee off their territory to make way for white settlers. Slaves, too, "fought with equal fervor" over the small patches of dirt between their cabins (13). The story even concludes with the promise of fresh land, perhaps untainted by slavery, as Cora makes her way west. Thus in the novel, land offers both the promise of redemption as well provides a canvass on which the horrors of slavery are projected.

Mothers and Daughters

In many ways, Cora's story is driven by the story of her mother, Mabel, and before that, Mabel's mother, Ajarry. The legacies of these women's lives have a profound impact on Cora. Ajarry's shackles last generations, influencing Cora as she deliberates over the question of whether to run away. In addition, the plot of land in which Ajarry grows a small vegetable crop becomes Mabel's and then Cora's legacy. The yams and turnips that Mabel and Cora harvest from Ajarry's garden are symbols of the sustenance mothers give to their daughters even after their deaths.

That nourishing legacy is complicated by the relationship between Mabel and Cora. Believing Mabel has successfully made it to freedom, Cora resents her mother her whole life for leaving her in bondage. As she travels deeper into her escape journey, Cora dreams of finding her mother begging in the streets of some northern city one day, and kicking over her beggar's cup, leaving her alone.

But Cora's dreams also reveal a deep affinity for children and a mother-daughter connection. Indeed, her fantasies of freedom always include images of young children. She also treasures her friendships with young characters along journey, starting with Chester on the Randall plantation and, next, Molly on the Valentine farm. Indeed, on Valentine, Cora admires and envies the loving connection between Sybil and her daughter Molly.

Cora's preoccupation with the often-troubled connection between a mother and daughter reveals the importance of the connection between generations in the text. Cora's story is intimately connected with Mabel's: both her decision to escape and her misfortune in being relentlessly pursued by Ridgeway, who resents the fact that her mother got away from him years before.


The novel juxtaposes differing accounts of progress. For example, the Griffin Building in South Carolina, a new skyscraper, represents the progress of the nation. Looking down from the roof one evening, Cora reflects on the new construction. She wonders about "white people... and their new projects," but can't help but desire such a future for her own: "one day the building would have brothers and sisters, striding over the land... this notion stirred her, that of the town coming into its own" (118). Yet the government programs run out of the Griffin Building's offices turn out to be sinister: coercive birth control and medical studies reminiscent of the Tuskegee study. Thus the promise of progress that Cora senses with hope and optimism is revealed to actually be a dystopian, racist order.

Indeed, the novel turns a deeply critical eye to the ideas of progress embedded in America. Cora reflects on the necessity of slave labor to America's economic development: "Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood" (117). Indeed, slavery is depicted as the engine of America in the novel. The nation's economic development relied on it. The novel's critique suggests a critical view of progress.

Fate vs. Chance

Ridgeway believes in Manifest Destiny, a deadly axis of profit, ownership, and expansion that is the fate of white America. This rigid belief in destiny parallels Ajarry's perspective on her life: her fate as a slave shapes her experience. There is no alternate pathway, no way for her to alter her destiny. An opposing view, often taken by Cora, is the arbitrary character of life. The world according to Cora is indeterminate; good people suffer and bad people succeed. This tension between destiny and the arbitrary whims of the world is explored through Cora's journey in the novel.