The Underground Railroad (novel)

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The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad (Whitehead novel).jpg
AuthorColson Whitehead
CountryUnited States
Publication date
2 August 2016

The Underground Railroad, published in 2016, is the sixth novel by American author Colson Whitehead.

The alternate history novel tells the story of Cora and Caesar, two slaves in the southeastern United States during the 19th century, who make a bid for freedom from their Georgia plantation by following the Underground Railroad, which the novel depicts as primarily a rail transport system in addition to a series of safe houses and secret routes.[1]

The Underground Railroad was a critical and commercial success, hitting the bestseller lists and winning several notable prizes. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction,[2] the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction,[1][3] the Arthur C. Clarke Award,[4] and the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence.[5] It was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.[6][7]


The story is told in the third person, focusing mainly on Cora. Scattered single chapters also focus on Cora's mother Mabel, the slavecatcher Ridgeway, a reluctant slave sympathizer named Ethel, and Cora's fellow slave Caesar.

Cora is a slave on a plantation in Georgia and an outcast after her mother Mabel ran off without her. She resents Mabel for escaping, although it is later revealed that her mother, in an attempt to return to Cora, died from a snake bite and never reached her. Caesar approaches Cora about a plan to flee. Reluctant at first, she eventually agrees as her situation with her master and fellow slaves worsens. During their escape, they encounter a group of slavecatchers, who capture Cora's young friend Lovey. Cora is forced to kill a teenage boy to protect herself and Caesar, eliminating any possibility of merciful treatment should she be recaptured. With the help of an inexperienced abolitionist, Cora and Caesar find the Underground Railroad, depicted as a literal underground train system that runs throughout the south, transporting runaways northwards. They take a train to South Carolina.[8]

Upon learning of their escape, Ridgeway begins a hunt for the pair, largely in revenge for Mabel, who is the only escapee he has ever failed to capture. Meanwhile, Cora and Caesar have taken up comfortable residence in South Carolina under assumed names. South Carolina is enacting a program where the government owns former slaves but employs them, provides medical treatment, and gives them communal housing. The two enjoy their time there and put off the decision to leave until Cora learns of plans to sterilize black women and use black men as test subjects in an experiment to track the spread of syphilis. Ridgeway arrives before the two can leave, and Cora is forced to return to the Railroad alone. She later learns that Caesar was killed by an angry mob after having been caught and jailed by Ridgeway.

Cora eventually arrives in a closed-down station in North Carolina. She is found by Martin, the son of the station's former operator. North Carolina has recently decided to abolish slavery, using indentured servants instead, and violently executes any runaway slaves found in the state (as well as some freedmen). Martin, terrified of what the North Carolinians might do to an abolitionist, hides Cora in his attic for several months. Cora becomes ill and is reluctantly treated by Martin's wife Ethel. While Cora is down from the attic, a raid is conducted on the house, and she is recaptured by Ridgeway, while Martin and Ethel are executed by the mob.

Ridgeway takes Cora back toward Georgia, detouring through Tennessee to return another slave to his master. While stopped in Tennessee, Ridgeway's traveling party is attacked by escaped slaves who release Cora. Cora travels to a farm in Indiana owned by a free black man named Valentine, along with one of her rescuers, a man called Royal. The farm is populated by a number of freedmen and escapees, living and working in harmony. Royal, an operator on the Railroad, begins a romantic relationship with Cora, although she remains hesitant because of a rape by other slaves in her childhood.

A small faction of freedmen, fearing that their peaceful life will be ruined by the presence of escaped slaves, tips off slavecatchers to their presence. The farm is burned, and many people, including Royal, are killed in a raid by white Hoosiers. Ridgeway recaptures Cora and forces her to take him to a closed-down Railroad station nearby. When they arrive, she pushes him down a flight of stairs, severely injuring him. She then runs off down the tracks. Eventually, she emerges from underground to find a caravan traveling out West. She is given a ride by one of the wagons' colored drivers.[9]

Literary influences and parallels[edit]

In the "Acknowledgments", Whitehead mentions two famous escaped slaves: "Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, obviously." While in Jacobs's native North Carolina, Cora has to hide in an attic where, like Jacobs, she is not able to stand, but like her can observe the outside life through a hole that "had been carved from the inside, the work of a previous occupant".[10] Martin Ebel, who observed this parallel in a review for the Swiss Tages-Anzeiger, also observes that the "Freedom Trail", where the victims of North Carolinian lynchings hang from trees, has a historic predecessor in the crosses the Romans raised along the Appian Way to kill the slaves who had joined Spartacus' famous slave rebellion, impressively transformed into literature by Arthur Koestler in his novel The Gladiators. Ridgeway reminds Ebel of inspector Javert, the hero's merciless persecutor in Victor Hugo's Les misérables.[11]

