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.
The physical and emotional segregation of an earlier American society is a main subject of Invisible Man. It is considered a classic because of its writing, and also for its portrayal of the experiences of African Americans. At the same time, as Ellison himself had frequently asserted before his death, the book goes beyond specific questions of race relations. It touches upon the dynamics of personal identity, and the ways and limits in which people can know each other.
Though no specific years are given in the novel, there are clues for the reader. The shell-shocked men at the Golden Day, a local tavern and halfway house, respond to the name of General Pershing, indicating that World War I is part of their pasts. There is no mention of World War II. There is frequent mention of black people who contributed to the American experience earlier in this century, such as Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, and Joe Louis, as well as ideas that affected blacks, like Jim Crow laws.
One of the central themes of the novel is the extent to which its black characters feel free to express themselves in what they are told is a “white man’s world.” Whether this has changed is a matter of discussion and debate by trained professionals, such as sociologists and psychologists, and by students and working people as well.
Invisible Man was published in 1952. Some of its scenes anticipate the civil rights protests that would alter this country in that decade and the next. The first six chapters take place in the Deep South. Then, like many black Americans who left the South for more hospitable places, the narrator departs for New York City. At first, he finds it to be the better world that some have told him about, but his optimism is eventually shattered.
Master List of Characters
The Narrator—tells the story of his life, but remains unnamed throughout the novel
Grandfather—although not appearing in the novel, he is an important influence on the narrator because of the deathbed scene
Jackson—a particularly sadistic member of the audience at the battle royal; he tries to attack the blindfolded boys, but is restrained from doing so
Tatlock—the very large, mean boy that the narrator is forced to fight at the battle royal
Mr. Norton—an important benefactor of the college that the narrator attends
The Founder—an almost mythical man, who founded the college the narrator attends; he is no longer alive; a statue of him stands on the campus, and many different characters talk about him, but the reader never finds out his name or the race to which he belonged
Dr. Bledsoe—president of the college the narrator attends
Jim Trueblood—a poor farmer on the land adjacent to the college
The Vet—the man who helps Mr. Norton at the Golden Day tavern and in the process tells some deep truths about the narrator’s situation; the narrator talks with him again, on the bus
Big Halley—the bartender at the Golden Day
Supercargo—the attendant at the Golden Day
Sylvester—a mental patient and client at the Golden Da
Edna—a prostitute at the Golden Day.
The Reverend Homer A. Barbee—the man who gives the address at the narrator’s college
Crenshaw—the man in charge of taking the vet from the Golden Day to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a well-known mental institution in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Emerson’s son—the man who shows the narrator the contents of a letter written by Dr. Bledsoe
Mr. Kimbro and Mr. MacDuffy—the white men at the Liberty Paint Factory
Lucius Brockway—the man in charge of the boilers at the Liberty Paint Factory
Mary—the woman who finds the narrator on the street and gives him a home
Ras the Exhorter—a powerful leader of a major protest movement in Harlem; there is much conflict between his ideology and that of the Brotherhood movement; near the end of the novel, Ras changes his name from “Ras the Exhorter” to “Ras the Destroyer”
Brother Jack—the first member of “the Brotherhood,” a movement that the narrator becomes involved in after his experience in public speaking
Emma—a friend of the Brotherhood; an attractive, affluent woman, she owns the apartment where the narrator is introduced to the other members of the Brotherhood
Brother Hambro—the man who trains the narrator in the art of rhetoric (argumentation and speech-making)
Brother Tarp—a member of the Brotherhood’s Harlem office; an older man, he is friendly to the narrator; his limp was caused by a traumatic incident in his past
Brother Tod Clifton—another member of the Brotherhood; a charismatic young man, he comes to a dramatic and mysterious end
Brother Wrestrum—a member of the Brotherhood who seems to oppose the narrator’s career there
Brother Tobitt—a member of the Brotherhood’s Headquarters committee, whose sarcasm irritates the narrator; he takes a lead role in the accusations against the narrator
Hubert’s wife—an unnamed woman, with whom the narrator has an affair
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 Brother Maceo, he doesn’t recognize him, because the narrator has on his “Rinehart disguise”
Sybil—the wife of one of the men in the organization; she and the narrator have an abortive affair
Dupre—the leader of a bunch of looters, whom the narrator meets during the riots
Scofield—one of the looters in the group
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.
