Cadence and Courage: Characterization in Whitehead's The Underground RailroadSo first, a confession. I study the history and legacy of slavery. That is my life’s work. So when I say that Colson Whitehead has done such a masterful job of creating a literal railroad as The Underground Railroad that I had to double-check and be sure I hadn’t missed that fact all those years, it’s a bit embarrassing. But it’s true.  (Take this as a caution – there were no train tracks on the historic Underground Railroad.)

But that is one of the things I love most about this novel – that Whitehead took his childhood image of this massive engine of escape as crafted it into a novel that is, in all other ways, historically accurate and literal. The freedom he felt to make that choice, to refigure that history is a symbol, all on its own, of the power he is able to claim and is now claiming as one of the best authors of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Still, as much as I loved this choice on the author’s part, it was his masterful rending of his protagonist Cora that won me over most. Cora is a teenage girl, a slave who finds herself in a position where she can – and must – run away from the plantation on which she is enslaved in Georgia. Thus begins her journey on The Underground Railroad.

Through a series of events, which I do not want to include here because I don’t do spoilers, Cora is revealed to be wise, inquisitive, courageous (Cora, from the root coeur for “heart), perseverant, and tender, too. Her words around things – the way she describes the motivations of the people who perpetuate, reinvent, and thwart slavery, especially – are lyrical while at the same time reflective of her education and the dialect of her childhood.  And still, she is portrayed as a teenage girl with the pulls and pains of all teenage girls but also those of the individual trauma she has survived and is surviving.

Cora has my heart here, even though – to be honest – I’m not sure she’d like me, and that’s just fine.

Three Ways Whitehead Builds a Powerful Character

Characterization is a hard thing. It can be too idiosyncratic or too broad-stroked. It can create characters that, even with this intention, do not generate empathy in the reader. Whitehead avoids all those pitfalls.

  1. The use of third person. Rather than take the, perhaps, more-expected, first-person point of view, Whitehead chooses to present this story in limited third-person. So we are close to Cora, and we know some of her thoughts, but we are not in her head, so to speak. We aren’t walking through every moment with her, and we aren’t living through the daily traumas she is experiencing. Thus, there’s a little less intimacy, but then, that distance is fitting for readers who are looking back on the life of a teenage girl in days of slavery.  It would be too much to be in her head for the length of time this novel covers, and it would not allow us to witness Cora as she is seen by her contemporaries and, thus, get a sense of her resilience. It’s hard for us to see ourselves as strong in the midst of trial without seeming arrogant. Cora is proud, but she is not arrogant.
  2. The use of rich vocabulary. Because he is not constrained by Cora’s own language, Whitehead is able to bring in a richer vocabulary – the language Cora has later in life, perhaps – to describe the scenes and setting.  But more than just the events, the choice and arrangements of Whitehead’s words reveals Cora’s perceptive and astute understanding of human nature and motivation. As the story progresses, she moves from jaded innocence and naivety to resilient, honest understanding. It’s Whitehead’s language that allows us to see this change without the need of a narrator who stands distinct from – and therefore empowered over – Cora. Rather, we are kept close to her, tight up to her battered, bold body.
  3. The inclusion of others’ experiences. Finally, Whitehead is not strictured by his point of view and, so, brings in the experiences of others – a slave catcher, a station agent, etc. – to broaden the story, build in more suspense, and verify Cora’s perceptions about the people she meets. Interestingly, Whitehead does not feel the need to build in gentle transitions or even any more than the most simple of signals to indicate we are moving into another person’s situation. Rather, he simply shifts over – as if Cora is narrating their stories but without any clunky devices like flashbacks or tense changes – to telling us a bit of the story that will, soon, become completely tied to Cora’s. Thus, we are able to anticipate how, yet again, Cora will be challenged, changed, and ultimately, shaped.

In the end, we are left with a central character who is not confined by the system that sought to not just limit but imprison her very thoughts. Cora sails beyond the boundaries of slavery in far more ways that simple, bodily freedom (and that happens early in the book, so don’t worry – still no spoilers) and, thus, gives us a portrait of both the cost of her struggle and the power of her spirit.

Have you read The Underground Railroad* or any of Whitehead’s other books? If so, what do you think of them? 

By the way, if you’re an audiobook lover, this is a great one to listen to. The cadences of speech are expertly rendered as are the intricacies of the South’s various accents.


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