Study Guide

Invisible Man

by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man Summary

Overview

Invisible Man

Summary of the Novel
Invisible Man is a first-person novel. It concerns an unnamed narrator, whom the reader meets in the Prologue. In the Epilogue, the narrator seems to “rejoin” the reader once again.

Other than his memories of his grandfather’s death, the narrator reveals nothing about his childhood. After the humiliating battle royal (a chaotic boxing match, along with sundry torments, in which high school boys competed), he goes to college, where he has an experience in betrayal that changes his life.

Having inadvertently taken an important visitor to the wrong places, the narrator is left exposed to the harsh judgment of Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college. The narrator is emotionally scarred by what has happened.

Forced to leave the college that he loved, the narrator takes a bus to New York City to find work. There he tries to use letters of recommendation, but to no avail. He eventually takes a job in a paint factory. Another unpleasant lesson ensues there, for the narrator is untrained for the work. He is placed under the thumb of a bitter and distrusting man, who maneuvers the narrator into an industrial accident.

The narrator is once again torn loose from his moorings. After the accident, the narrator endured a bizarre experience, in which medical personnel tortured him. Mary, a stranger, finds the narrator in the street, and offers him a home. Soon afterward, a protest of the eviction of an old couple leads the narrator to join a political group called the Brotherhood.

The narrator seems to advance in the organization, but the petty politics and machinations of those around him ensure the narrator’s instability. Eventually, the narrator is betrayed by the Brotherhood. Not long after one of the members is killed by a policeman, a riot begins. In the growing confusion, the narrator takes to the underground.

The Life and Work of Ralph Waldo Ellison
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He died on April 16, 1994, in Harlem, New York. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, a great nineteenth-century writer. When Lewis Ellison thought of the future, he saw his son, the poet.

The narrator of Invisible Man shows an interest in Ralph Waldo Emerson. The young Ralph Ellison felt a burden attached to this great name, a pressure to become great himself, and it made him uncomfortable.

Ralph Ellison did not grow up in the Deep South, as his parents had, and this made an important difference in his life. Oklahoma was a new territory, offering a chance for a better life than in the former slave states, despite the Jim Crow laws that white settlers brought with them.

Ellison went to Douglass High School (named after Frederick Douglass), and then to Tuskegee Institute, a well-known historically black college in Alabama, in June 1933. He was unhappy at Tuskegee, and his impressions of that college are reflected in the narrator’s experiences with Dr. Bledsoe in Invisible Man. Ellison never finished his degree. Instead, he left for New York in the spring of 1936. The great promise of Harlem was calling his name.

Once he arrived, Ellison took odd jobs and met the leading black artists and intellectuals of his day. The atmosphere was vibrant, and Ellison, whose artistic abilities included music, sculpture, writing, and photography, participated in what was later called the Harlem Renaissance. Soon, through the encouragement of black American writer Richard Wright author of Native Son, Ellison was publishing book reviews and short stories.

Ellison worked on Invisible Man for five years. It was published in 1952 and won the National Book Award for fiction. Ellison’s only novel, it established his literary reputation. He also published two collections of essays: Shadow and Act in 1964 and Going into the Territory in 1986.

Ellison died in Harlem, New York, which had been his home for twenty years, and which he immortalized in his masterpiece, Invisible Man.

Estimated Reading Time

The average silent-reading rate for a secondary student is 250 to 300 words per minute, making the total reading time for this novel about 19 hours.

Invisible Man can be a challenging novel. Teachers will no doubt be sensitive to Ellison’s subject matter and technique, and divide their assignments accordingly. Allow plenty of time to enjoy this great work. Reading the book according to the natural chapter breaks is the best approach, although most of the longer chapters have their own divisions.

Invisible Man Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Frequently discussed as a novel addressing racial identity in modern, urban America, Invisible Man is also discussed regarding the larger issue of personal identity, especially self-assertion and personal expression in a metaphorically blind world. In the novel, the unnamed young black narrator is invisible within the larger culture because of his race. Race itself, in turn, is a metaphor for the individual’s anonymity in modern life. The novel is scathing, angry, and humorous, incorporating a wide range of African American experiences and using a variety of styles, settings, characters, and images. Ralph Ellison uses jazz as a metaphor, especially that of the role of a soloist who is bound within the traditions and forms of a group performance.

