Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is a brilliant and harrowing reimagining of the historical escape network that helped enslaved African Americans flee to freedom.

In Whitehead’s novel, the Underground Railroad is depicted as an actual subterranean train system, providing a surreal and powerful metaphor for the perilous journey to liberation.

The story follows Cora, a young enslaved woman who escapes from a Georgia plantation and embarks on a treacherous journey through various states, each with its own distinct and often horrifying approach to slavery and race relations.

Whitehead’s narrative is both a gripping adventure and a profound exploration of America’s history of racial oppression. His vivid prose and unflinching portrayal of the brutality of slavery are balanced by moments of hope and resilience.

“The Underground Railroad” is a masterful work that challenges readers to confront the enduring legacy of slavery and the ongoing struggle for racial justice.

Summary of the Plot

“The Underground Railroad” follows the harrowing journey of Cora, a young enslaved woman on a Georgia plantation, as she escapes and seeks freedom via the Underground Railroad. In Whitehead’s novel, the Underground Railroad is not a mere metaphor but a literal subterranean train system. Cora’s journey takes her through different states, each representing various aspects and stages of the American experience with slavery and racism. Throughout her perilous journey, she is relentlessly pursued by the determined slave catcher Ridgeway, making her struggle for freedom fraught with danger and uncertainty.


  1. Slavery and Freedom:
    • The novel vividly depicts the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, portraying the physical, psychological, and emotional toll it takes on individuals and communities. Cora’s quest for freedom symbolizes the broader struggle for liberation and human dignity.
  2. Historical Reinterpretation:
    • Whitehead uses anachronisms and reimagined historical elements to create a narrative that, while rooted in historical reality, transcends specific time periods to comment on the enduring impact of racism and oppression. This approach invites readers to reflect on the past’s relevance to present-day issues.
  3. Resistance and Survival:
    • The various characters Cora encounters represent different forms of resistance and survival. From the abolitionists who risk their lives to assist her to other enslaved individuals who find ways to resist their oppressors, the novel highlights the resilience and agency of those who endured slavery.
  4. Identity and Self-Discovery:
    • Cora’s journey is not just a physical escape from bondage but also a journey of self-discovery. As she travels, she learns about her own strength, resilience, and capacity for hope.


  1. Cora:
    • Cora is a complex and multifaceted protagonist. Her evolution from a traumatized and isolated girl into a determined and courageous woman embodies the struggle for freedom and the search for self-identity. Her resilience and determination drive the narrative forward, making her a compelling and empathetic character.
  2. Ridgeway:
    • Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, embodies the persistent and pervasive nature of racial oppression. His character is a reminder of the relentless pursuit of control and domination that characterized the institution of slavery and its legacy.
  3. Caesar:
    • Caesar, who initially escapes with Cora, represents hope and partnership. His intellectualism and dreams of freedom contrast with the harsh realities they face, adding depth to the narrative.
  4. Mabel:
    • Cora’s mother, Mabel, whose mysterious disappearance haunts Cora, symbolizes the painful and complex legacy of slavery. Her story, revealed towards the end of the novel, adds a poignant layer to Cora’s understanding of her own past and motivations.