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“Underground Railroad” by Whitehead vs. “Sticks” by Saunders


The two novels talk about events that people experience in real-life. In the novel “Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, Cora, a protagonist, flees the Georgia farm where her family has been slaves for three generations. (Whitehead 10). The story centers around a quest for freedom from slavery. On the other hand, the “Sticks” by George Saunders is a story about a father and his odd hobby of decorating a pole in his front yard (Saunders 31). The two stories use similar themes to achieve the intended purpose. For instance, the theme of family and heritage is employed in both narrations. Therefore, although the two stories are different in plot and character representations, they share themes such as family and heritage, death and freedom, as well as endurance.

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One of the themes that the two stories share is family and heritage. In the novel “Underground Railroad,” Colson talks about the role a family played in the life of Cora. She is a slave because of her grandmother, who was taken as a slave some years back (8). The mother influenced her action of escaping slavery as she did in the past. The mother escaped from the Georgia plantation, where they were being held as slaves. Similarly, the story “Sticks” also presents the role of the family in the life of children. George Saunders and the sibling progressed with their lives but realized that the seed of meanness was amongst them (31). Through heritage, the father passed the seed of meanness to the children. As a result, the two stories help to deconstruct the role of a family in the life of children.

The other theme the two stories share is endurance, defined as an individual’s capacity to make it through something difficult. The characters in the two stories went through difficult times. In the novel “Underground Railroad,” Cora endures slavery as the only means to exercise sovereignty. She, together with other slaves, went through pain and suffering at the hands of their masters. Some of the slaves were being killed for reasons such as trying to escape (Whitehead 27). Similarly, in the story “Sticks,” there is an aspect of endurance from the narrator and the siblings. They endured the sufferings caused by their father’s frustration, anger and obsession of painting the pole (31). The two stories present episodes of endurance of something going through their lives.

Both stories present the theme of death and freedom to achieve their goal to the readers. The novel “Underground Railroad” shows how some slaves end up dying when seeking freedom. For example, Martin says, “The corpses hung from trees as rotting ornaments….” They call this road the Freedom Trail now” (Whitehead 152). This means that the slaves find their freedom in death. In the same manner, in the story “Sticks,” George Saunders and his siblings find freedom when their dad dies. After the father’s death, he says that they sold the house to someone else who ended up disposing of the pole by the roadside as garbage (Saunders 32). Based on this, death helped the narrator and siblings get away from the father’s drama and obsession with painting the pole. Thus, in the two stories, death is presented as one way to attain freedom.


The two stories use symbols to represent something beyond the literal meaning. In the novel “Underground Railroad,” the topic symbolizes hope and sanctity in a violent and cruel world. At a time when people of color were enslaved, the railroad is a monument to their tenacity, to their desire not just to survive but also to be free. Books signify both liberty and power. They are restricted to slaves for fear that they will read them and conceive alternate options for their existence or be poisoned by abolitionist ideas. Similarly, in the story “Sticks,” the narrator also uses symbols to communicate with readers. A pole is used as a platform where the narrator’s father could communicate. For example, when the narrator’s mother dies, the father paints the pole as death (Saunders 32). Thus, symbols help the narrators represent things that could not be described clearly.


In the novel “Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead uses the third-person characterization technique to achieve his aims. Third-person narration is a technique where a narrator gives a character’s thoughts and feelings, but not in their voice. Readers are close to the protagonist, “Cora,” and it is possible to know some of their thoughts. However, the readers are not inside her mind and not with her every step of the way. A reader is also not with her in the suffering she is going through (Whitehead 14). As a result, there is a little less intimacy, but that distance is appropriate for readers looking back on the life of a teenage girl during the days of slavery. It would be too much to remain in her thoughts for the length of time this work covers. Therefore, this would prevent us from seeing Cora as her contemporaries view her, thus getting a feeling of her resilience.

On the other hand, in the story “Sticks,” George Saunders uses the first-person narrative technique. It involves the use of pronouns such as “I,” “me,” “we,” and “us” to tell a story from a narrator’s point of view. The plot in “Sticks” focuses mostly on the narrator, and the events only appear in the story because they impact the development of the characters. Thus, a reader sees the events and individuals mostly via the narrator’s eyes, giving the novel a sense of realism. For example, in the story, a reader can learn more about the protagonist through the author. In addition, Saunders uses first-person pronouns like we in the narration. For instance, he says, “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us” (Saunders 31). As a result, readers can discover that the father was mean. Therefore, the first-person narration technique creates a close bond between the narrator and the reader.

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Main Character

The character traits of the main characters are different in the two stories. In the novel “Underground Railroad,” the protagonist is a girl named Cora who runs away from a Georgia plantation where she and her family have been slaves for three generations. Cora is presented as a brave and rebellious character in the story. The narrator opines that she inherited Ajarry’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity and harshness, as well as Mabel’s tenacity in the face of opposition. On the other hand, in the story “Sticks,” the protagonist is a father who appears frustrated, angry, and obsessed man (Saunders 31). The story revolves around a frustrated, angry father and his obsession with a pole that he utilizes for various yard installations and decorations. Thus, the main characters are presented differently in the two stories to achieve the purpose of the two stories.

In the two stories, the ending of the protagonists is different. In the story “Underground Railroad,” Cora escapes and seeks a fresh start by hitching a ride by a black man who had a horse (Whitehead 237). She manages to run away from the plantation just like her mother. She was determined to get her freedom in any way possible. On the other hand, in the story “Sticks,” the main character’s ending, “narrator’s father,” is death. He died in the hall after painting a sign saying “LOVE” and “Forgive” (32). Therefore, one protagonist dies while another is alive at the end of the two stories.


Despite the difference in characterization, the two stories share themes such as family and heritage, endurance, and death and freedom. Based on the theme of family and heritage, children get some traits from their parents. For example, Cora is predetermined to escape from the plantation just like her mother in the story “Underground Railroad.” Similarly, in the story “Sticks,” the narrator says that they inherited the trait of meanness from the father. However, George Saunders uses first-person narration while Colson Whitehead uses third-person narration. Apart from the narration technique, the narrators present the main characters differently. George Saunders presents the father as frustrated and angry, while Colson presents Cora as brave and rebellious. Thus, the two narration have different characterization technique but similar themes.

Works Cited

Saunders, George. Tenth of December. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Whitehead, Colson. “The Underground Railroad. The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2016.

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