The novel describes a series of incidents that show how racism has warped the American psyche. As a boy, the nameless narrator hears his grandfather say: “Undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction.” Later, the youth sees a social function degenerate into a surrealistic and barbarous paroxysm of racism. Next, the narrator is expelled from a black college and heads north. After a job in a paint factory ends in shock treatment, the narrator heads to the big city and falls in with the Brotherhood, a group of political radicals. After realizing that the Brotherhood is just as power-hungry and manipulative as the other organizations and institutions that have victimized him, the narrator leaves the Brotherhood. He comes to understand that racism denies personal identity: As long as he is seen by others as a sample of a group rather than as an individual, he is invisible. The narrator finally becomes an urban hermit, living anonymously in a cellar and using pirated electricity.

The novel’s narrator is typically viewed as representing a generation of intelligent African Americans born and raised in the rural South before World War II who moved to large cities such as New York to widen their opportunities. Such historical context aside, readers also see him as a black Everyman, whose story symbolically recapitulates black history. Attending a Southern black college, the narrator’s idealism is built on black educator Booker T. Washington’s teaching that racial uplift will occur by way of humility, accommodation, and hard work. The narrator’s ideals erode, however, in a series of encounters with white and black leaders. The narrator learns of hypocrisy, blindness, and the need to play roles even when each pose leads to violence. The larger, white culture does not accept the narrator’s independent nature. Accidents, and betrayals by educators, Communists, and fellow African Americans, among others, show him that life is largely chaotic, with no clear pattern of order to follow. The narrator’s complexity shatters white culture’s predetermined, stereotyped notions of what role he should play. He finds himself obliged as a result to move from role to role, providing the reader a wide spectrum of personalities that reflect the range of the black community.

In the end the narrator rejects cynicism and hatred and advocates a philosophy of hope, a rejection mirroring Ellison’s desire to write a novel that transcended protest novels, emphasizing rage and hopelessness, of the period. The narrator decides to look within himself for self-definition, and the act of telling his story provides meaning to his existence, an affirmation and celebration preceding his return to the world. He has learned first of his invisibility, second of his manhood.

In his later years, Ellison realized that his novel expands the meaning of the word “invisible.” He observed that invisibility “touches anyone who lives in a big metropolis.” A winner of numerous awards, including the National Book Award in 1953, Invisible Man has continually been regarded as one of the most important novels in twentieth century American literature.

Invisible Man Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator and protagonist in the novel is nameless. An innocent teenager, he was born and grew up in the South of the United States. He is used to the social patterns of the region. With maturity, the narrator gradually recognizes the chaotic understructure of “orderly” society. The demarcation line between the “two” societies is blurred in his mind for the first time when he hears his grandfather’s deathbed instruction to his father. Although the old man seemed to be “obedient” and “obsequious” all his life, he tells his son and grandchildren that he was “a traitor all his born days, a spy in the enemy’s country” and advises them to overcome their enemies “with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”

Later the narrator witnesses a formal social function that is attended by all “big shots” of the town. The party degenerates into a nightmare of barbarity, vulgarity, and bestial desire. At the battle royal, black students are asked to fight each other for white people’s entertainment. The black students are forced to watch a naked white woman dance; they are also urged by the audience to pick up coins on electrified rugs (the coins later turn out to be advertisement souvenirs). As a reward for his Booker-T.-Washington kind of valedictory speech, the narrator receives a calfskin briefcase. That night, the narrator dreams of meeting his grandfather, who tells him to read a note in the briefcase. The note says: “To Whom It May Concern: Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”

As part of the prize for his speech, the narrator also receives a scholarship to go to college. What he learns there, however, only further confuses him: A white philanthropist and a black sharecropper share the same kind of incestuous desire for their daughters. A black minister who gives a wonderful speech about the importance of education turns out to be blind. The president of the college confesses that he used both black and white people to advance his own career. It is also from Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the all-black college, that the narrator hears for the first time in his life that he is a “nobody,” someone who, in a sense, does not exist at all. The narrator is finally expelled from the college for showing Mr. Norton, the white trustee of the college, the “seamy” side of the campus.

Equipped with Dr. Bledsoe’s recommendation letter, which the narrator later learns is full of insulting remarks about him, he moves to the North. The road to the North, in a traditional sense, means freedom to African Americans. What the narrator finds there is alienation and disillusionment. While working in a paint factory, whose slogan is Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints, he is caught in the conflict between a skilled black worker and white unionists. After a boiler room accident, the narrator is sent to the factory hospital, where he receives electric shock treatment. After the doctors make sure he forgets his name and family background, the narrator is declared cured and released from the hospital.

