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In Chapter 13, Ellison gives a detailed catalogue of the belongings of the elderly...

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bryanh19 | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 18, 2012 at 6:20 PM via web

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In Chapter 13, Ellison gives a detailed catalogue of the belongings of the elderly couple being evicted: What do these individual items signify?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 18, 2012 at 8:26 PM (Answer #1)

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In Chapter 13, after having gone out in the bitter cold and enjoyed yams as he had when a child, the narrator walks with his head down and eyes closed in order to avoid the gray smoke--a figurative gesture, as well. Thus, he nearly stumbles over an evicted elderly couple's belongings that have been brought into the street by two men acting on behalf of the landlord:

It was startling:  The crowd watching silently, the two white men lugging the chair and trying to dodge the blows and the old woman's face streaming with angry tears as she thrashed at them with her fists....Something, a sense of foreboding, filled me, a quick sense of uncleanliness.

The narrator takes another look at what initially he thought was trash. This time, however, he notices the articles of their private lives that have been exposed to the street and all that pass.  He sees

  1. a battered chest of drawers, which has long held their clothes, carrying with it a history of their youth, middle age, and the older years.
  2. a Bible that is obviously the most valuable possession of the old woman, who cries for it.  Not only does it represent her religious faith, but it probably contains a record of the family tree.

    "Just come stomping and jerk your life up by the roots! But this here's the last straw. They ain't going to bother my Bible!"

  3. an oval frame with a portrait of the couple when they were young, displaying the "sad, stiff dignity of the face(s)." This, of course, is another nostalgic connection to the past as well as testimony to  difficult lives in their era.
  4. "knocking bones" used to accompany music played by traveling ministrel shows.  This is a memoir from the couple's youth and happier days.
  5. many pots of green plants, flowers, and tomatoes, which are symbolic of their continuing love of life and efforts to bring beauty into their humble dwelling.
  6. a basket containing a straightening comb, swatches of false hair, and a curling iron. These also are reminders of a beauty spent as the old woman, with her head now "tied up" in a handkerchief, probably rarely uses the comb, and never the false hair.
  7. a card with silver letters that are set against a dark red velvet background, reading "God Bless Our Home." Since this card is in the basket with the toiletries, it has not been displayed, and may perhaps represent the despairing state in which the elderly couple live.
  8. a chiffonier, a narrow chest of drawers, upon which are set "nuggets of High John the Conqueror, the lucky stone."  High John was a hero in African-American folklore. A root named after him purportedly has magical powers.  This is a good luck charm of sorts that the couple have kept.
  9. a old whiskey bottle filled with rock candy and camphor, again symbolic of a wilder youth now subdued to old age, reduced to candy and medicine for relief.
  10. an Ethiopian flag, which may indicate their African heritage.
  11. some broken china, which may have long ago been a wedding present, now symbolic of their old, broken lives
  12. a tintype of Abraham Lincoln, who represented freedom for the slaves and the Negroes hope for a better life.
  13. a magazine picture of a Hollywood Star, which is symbolic of dreams of a better life
  14. a commemorative plate from the St. Louis World's fair, symbolic of an important trip and a wonderful time in their youth
  15. an old folded lace fan with jet and mother-of-pearl, a memoir of a prosperous time with the couple were young; they may have yet been single and have attended a ball.

Interestingly, in their impoverished state and amid despair, there are yet signs of hope, love, happiness with the mementos, good luck charm, and picture of Lincoln.

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