The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora’s journey from slavery on a Georgia plantation to freedom in the North. Her route takes her across the country, with stops in South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana before she makes her final escape into an unnamed place in the free North. Whitehead mixes elements of magical realism and science fiction into the novel, such that the places Cora visits contain elements of other places and times in American history. Her journey includes eugenics and other twentieth-century examples of social control in South Carolina, brutal racial exclusion laws in North Carolina, large-scale environmental destruction in Tennessee and an intentional community in Indiana. Whitehead makes the underground railroad a literal railroad in this book, with locomotives pulling cars Cora rides between states. In addition to the dangers she faces in the places she visits, Cora has an antagonist in the form of Ridgeway, the slave catcher who pursues her throughout her journey. Their conflict drives the story, as he chases her from state to state. 

Ridgeway represents the forces of the American imperative. He defines his role as maintaining the order of white supremacy to allow the economic expansion driven by cotton production. He chases Cora not because he hates her but because she and other enslaved Black people are necessary tools in his view, who grow the crop that dominates the world economy and therefore serve the manifest destiny of the United States. This view requires dismissing the suffering of Black people as irrelevant and the hypocrisy of a nation taking pride in its belief in the rights of individuals while maintaining a system of forced labor. Cora’s fierce independence and determination stands in opposition to Ridgeway’s philosophy. Their conflict is fueled by her refusal to accept his vision of America, which defines her as an object rather than a person with rights of self-determination. Throughout the book, she struggles against forces that seek to control her. 

Once Ridgeway is chasing Cora, the conflict between them as protagonist and antagonist is set in motion and must lead to their final battle. During her initial escape from the Georgia plantation, Cora, Caesar, and Lovey fight a group of hog hunters who seek to capture them. In the struggle, Cora injures a boy who later dies of his wounds, and this death marks her as a murderer. That murder and her escape from Georgia via the Underground Railroad lead to Ridgeway’s hunt for her. From the moment Cora leaves the plantation, she has committed to escaping or dying, since she knows from the example of Big Anthony that Terrance Randall will torture and kill any enslaved person caught after an attempted escape. Ridgeway chases her into South Carolina, leading to her desperate run for North Carolina. Although Cora successfully hides for months in Martin Wells’s attic, Ridgeway captures her in North Carolina. He takes her to Tennessee as part of his journey to Missouri to capture a different escapee, but in Tennessee, Royal rescues Cora. He brings her to Valentine farm in Indiana, where she intends to join the community, before the farm is betrayed and Ridgeway captures her again. 

Cora’s conflict with Ridgeway culminates in their fight at the ghost tunnel. Ridgeway has forced Cora to show him the tunnel because he has a vendetta against the Underground Railroad. Cora, like all those who ride the railroad, tries to keep it secret, but threatened with Ridgeway’s pistol, she chooses her own survival over secrecy. Ridgeway, ecstatic, believes this will be the beginning of his destruction of the whole system. However, Cora attacks him. She, Ridgeway and Homer struggle in the station until, injured, Cora is able to make it to the handcar on the tracks and escape. While she pumps the handcar, Ridgeway lies dying, still philosophizing about the American imperative while Homer takes notes. By escaping through the tunnel, Cora is also digging it, answering the question she has asked throughout the book about how the system was built. In Whitehead’s magical realism, the tunnels are dug by the people escaping, each one leaving a path behind for others to follow in the future. 

Cora’s journey is a mental escape from slavery in addition to a physical one. At each stop in her travels, she grows stronger and freer. In South Carolina, she begins to learn to read and at the same time rejects the attempts by doctors to control her body and steal her future by sterilizing her. In North Carolina, she reads almanacs that allow her to dream of a bigger world and a future she has not imagined. In Indiana, she encounters a community so safe she begins to trust others, witnessing Sibyl and Molly as a healing example of love between a mother and child and allowing Royal to court her. In Indiana, she sees a vision of freedom she never imagined. Her trip through the ghost tunnel requires all the strength she has in her, but in the tunnel, she is digging, she feels the shape of a different America than the one she has known. When she climbs into Ollie’s wagon in the North, she wonders how long it has taken him to put his own enslavement behind him, an indication that she believes she will be able to do the same.