Then one day, as he is helping people who are being evicted from an apartment building in New York City, the narrator’s oratorical talent is discovered by the Brotherhood, a group meant to represent the poor and downtrodden. Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, asks the narrator to join the group. Inside the Brotherhood, the narrator not only is confronted again with the paradox of organization and disorder but also completely loses his personal identity: He is given a new name and place to live, expected to become the next Booker T. Washington, and told he is “hired to talk” but not “to think.” The narrator’s association with the Brotherhood, nevertheless, introduces him to all kinds of people: the white men who, for their own political gains, unscrupulously use blacks; a young black idealist who is killed for his idealism; Rinehart, the man who has multiple identities; and Ras, the Destroyer, a black radical who lashes out indiscriminately and ends up in utter isolation.

The narrator finally realizes that the Brotherhood is just as chaotic, manipulative, and power-hungry as all the other groups of people he meets in both the South and the North. He leaves the Brotherhood feeling thoroughly disillusioned. Walking away from the Brotherhood, he chances upon a riot, where he is mistaken for another person. Suddenly the narrator sees the truth: When a person is associated with either an ethnic group or a social organization, he becomes a person with no identity and, therefore, invisible. He starts to understand the significance of his grandfather’s last words. At the end of the novel, the narrator creeps into a dark empty cellar to indulge in his reflections.

Invisible Man Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ellison’s Invisible Man is framed by a prologue and an epilogue that are set at a time after the completion of the novel’s central action. The novel’s picaresque story of a young black man’s misadventures is presented as a memoir written by an older, more experienced embodiment of the protagonist. The narrator of the prologue and epilogue has withdrawn into a state he calls “hibernation” after surviving the multiple deceptions and betrayals that he recounts in his memoir. As he says, “the end is the beginning and lies far ahead.”

The prologue foreshadows the novel’s action. It prepares the reader for the narrator’s final condition; focuses the reader’s attention on the major themes of truth, responsibility, and freedom; and introduces the reader to the double consciousness that operates in the book. Throughout the novel, the naïve assumptions of the youthful protagonist are counterbalanced by the cynical judgments of his more mature self, creating an ironic double perspective.

The broken narrator to whom the reader is introduced in the prologue is hiding in an underground room, stealing power from the Monopolated Power Company to light the thousands of bulbs he has strung up. An angry and damaged man, he explains his frustration at his “invisibility,” a quality that prevents others from seeing anything but “surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination.” The narrator experiences a desperate need to convince himself that he does “exist in the real world.” As he listens to Louis Armstrong’s recording of “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” he dreams and then recounts his experiences.

The first episode, which goes back to his graduation from a black high school in the South, is a representative anecdote, a story that sets the pattern and themes of subsequent misadventures. Throughout Invisible Man, the young hero builds illusory expectations based on the deceitful promises of people who set themselves up as his mentors. In each cycle, he is eventually disillusioned by a dramatic revelation of deceit and sent spiraling toward his final confrontation with himself.

In the initial episode, he is invited to repeat his valedictory speech before the white leaders of the town. These men, however, humiliate him and some other black youths by forcing them to engage in a “battle royal,” a blindfolded fistfight in which the last standing participant is victorious. They also tempt the black youths to fight for counterfeit coins tossed on an electrified rug, and they rudely disregard the protagonist’s remarks when he is finally allowed to speak.

The episode demonstrates how racist leaders disempower African Americans by encouraging them to direct their anger at one another while rewarding the more acceptable submissive behavior, such as the protagonist’s speech about “social responsibility.” Although the corrupt and even bestial nature of these men is clear to the reader, the protagonist is blinded by his eagerness to succeed, and he gratefully accepts the briefcase he is given after his speech.

Ellison develops the ocular symbols of blindness/sight, darkness/light in this episode that are used in the novel to describe the protagonist’s invisibility and his stumbling quest for truth. It also introduces the briefcase, a symbol of his naïve effort to accept prescribed identities. The briefcase stays with him until the end of the novel, accumulating objects and documents to represent the false identities he assumes. These two symbols are united at the end of the novel when he burns the contents of his briefcase in order to see in his underground hideout.

At the black college that the protagonist attends, he is introduced to the misuse of black power. Dr. Bledsoe, the ruthless college president (whose name implies his deracinated disregard for other African Americans), is blindly idolized by the protagonist, for whom the college is a paradise of reason and culture. The protagonist says that “within the quiet greenness I possessed the only identity I had ever known.”

When he mishandles a visiting white trustee named Norton, however, by allowing him to hear Jim Trueblood’s shocking tale of incest and taking him to a brothel where they are beset by a group of World War I veterans, Dr. Bledsoe banishes the protagonist from the collegiate Eden. It is only later, after fruitless efforts to find employment in New York City, that the protagonist discovers that Bledsoe’s supposed letters of recommendation have betrayed him.

