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Home » Escaping to Freedom: A Summary of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016)

Escaping to Freedom: A Summary of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016)

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad (2016), is a powerful and thought-provoking work of fiction that explores the horrors of slavery in America and the resilience of those who fought for their freedom. The novel follows the journey of a young slave named Cora as she escapes the brutality of her plantation and embarks on a dangerous journey to freedom via the Underground Railroad. This article provides a summary of the novel and discusses its themes, characters, and historical significance.

The Plot

The plot of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad follows the journey of Cora, a young slave girl on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Cora’s mother had escaped years before, leaving Cora behind. Cora is approached by Caesar, a fellow slave, who asks her to join him in an escape attempt. They make their way to the Underground Railroad, a secret network of people and safe houses that help slaves escape to freedom. The Railroad is depicted as an actual underground train system, which takes Cora and Caesar to various locations in the South and eventually to the North. Along the way, they encounter both allies and enemies, including slave catchers and abolitionists. The novel explores themes of freedom, identity, and the legacy of slavery in America.

The Protagonist: Cora

Cora is the protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. She is a young woman who was born into slavery and has spent her entire life on a Georgia plantation. Cora is determined to escape to freedom, and when she is given the opportunity to do so, she takes it without hesitation. Throughout the novel, Cora faces numerous challenges and obstacles, but she remains strong and resilient. She is a complex character who is both vulnerable and courageous, and her journey to freedom is both harrowing and inspiring. Cora’s story is a powerful reminder of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, and her determination to escape to freedom is a testament to the enduring power of hope.

The Antagonist: Ridgeway

Ridgeway is the primary antagonist in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. He is a slave catcher who is determined to capture Cora, the protagonist, and return her to her plantation owner. Ridgeway is a complex character who is driven by his own personal demons. He is haunted by the memory of a slave who escaped from him years ago, and he is determined to capture Cora to prove to himself that he is not a failure. Ridgeway is also a man who believes in the superiority of the white race and sees slavery as a necessary evil. He is a formidable opponent for Cora, and their cat-and-mouse game is one of the central conflicts in the novel.

The Underground Railroad as a Literal Railroad

One of the most striking aspects of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is the literalization of the Underground Railroad. In the novel, the Underground Railroad is not just a network of safe houses and secret routes, but an actual railroad with trains and tracks. This fantastical element adds a layer of magic and wonder to the story, while also emphasizing the importance of transportation in the fight for freedom. The railroad becomes a symbol of hope and possibility, a way for the characters to physically move towards a better life. However, the railroad is also dangerous and unpredictable, with its own set of rules and risks. Whitehead’s use of the literal railroad is a powerful metaphor for the complexities of the journey towards freedom, and the sacrifices that must be made along the way.

The Historical Context

The Underground Railroad, written by Colson Whitehead, is a novel that takes place in the 19th century, during a time when slavery was legal in the United States. The novel is set in the southern states, where slavery was most prevalent, and follows the story of a young slave named Cora who escapes from a plantation and travels north to freedom. The historical context of the novel is important to understanding the challenges that Cora and other slaves faced during this time period. Slavery was a deeply ingrained institution in the southern states, and many white Americans believed that it was necessary for the economy and way of life in the region. The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses that were used by slaves to escape to freedom in the north. The novel explores the dangers and risks that slaves faced when attempting to escape, as well as the bravery and resilience of those who helped them along the way. Understanding the historical context of The Underground Railroad is essential to appreciating the significance of the novel and the impact that slavery had on American society.

The Themes

The Underground Railroad explores several themes that are relevant to the contemporary world. One of the most prominent themes is the idea of freedom. The novel portrays the struggle of enslaved people to escape the brutal system of slavery and attain freedom. The author highlights the importance of freedom as a fundamental human right that should be enjoyed by all. The novel also explores the theme of racism and its impact on society. Whitehead portrays the brutal and dehumanizing effects of racism on both the enslaved people and the slave owners. The novel also explores the theme of identity and the struggle of enslaved people to maintain their identity in the face of oppression. The author highlights the importance of identity as a means of resistance and survival. Finally, the novel explores the theme of memory and its role in shaping our understanding of the past. Whitehead portrays the importance of remembering the past as a means of understanding the present and shaping the future. Overall, The Underground Railroad is a powerful exploration of some of the most pressing issues of our time.

The Symbolism

The Underground Railroad is a novel that is rich in symbolism. The underground railroad itself is a symbol of hope and freedom. It represents the network of people who risked their lives to help slaves escape to freedom. The railroad is also a symbol of the journey that the main character, Cora, takes to escape slavery. Each stop on the railroad represents a different state of mind or a different aspect of the struggle for freedom. The different characters that Cora meets along the way also represent different aspects of the struggle for freedom. For example, the character of Ridgeway represents the forces that are trying to keep slaves in bondage. The symbolism in The Underground Railroad is powerful and adds depth to the story.

The Writing Style

The writing style of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is both captivating and haunting. Whitehead’s use of vivid imagery and descriptive language transports the reader to the antebellum South, where the story takes place. The author’s prose is both poetic and raw, as he delves into the brutal realities of slavery and the harrowing journey of the main character, Cora, as she escapes to freedom. Whitehead’s writing style is also notable for its use of magical realism, as the underground railroad is depicted as a literal railroad with trains and stations. This unique approach adds a fantastical element to the story while also highlighting the power of imagination and hope in the face of oppression. Overall, Whitehead’s writing style is a major factor in the success of The Underground Railroad, as it immerses the reader in the story and leaves a lasting impact.

The Reception and Awards

The reception of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) was overwhelmingly positive, with many critics praising the novel’s powerful storytelling and vivid characters. The book went on to win numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. Whitehead’s work has been hailed as a masterpiece of American literature, and its impact on readers and critics alike is sure to be felt for years to come.

The Adaptation to Television

The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead, was adapted into a limited series for television in 2020. The adaptation, which aired on Amazon Prime Video, was directed by Barry Jenkins and starred Thuso Mbedu as the protagonist, Cora. The series received critical acclaim for its powerful performances and stunning visuals, but also faced criticism for its departure from the novel’s narrative structure. Despite this, the adaptation brought renewed attention to Whitehead’s novel and sparked important conversations about the legacy of slavery in America.

The Impact on Literature and Society

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has had a significant impact on both literature and society. The novel has been praised for its powerful storytelling and its ability to shed light on the horrors of slavery in America. It has also sparked important conversations about race, history, and the legacy of slavery in the United States. The book has been widely read and discussed, and has even been adapted into a television series. The impact of The Underground Railroad is a testament to the power of literature to inspire change and promote understanding.