Although Ellison has expressed doubts about Invisible Man's enduring worth, critics have been almost unanimous in ranking it among the best post- World War II American novels. By universalizing the experience of American blacks, Ellison is often credited with having transcended more political works of social protest. The "invisibility" referred to in the title is the end result of an existential search for identity. The unnamed narrator slowly realizes that people see only what they wish to see in others and are themselves defined by concepts imposed upon them. Ellison is often quoted for having said, "I wasn't and am not primarily concerned with injustice, but with art," a statement that paradoxically implies that Invisible Man be read as a philosophical or aesthetic statement rather than a statement about racial intolerance. His position has inevitably invited attacks that he "copped out" and embraced an unjust establishment by not focusing his book strongly enough on the problems of racial injustice.
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Summary (Identities & Issues 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...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1460 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 893 words.)
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man chronicles the life of an unnamed, first-person narrator from his youth in the segregated American South of the 1920s to a temporary ‘‘hibernation,’’ twenty years later, in a ‘‘border area’’ of Harlem. From his ‘‘hole in the ground,’’ this invisible man responds to his ‘‘compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white’’ by telling his story. He begins by attempting to explain his own invisibility: ‘‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’’ The tendency of others to distort what they see or to see ‘‘everything and anything’’ except him leads the narrator to question his own existence. As a result, he feels resentment toward those who refuse to acknowledge his reality. When he bumps into one such person on the street, the narrator responds to the man's slurs with swift violence. He is kept from killing him only by the unnerving realization that his victim did not, in fact, see him as another human being but rather as a ‘‘phantom’’ or a mirage. The narrator notes one curious advantage of invisibility, a ‘‘slightly different sense of time’’ that allows one to ‘‘see around corners.’’ After accidentally smoking a "reefer’’ and experiencing a hallucinogenic journey back through history to slave times, the narrator recognizes that his awareness of invisibility alone gives him a...
(The entire section is 1536 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Prologue Summary and Analysis
The narrator: tells the story of his life, but remains unnamed
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 like, and how he has come to understand it.
The narrator describes his life, and the ways he interacts with others. One night, when the narrator feels that a man has refused to recognize his existence, he uses violence to force the man to admit that the narrator is there. Irrational as this scene may seem, it has its own logic. The narrator is convinced that the man never really saw him. The next day’s newspaper seems to confirm his view. It calls the incident a mugging, even though the narrator hadn’t tried to rob the man.
The narrator observes that there are also certain advantages to being ignored by white people. He lives in the basement of a whites-only building and diverts free electricity for the many (1,369)...
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Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
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
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 local black high school have been brought together for the sadistic amusement of white men.
First, a naked white woman dances in front of the high school students. The strong emotions generated by such a forbidden sight are channelled into a free-for-all boxing match. The narrator faces Tatlock, who is filled with rage. The distribution of prize money provides more torture.
Finally, the narrator makes his speech. The audience, at first not really listening, changes when the narrator says “social equality” instead of “social responsibility.” Despite this difficulty, the narrator finishes with applause and a prize. The superintendent presents him with a new briefcase, containing a scholarship to an...
(The entire section is 471 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
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
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 he had had a child with his own daughter. Despite the narrator’s reluctance, Mr. Norton insists on talking with Jim Trueblood.
Jim Trueblood tells them the story, saying that he never meant to sleep with his daughter, Matty Lou. As he fell asleep in their single bed, he had been thinking about a woman he’d known years before. This, combined with his strange and erotic dream, made him lose control of himself. When his wife saw the “accident” taking place, she tried to kill him for his sin.
The narrator is repulsed and disgusted by the story. Mr. Norton is transfixed, and so dangerously upset that the wondering narrator must suddenly fear for Mr. Norton’s health.
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Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
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
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, but his aristocratic constitution implies a certain delicacy.
The stumbling men in front of the car are the veterans and mental incompetents that make the Golden Day a rowdy place. The narrator knows that this was not a good place to bring Mr. Norton, but going to town would have taken too long.
The narrator tries to get Halley, the bartender, to give him a drink for Mr. Norton. When Halley refuses, the narrator goes out to the car and finds that Mr. Norton has fainted. Sylvester and another man help bring Mr. Norton inside. Someone slaps Mr. Norton across the face to revive him, and a drink is administered.