The revelation of Dr. Bledsoe’s perfidy destroys the narrator’s dream of returning to college. Determined to make his own way, he accepts a job with Liberty Paints. The factory, which is a microcosm of capitalist America, produces Optic White, “the purest white that can be found.” Optic White will “cover just about anything” and is purchased in large amounts by the government, but the secret ingredient is a small amount of black base that is produced in a boiler room by an aging African American named Lucius Brockaway. The protagonist is assigned to Brockaway, but the veteran employee’s paranoid suspicion that his new helper is a company spy and the protagonist’s resentment at being assigned to an African American supervisor results in a fight. As the two quarrel, pressure builds until the boilers explode.

The protagonist awakes in the factory’s infirmary, where masked doctors discuss ways to make him pliable. Half-conscious, the narrator is dimly aware of the doctors’ efforts at behavior modification, but their bizarre treatment only succeeds at stripping away layers of superficial personality and revealing a changed man who looks at the world with “wild infant’s eyes.” In this reborn state, the dazed hero is adopted by Mary Rambo, the maternal owner of a boardinghouse in Harlem. Mary’s nurturing restores the protagonist and awakens his sensitivity to injustice. When he comes across an elderly couple being evicted from their apartment, he speaks up on their behalf, stirring a gathering crowd to resist the eviction.

The protagonist’s effective oratory is overheard by Jack, a leader of the Brotherhood, an organization that closely resembles the Communist Party. Jack recruits the protagonist and makes him the party’s new spokesman in Harlem. Armed with a new name supplied by the Brotherhood, the protagonist eagerly takes on his organizational duties, dreaming that he will become a modern Frederick Douglass. He successfully builds Brotherhood membership in Harlem and effectively competes with rival organizations such as that led by Ras the Destroyer, an African American nationalist who is reminiscent of the historical Marcus Garvey. Instead of being rewarded, the protagonist is suddenly reassigned to a downtown position. The protagonist’s protests result in a climactic showdown where Jack plucks out his glass eye, demonstrating at once the organization’s demand of personal sacrifice and his own blindness.

Eventually, the protagonist realizes that he is being used by Jack, that the Brotherhood is willing to sacrifice the progress made in Harlem for the larger ends of the party, and that his dream of becoming another Frederick Douglass is a sham. With another prescribed identity deflated, he suddenly finds that he is being mistaken for the protean character Rinehart, a mysterious con man who is at once a minister and a pimp, a man whose name suggests the ambiguous relation of inner and outer realities. The protagonist considers adopting the cynicism of Rinehart, a decision that would end the search for a true identity, but he concludes that he cannot abandon his own conscience.

As the book nears its conclusion, the protagonist runs through a race riot that the Brotherhood has encouraged. Pursued by armed men, he finds sanctuary underground, where he is forced to burn the symbolic contents of his briefcase in order to see. He thus destroys the prescribed identities that others have supplied for him in order to prepare for the “hibernation” during which he hopes to discover himself.

Invisible Man’s epilogue completes the frame begun in the novel’s prologue, returning the reader to the subterranean narrator of the memoir, who says that although the world outside is as deceitful and dangerous as ever, the process of telling his story has made him “better understand my relation to it and it to me.” He has come to accept the responsibility of determining his own identity and rejects formulaic responses to injustice. He advises his reader that “too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost unless you approach it as much through love as through hate,” and he now sees his own life as “one of infinite possibilities.” Thus, at the novel’s conclusion, the narrator is preparing to reenter the world. As Ellison put it, his narrator “comes up from underground because the act of writing and thinking necessitated it.”

Invisible Man Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Having spoken in the prologue of his need to come out into the light, to surface from a building that has been “rented strictly to whites” and “shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century,” the narrator gives immediate notice that he is telling not a single but a typological, or multiple, story. Everything that has happened to him bears the shadow of prior African American history. He vows, however, that all past “hibernation,” all past “invisibility,” must now end. It falls to him to “illuminate”—that is, literally and figuratively to write into being—the history that has at once made both him and black America at large so “black and blue” but that has also represented a triumph of human survival and art.

To that end, he steps back into Dixie and into a “Battle Royal,” a brawl in which a group of blindfolded black boys fight for the entertainment of whites. The scene gives a crucial point of departure for the novel. In fighting “blind,” the boys illustrate an ancestral divide-and-rule tactic of the white South; the boys’ reward is money from an electrified rug. Equally, when a sumptuous white stripper dances before the townsmen, an American flag tattooed between her thighs, the ultimate taboo looms temptingly yet impossibly before the black boys. Literally with blood in his throat, the narrator thanks his patrons and leaves, having received a scholarship to a Tuskegee-style college. He thinks, too, of his grandfather’s advice, that of a slavery-time veteran of black mimicry, who tells him to “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction”—the words of the trickster as seeming “coon” or “good nigra” whose every act of servility in fact derides his white oppressors. Nor can the narrator be unmindful of a dream in which mountains of paper contain a single, recurrent message: “Keep this Nigger Boy Running.”

