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Medieval sanctuary, gothic entrapment, and the fugitive self in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

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Colson Whitehead’s underground railroad is the site of a survival so minimal that it seems to offer no sanctuary from either physical brutality or the legal fictions that reduce Black people to property. His young protagonist, Cora, escapes the plantation in a literal train, hurtling through cold, dank, dark tunnels, in unknown directions, according to a mysterious timetable. Invoking a gothic spatial dynamic, the book obstructs the idealisation of the underground railroad, demystifies its function as permanent refuge, and inhibits empathy. I argue that the medieval legal history of sanctuary—a site of flight, disorientation, and contingent survival—offers conceptual insight into Whitehead’s novel of fugitivity. Medieval sanctuary allows us a perspective from which Whitehead’s dank underground railroad appears as a meaning-making machine, a site where Cora can forge an insistent, if wavering, social personhood.

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  1. Further, Li argues, the novel creates a fantasy of Cora’s basic moral goodness, and it narrates the serial deferral of her bondage until a final happy ending—so that style, character, and structure all partake in the making of a palatable fantasy of miraculous escape.

  2. Scholars have noted the book’s generic instability: Li (2019) and Friedman (2021) cite slave narrative and neo-slave narrative; Matthew Dischinger (2017) calls it ‘speculative satire’ that critiques fantasy; Nihad Farooq (2019) relates the book to utopias.

  3. On Cora’s subjecthood as source of hope, see Friedman (2021, 128). Others locate the novel’s source of possibility in collective action. Farooq (2019) locates hope in the maroon community at Valentine farm; Dischinger (2017) and Li (2019) place the book in relation to collective legacies of racism in America.

  4. Rudolf Otto describes the holy in terms of excess: it is constituted by ‘a clear overplus of meaning’ that exceeds moral and legal systems Otto (1923, 5–7). Sanctuary surpasses legal and even moral judgment: regardless of what  crime people commit, they can survive.

  5. These invaders are denigrated as ‘Saracens,’ who are pagan and black, despite uncertain geographical origins. Sanctuary bolsters Horn’s land claim; one could argue further that sanctuary helps racialise both his enemies and himself. On ‘Saracen’ representations in middle English literature, see Calkin (2005); Cawsey (2009); Speed (1990).

  6. Friedman argues that Whitehead does not portray Cora’s subjectivity as produced by enslavement but that her interiority therefore ‘evades capture on the page.’ Friedman (2021, 128). I find that the book devotes energy to Cora’s gothic enmeshment in the infrastructure she is trying to escape, but that her interiority does emerge in the end.

  7. There was sometimes a racial as well as religious component to sanctuary’s conditions: Jews were not typically granted sanctuary, according to Shoemaker (2011, 71, 160). See also Jordan (2008, 21).

  8. For Agamben, ‘mere life’ or ‘bare life’ is existence absolutely vulnerable to the sovereign, meaningful only as evidence of sovereign power and therefore ‘exposed to an unconditional capacity to be killed’ (1995, 85).

  9. Reviewers grapple with the novel’s balance between flight and recuperation. Winters refers pessimistically to Cora’s ‘utter fugitivity’ (2018, 342). Friedman writes that Cora ‘embodies a fugitive hope-against-hope,’ (2021, 135). For Farooq, however, fugitivity is a source of hope, ‘a being in movement that inaugurates a new ontology of freedom’ (2019, 95).

  10. For Farooq (2019), Valentine Farm’s utopic vision is as impermanent as the model of sanctuary I propose.

  11. Farooq points out that Lander is a DuBoisian figure, arguing against the less radical Washingtonian figure, Mingo. Farooq (2019, 100).

  12. Dischinger’s phrase ‘speculative satire’ captures this ludic / mocking element of the novel, locating it in Lumbly’s ironic indication of the ‘true face of America’ seen in the dark speculative machinery of the railroad. Dischinger (2017, 96).

  13. ‘Cora’ in Greek means daughter, maiden, or girl and is a name for Persephone (Lidell and Scott 1961, 980–981).


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I am grateful to Michael Szalay for incisive conversation and generous reading, and for teaching me about the gothic. I am also grateful to Letizia Mariani for her insight on Cora’s name, and the other students in my Sanctuary graduate seminar (2021) and honors seminar (2020) for the conversations that germinated this essay. Thanks go to Nicole Miller and Montserrat Piera at Temple University for hosting on Zoom in 2021 a talk that developed into this essay.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Allen.

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Allen, E. Medieval sanctuary, gothic entrapment, and the fugitive self in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Postmedieval 14, 149–178 (2023).

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