In The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz likens Ridgeway to both Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick and the slave-catcher August Pullman of the TV series Underground: "Ridgeway ... and August Pullman, in "Underground," are Ahab-like characters, privately and demonically obsessed with tracking down specific fugitives."[12] Interestingly, both Ahab and Ridgeway have a soft spot for a black boy: Ahab for the cabin-boy Pip, and Ridgeway for 10-year-old Homer, whom he bought as a slave and set free the next day.[13]

In Whitehead's North Carolina, all blacks have been "abolished".[14] Martin Ebel observes the parallel to Hitler's program of exterminating all Jews, and also the parallel between Cora's concealment and Anne Frank's.[11] Another parallel to literature on Nazi Germany may be found in the erection of three gallows by Cora's plantation master. He had the three gallows erected for Cora and her two fellow fugitives in order to put them to a cruel death as soon as each fugitive would be returned.[15] In Anna Seghers's novel The Seventh Cross, written in exile between 1938 and 1942, seven prisoners escape from a concentration camp, and the camp commander has a cross erected for each of them to be tortured there after his being returned.


External video
video icon Presentation by Whitehead at the Miami Book Fair on The Underground Railroad, November 20, 2016, C-SPAN


The novel has received a number of awards, including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction. The previous book to win both the Pulitzer and the National Book prizes was The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx, in 1993.[2]

While awarding the Pulitzer Prize, the committee recognized this novel for a "smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America."[16]

The Underground Railroad was also awarded the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature.[17]

When The Underground Railroad was published in the United States in August 2016, it was selected for Oprah's Book Club.[18]

On 5 August 2020, a crater on Pluto's moon Charon was named Cora, after the character in the novel, by the International Astronomical Union's Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature.[19]

Critical reception[edit]

The novel received positive reviews from critics.[20][21] Reviewers praised it for its commentary on both the past and present of the United States.[20][21]

In 2019, The Underground Railroad was ranked 30th on The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.[22] The novel was voted the greatest of its decade in Paste[23] and was third place (along with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad) in a list by Literary Hub.[24]


It was announced in March 2017 that Amazon is making a limited drama series based on The Underground Railroad, written and directed by Barry Jenkins.[25]


  1. ^ a b "The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, 2016 National Book Award Winner, Fiction". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  2. ^ a b "2017 Pulitzer Prize Winners and Nominees". The Pulitzer Prizes. 2017. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  3. ^ Alter, Alexandra (17 November 2016). "Colson Whitehead Wins National Book Award for 'The Underground Railroad'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 24 January 2017.
  4. ^ "Arthur C Clarke Winner Announced", Foyles, July 27, 2017.
  5. ^ French, Agatha. "American Library Assn.'s 2017 award winners include 'March: Book Three' by Rep. John Lewis". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 24 January 2017.
  6. ^ Haigney, Sophie (27 July 2017). "Man Booker Longlist Features Arundhati Roy and Colson Whitehead". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 23 May 2018.
  7. ^ Loughrey, Clarisse (27 July 2017). "The Man Booker prize 2017 longlist has been revealed". The Independent. Retrieved 23 May 2018.
  8. ^ In Colson Whitehead’s Latest, the Underground Railroad Is More Than a Metaphor
  9. ^ "The Underground Railroad (novel) Summary & Study Guide". Bookrags. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  10. ^ Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad. London 2017, pp. 185.
  11. ^ a b Wie Sklaven ihrem Schicksal entkamen. (in German).
  12. ^ The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad
  13. ^ Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad. London 2017, pp. 242-243.
  14. ^ A white politician named Garrison says: "We abolished niggers.", Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad. London 2017, p. 197.
  15. ^ Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad. London 2017, p. 250.
  16. ^ [ The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) ]
  17. ^ Page, Benedicte, "Whitehead shortlisted for Arthur C Clarke Award", The Bookseller, May 3, 2017.
  18. ^ Whitehead, Colson. "The Underground Railroad (National Book Award Winner) (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel". ISBN 9780385542364. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  19. ^ ""Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature - International Astronomical Union (IAU) Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN) - Planetary Names: Crater, craters: Cora on Charon". Retrieved 14 August 2020.
  20. ^ a b Kakutani, Michiko (2 August 2016). "Review: 'Underground Railroad' Lays Bare Horrors of Slavery and Its Toxic Legacy". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2017.
  21. ^ a b Preston, Alex (9 October 2016). "The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead review – luminous, furious and wildly inventive". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 April 2017.
  22. ^ "The 100 best books of the 21st century". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
  23. ^ "The 40 Best Novels of the 2010s". 14 October 2019. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  24. ^ "Best of the Decade: What Books Will We Still Be Reading in 10 Years?". Literary Hub. 24 September 2019. Retrieved 18 February 2020.
  25. ^ Kimberly Roots, "The Underground Railroad Series, From Moonlight Director, Greenlit at Amazon", TVLine, March 27, 2017.