At the college, he believes himself to be in a black version of an ideal Dixie. His life, however, undergoes a major reversal when he shows Norton, a white philanthropist, the incestuous “fieldnigger” family of the Truebloods, thus reawakening Norton’s own sexual hankerings after his recently deceased daughter. In order to find medical help for the overcome Norton, the pair moves on to The Golden Day, a black brothel for Army vets, and there, to his greatest discomfort, the narrator recognizes in the patients caricatures of the self-same black bourgeoisie he most aspires to join—doctors, teachers, lawyers, and businessmen. His resulting expulsion from the college, even so, produces more paper promises, in the form of supposed letters of recommendation to likely employers in New York.

These letters, too, prove false, Bledsoe’s revenge on a disciple who has strayed from the appointed path. The son of the aptly named Mr. Emerson reveals the deception and guides the narrator to the Liberty Paints factory. Put to work making “Optic White,” he inadvertently adds “concentrated remover,” as if to insist upon his own blackness within the all-white grid of America. Moved on, he begins work in the factory’s paint-process section. The machinery explodes, however, and in the factory hospital he overhears himself being talked about as a likely candidate for lobotomy.

Signing a release, he heads back to Harlem, taking part almost by chance in a spontaneous outcry at an eviction. Immediately, The Brotherhood draws him into its ranks, making him their Harlem spokesman and using him to organize black Manhattan into a political wedge against the ruling order. However, he also finds himself mythified into a sexual stud by one of the white “sisters.” Increasingly, too, he comes up against Ras’s fervid Black Nationalism. Most of all, he is held responsible for the disappearance of Tod Clifton, another activist; the narrator later sees Clifton on a street selling Sambo dolls and witnesses his death at the hands of the police. The narrator’s trial by The Brotherhood for conspiracy and “petty individualism” follows immediately, a species of witchhunt and “black comedy” culminating in the spectacle of Brother Jack’s eye falling out of its socket.

The narrator takes to wearing dark glasses, with the result that a variety of Harlemites mistakenly think him to be Bliss Proteus Rinehart, a numbers man, lover, clergyman, and politician. However, the impersonation, which he comes to relish, proves inadequate when Harlem erupts. In the melee, he encounters a band of looters who plan to burn their tenement slum building; he then meets Ras himself, in the garb of a black Don Quixote, and finally runs into a pillaging, panic-driven crowd that chases him underground into a nearby manhole. There, he burns all his past “papers,” a briefcase full of false promises and impedimenta, prime among them his high school diploma, one of Clifton’s dolls, and the slip that contains his Brotherhood name.

So “freed,” he endures a massive castration fantasy, and he resolves to abandon his assumed hibernation and to speak—to write down—this “nightmare.” If, indeed, his has been the one story, his own, it has throughout also been that of the African American community itself. He even suggests still wider human implications, and in such a spirit, “torturing myself to put it down,” he bows out by asking in the epilogue: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Invisible Man Summary

Although Ellison has expressed doubts about Invisible Man's enduring worth, critics have been almost unanimous in ranking it among the...

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Invisible Man Chapter Summary and Analysis

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Prologue Summary and Analysis

New Character
The narrator: tells the story of his life, but remains unnamed

Summary
The Prologue introduces the narrator with a monologue set inside the narrator’s head. After having many adventures, which the reader will discover more about in the chapters to come, the narrator is resting and isolated. He uses the word “hibernation” to describe his status.

The Prologue begins with the narrator announcing that he is an invisible man. But he is also a man of substance—“flesh and bone, fiber and liquids”—not a creation of books or movies. In making clear that he is not literally invisible, the narrator proceeds to discuss what his invisibility is...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Grandfather: not an actual character, although his dying words greatly disturb the narrator

Jackson: a particularly sadistic member of the audience at the battle royal

Tatlock: a large and vicious boy whom the narrator is forced to fight during the battle royal

Summary
A brief anecdote about the narrator’s grandfather begins the chapter. Through his childhood and early adulthood, the narrator is confused by his grandfather’s “deathbed curse.” After the narrator gives his high school graduation speech on humility, he is invited to give his speech before a special audience. At this event, the narrator realizes that young men from...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Mr. Norton: the rich, white, northern benefactor whom the narrator chauffeurs in a college-owned car

Jim Trueblood: the poor sharecropper who tells Mr. Norton a story

Summary
The narrator drives Mr. Norton along the quiet roadways of the campus where the narrator attends college. The nervous narrator is reassured by Mr. Norton’s confidence and curiosity about the narrator’s future. Mr. Norton and the narrator also talk about Mr. Norton’s daughter, who died suddenly and mysteriously.

After a few chance turns, they reach an area of old cabins. The narrator repeats what is told about Jim Trueblood, owner of one of the cabins—that...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Big Halley: a bartender at the Golden Day

Sylvester: a mental patient and a patron of the Golden Day

Supercargo: the attendant/warden at the Golden Day

The vet: a strange little man who tends to Mr. Norton’s condition upstairs; the talk that the two of them have puts the vet in a vulnerable position

Edna: a prostitute at the Golden Day; she shows great interest in spending more time with Mr. Norton

Summary
The car arrives at the Golden Day, a bar and whorehouse. Mr. Norton requires “a stimulant,” in the form of alcohol, to overcome the shock of Jim Trueblood’s story. Mr. Norton’s condition is unknown,...

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Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Dr. Bledsoe: the president of the college

Summary
Upon returning to campus, the narrator drops Mr. Norton off and goes to see Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college. Feeling certain that he will be blamed for having subjected Mr. Norton to both Jim Trueblood’s story and the events at the Golden Day, the narrator is in an agony of nervousness.

Dr. Bledsoe is greatly disconcerted by the course of events and, despite Mr. Norton’s words to the contrary, does indeed blame the narrator. The narrator is ordered to see Dr. Bledsoe later that evening, after attending a campus church service. Both on the way to his room, and once having arrived there,...

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Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis

New Character
The Reverend Homer A. Barbee: the man who gives the sermon the narrator hears in this chapter; Barbee provides a perspective of hollow pride and rhetoric

Summary
As ordered by Dr. Bledsoe, the narrator goes to the college chapel. Before the evening’s guest speaker begins his sermon, the narrator meditates upon his own precarious status. He then recalls the times that he spoke publicly at the college.

He returns to the present scene, describing the people there, including Dr. Bledsoe. There is a choir solo and the sermon begins, praising the lives and visions of those who built the college.

The sermon is...

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Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis

Summary
After some last-minute panic and forestalling, the narrator has his interview with Dr. Bledsoe. Though the conversation begins pleasantly, it changes suddenly when the college president heaps abuse upon the narrator. Then Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator his decision. The narrator is dismissed from college.

The narrator’s first response is outrage and anger. This shocks and then amuses Dr. Bledsoe, who says the narrator is powerless. When it comes right down to it, the narrator does not really exist, because he does not matter. The college president tells the narrator about how a person gets power, and what it means to have it.

Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator that he will give...

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Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Crenshaw: the man in charge of getting the vet to his new home

Ras (later known as “Ras the Exhorter”): the leader of a political group in Harlem

Summary
The narrator takes a bus from campus, beginning the next part of his life. He carries letters of introduction from Dr. Bledsoe. Two other men are traveling that day—the Vet (the inmate from the Golden Day that provided medical aid to Mr. Norton) and Crenshaw (the Vet’s attendant).

Before the two transfer to another bus, the Vet again comments on the narrator’s situation. Once in New York, the narrator sees the very different lives that blacks can lead in a big northern city....

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Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The narrator starts to get to know the city, and begins his search for a job, using the letters. He is plagued by his expectations and fears, but is still fascinated by this new world.

In the first of the huge offices where he delivers his letters, the narrator talks with a receptionist. The narrator wonders whether the reactions he is getting are racially motivated, but decides that they are not. Alone and worried, the narrator hopes for a change.

Analysis
The narrator’s energies, which were high when he first arrived in New York, are flagging. His feelings of isolation and persecution are increased by his poor prospects for a job.

He...

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Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Mr. Emerson’s Son: the man with whom the narrator has an unsuccessful interview

Summary
On his way to an important interview, the narrator meets with people who shake his sense of identity. At Mr. Emerson’s office, the narrator delivers his letter and is asked to wait. After a pause, the narrator converses with the man who took the narrator’s letter.

The conversation begins amicably, but deteriorates as the narrator grows uneasy. After much confusion, the man shows the narrator the letter from Dr. Bledsoe. Stating that the narrator was an embarrassment to the college, the letter asks Mr. Emerson to please shun the narrator and his request for...

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Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Mr. MacDuffy: an inconsequential little man who sends the narrator to work for Mr. Kimbro

Mr. Kimbro: a demanding boss who tells the narrator what to do with the paint

Lucius Brockway: the man in charge of the boilers; an old black man, Brockway is wise in the workings of both the people and machinery of the paint factory

Summary
The narrator goes to a paint factory in Long Island. He uses Emerson’s name to get the job, and he is nervous about it. The narrator is sent to Mr. Kimbro, who gives him directions for adding an ingredient to the paint. This begins well, until the narrator draws his mixing material from the wrong tank. This...

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Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis

Summary
This chapter is reminiscent of Chapter Five, in that not much happens. The scene is static, and the action is internal. We gather that the narrator is receiving medical treatment from doctors, as a result of the explosion in the boiler room. Yet what begins as compassion turns first to ambiguousness and then swiftly to frightening malice. The doctors are actually torturing him, and his agony is more than simply physical; the questions they ask him, or he asks himself, concern his origins and identity.

At the end of the “medical treatment,” the narrator is not completely lucid. After more conversation, during which he asks nonsense questions, he leaves. He shows little awareness of his...

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Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Mary (Mary Rambo) (Miss Mary): the woman who finds the narrator on the street and brings him to her home

Summary
Having left the place where he spent Chapter Eleven, the narrator is very disoriented. After fainting in the street, he is found by Mary Rambo, who insists that he comes home with her to recuperate from his troubles. After a long sleep, he feels better. Although reluctant at first, the narrator decides to accept Mary’s offer of low rent, especially once he realizes that the Men’s House is not a home.

Believing that he sees Bledsoe, the narrator commits a serious faux pas by dumping something (probably a spittoon) on the head of a...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Brother Jack: the first member of the Brotherhood, a group the narrator becomes involved with

Summary
While walking the streets, the narrator finds a man selling yams (sweet potatoes) from a cart. The moment the narrator bites into one, he feels homesick. Yet he also feels far better than he had before, and he returns to buy two more yams. Immediately afterward, the narrator becomes involved in a dispute when he sees the eviction of an old black couple. To avoid violence, the narrator gives an impromptu speech, which has a great impact on the crowd. When many police arrive, and a riot looks imminent, the narrator escapes with the help of a white girl.

...

(The entire section is 302 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Emma: an attractive woman involved in the Brotherhood; she lives well and hosts Brother Jack and others for a combination business-meeting/party.

Summary
Despite some reluctance, the narrator decides to call Brother Jack, who asks the narrator to join him immediately. The narrator meets other members of the Brotherhood, including Emma, the affluent hostess of that evening’s meeting.

The narrator is still suspicious and apprehensive, and the reactions from the party members do not relieve these feelings. They talk in a grand manner, and at first almost seem to disregard the narrator’s presence. They discuss making him into a great speaker, like...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The narrator wakes up on his last morning in Mary’s place. It is a cold morning, and the heat has gone out. Other tenants of the building protest by banging on the pipes, and this enrages the narrator. He grabs a ceramic “piggy bank” shaped like a caricatured black man and smashes it against the pipes. It shatters, and the narrator feels guilty. He resolves to take the mess away with him and throw it out, regardless of the money.

The narrator joins Mary for a brief breakfast. He gives her a hundred-dollar bill, which she nervously accepts. A horde of roaches comes out of the floor, and Mary and the narrator smash them with their feet and a broom. Once on the street, the narrator...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Brother Wrestrum: the chief speaker of the Brothers present when the narrator gives his speech

Summary
The narrator accompanies Brother Jack and other Brotherhood members to the rally mentioned at the end of the previous chapter. When they arrive, the narrator is instructed to pay close attention to the other speakers, as the narrator himself will be speaking last.

The rally takes place in a sports arena, and the narrator notices the picture of a well-known boxer. The narrator is reminded of the stories about this boxer, whose career ended in a scandalous fight that left him blind. The narrator then begins to think about the person he is becoming,...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Brother Tarp: an older man who works at the Harlem Brotherhood office

Brother Tod Clifton: another member of the Brotherhood’s Harlem office, a charismatic young man

Summary
Four months have passed, during which the narrator has studied rigorously with Brother Hambro. The narrator and Brother Jack go to a bar in Harlem, where the narrator learns that he is the new chief spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Harlem office. Brother Jack cautions the narrator about the uses and misuses of what he has learned. Then the two go to the Harlem office, where they meet Brother Tarp. An old, physically disabled man, he shows the narrator his new office.

...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The narrator finds an anonymous letter on his desk, warning him about “moving too fast,” considering that he is now in “a white man’s world.” Upset, the narrator calls in Brother Tarp. In that moment, the narrator sees his grandfather staring at him from Tarp’s face.

Once over that shock, the narrator asks Brother Tarp about the letter and about what others think of him. Tarp says he knows nothing about the letter, and has not heard any negative reports on the narrator. Tarp reminds the narrator about a controversial poster, depicting people brought together in universal Brotherhood, which had been the narrator’s idea. Tarp says that while some Brotherhood members were...

(The entire section is 725 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Hubert’s wife: an unnamed woman with whom the narrator has an affair

Summary
The narrator begins the lectures he was assigned in the previous chapter. He senses that the women, having heard all about him, simply see him before them and are entranced by whatever he says.

At the end of the first lecture, one woman approaches the narrator with a request for further explanations of the Brotherhood’s position regarding women. The narrator offers to discuss her questions privately, and she invites him to her apartment. Once there, she explains that her husband, Hubert, is out of town; otherwise, she says, he would have loved to meet the narrator....

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The narrator begins searching for both the missing Brother Tod Clifton and Brother Maceo. In the process, the narrator realizes the extent of the damage done to the Brotherhood’s reputation and position in Harlem. Stopping in a well-known bar, the narrator finds out how little the Brotherhood is now liked. Only the defense of the friendly bar owner keeps the narrator from an argument with those who decry the Brotherhood, thinking themselves forsaken.

The narrator next tries the Harlem office, to seek out Brother Tarp, who is not there. In the morning, however, a number of Brotherhood members show up. The narrator, in addition to asking about Clifton, hears about the Brotherhood’s fall...

(The entire section is 544 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary and Analysis

Summary
The narrator returns to the Harlem district. There are indications that the Brotherhood’s position is already improving somewhat, but all the narrator can do is mull over the details of the death and ask himself why he did not do something. He tosses the inert doll on his desk and addresses it bitterly. He then realizes that, distasteful though it might be, a public funeral for Clifton would serve a great purpose.

The youth members, the members of the Brotherhood with whom Clifton had spent the most time, have heard the news and approach the narrator. He confirms the report of Clifton’s death. The district begins to respond with organization and anger, and the narrator is kept very...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Brother Tobitt: the Brotherhood member who leads the attack upon the narrator in this chapter

Summary
The narrator goes to the central committee, which is waiting for him. Brother Jack asks about the event, and Brother Tobitt asks why the narrator organized the funeral and the eulogy. The narrator answers reasonably, but emotions escalate immediately.

The committee feels that a traitor such as Clifton did not deserve a hero’s burial. But more than this, the committee will not tolerate any member acting alone, as the narrator did. They act as if they concur with Brother Wrestrum’s earlier accusation that the narrator is acting selfishly, rather...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Rinehart: a shadowy local figure, both a criminal and a preacher, for whom the narrator is repeatedly mistaken

Brother Maceo: one of the missing brothers; when the narrator finally finds him, Brother Maceo doesn’t recognize him because the narrator has on his “Rinehart disguise”

Brother Hambro: the narrator’s “instructor”

Summary
The narrator goes to Harlem. He avoids conversation, listening instead to the general talk about Clifton’s death. Ras is speaking at a street corner, from a ladder, and picks out the narrator for special scrutiny. The crowd is sullen, but the narrator defends the Brotherhood and himself, and gets...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Chapter 24 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Sybil: the wife of one of the men (George) in the organization; she and the narrator have an abortive affair

Summary
The narrator begins to agree with whatever he hears at the Brotherhood, recognizing what it is that the committee wishes to hear and telling them nothing but that. He planned to seduce the wife of one of the Brotherhood’s men, and Brother Jack’s birthday party is the perfect place for the narrator to select a woman. But the narrator finds that his efforts with Sybil only depress him.

She is interested only in fantasies born out of racism. The narrator seems menacing to the white woman, and Sybil finds this prospect highly...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Chapter 25 Summary and Analysis

New Characters
Dupre: the leader of a bunch of looters whom the narrator meets during the riots in this chapter

Scofield: one of the looters in the group

Summary
A full-fledged riot takes place in Harlem. Police shoot and the narrator is injured. Stunned, he wipes the blood from his head and continues. He joins a group of looters stealing goods but not harming anyone. They take clothes and various items; the narrator takes nothing, acting only as an observer. The narrator stays near Scofield, who checks the narrator’s wound and offers him a drink of scotch.

The narrator feels sure that the riot started because of Clifton’s death, but various...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Epilogue Summary and Analysis

Summary
The narrator has told his story, and asks us what else he could have done. The narrator says that he has taken some time out, drank liquor, dreamed, and read books. He uses the word “hibernation” to describe his current status.

He still thinks about his grandfather and the deathbed advice, wrestling with what the man meant, and with how to put the advice into practice. The narrator says he is pondering the lessons of his life. He will leave it up to others to decide whether or not he understood history correctly. He wonders about responsibility for history, and about how people can save themselves.

The one specific incident that the narrator talks about is having met Mr....

(The entire section is 422 words.)