Just after Mr. Norton awakens, Supercargo enters the scene. Being the attendant in charge of these...
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Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
Dr. Bledsoe: the president of the college
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, the narrator is accosted by fellow students, whose blithe chatter further strains the narrator’s nerves.
In this chapter, the narrator becomes aware of the danger he faces. Having broken unwritten rules, he expects a severe penalty for what he has done, although this is unconfirmed. The narrator does not realize that his not having done anything will not make any difference.
Ellison makes good use of suspense. Although the character telling the story has already lived through it and knows what happened, the resolution of the narrator’s fears are withheld from the reader, who is kept in suspense along with the young man in the memory.
This is far more effective than if...
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Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
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
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 delivered by Reverend Homer A. Barbee, of Chicago. Its topic is the great work of making the college, accomplished by the godlike yet entirely humble personalities of the Founder and Dr. Bledsoe. Barbee works the crowd and uses techniques of oratory to make the story into an epic saga of heroism. The narrator, moved and demoralized, is left feeling like a traitor. He dreads all the more his imminent talk with Dr. Bledsoe.
This is a difficult chapter because little actually happens. Instead, the first half of the chapter takes place entirely inside the narrator’s head. Moreover, the narrator is doing two things at once: he is reliving the evening, as well as remembering the...
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Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
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 him some letters to help him find work, and that the narrator has a short period of time to end his affairs.
The narrator leaves the office and vomits. He thinks about going back home, and the reactions he would face from those still there. He decides that Dr. Bledsoe’s decision was correct, and that he must accept his fate. He gets ready to leave.
Dr. Bledsoe is displeased to see the narrator the next morning, until the narrator says that he would like to get going and asks for the letters that Dr. Bledsoe had mentioned the night before. After collecting them, the narrator catches a bus.
The reader has long been anticipating the confrontation between the narrator and Dr....
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Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
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
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.
Once again, the reader comes to the question of whether or not the Vet is crazy. Actually, he seems quite lucid and makes a lot of sense. Then why is he going off to a mental institution?
Although the narrator has just recently been torn away from the life he knew and loved, he is no longer depressed by the end of the chapter. We have the feeling that everything is new for the narrator. His confusion holds far more excitement than fear.
The reader is introduced to a new stage of the narrator’s life and may well feel a similar kind of excitement. The introduction of Ras is important to this chapter. He illustrates a new response to the white America portrayed in the novel...
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Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
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.
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 dreams about his bright future and the ways that he will conduct himself as a successful man. The narrator has done this before—retreat into a fantasy world when he is in doubt—in the Prologue.
The day dreams, and the movies to which he goes to keep himself cheerful, do not work. He begins to feel that there is something about him that people notice. He says that his clothes feel ill-fitting.
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Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
Mr. Emerson’s Son: the man with whom the narrator has an unsuccessful interview
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 employment.
The narrator is devastated, but maintains his composure. The man’s offers of employment are politely declined, and the narrator leaves.
Soon after, the narrator finds his anger. After considering that young Emerson might have been lying somehow, he broods on the subject of Dr. Bledsoe. His emotions run between laughter and blind rage.
Although the narrator’s encounters with the blueprint man and the counterman are only momentary, they nonetheless signify a great deal. Both men show their feelings that the narrator might be acting to conceal what they consider his “true self.”
The narrator acknowledges this possibility, and senses that to deny...
(The entire section is 327 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis
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
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 taints the buckets, and incurs Kimbro’s wrath. The narrator seems to get another chance, but this only forestalls the inevitable.
The narrator is ready to leave the factory. Instead, he is sent to the boiler room, as a new assistant to Lucius Brockway. The narrator sees that Brockway is an unpleasant boss. Distrustful, sarcastic, and abusive, Brockway does not wish to share his realm or his power. Yet he allows the narrator to stay.
The narrator learns that Brockway is the unofficial chief engineer of the entire factory, manufacturing the foundation of the paint, and is intimately familiar with all of the physical plant.
What the narrator is not aware of, but finds out, is that association with Brockway...
(The entire section is 623 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis
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 surroundings.
If any one part of the novel suggests the possibility that the narrator is not mentally sound, it is this chapter. The questions of the “doctors,” and the thoughts that those questions provoke, clearly show the deep confusion inside the narrator. This confusion manifests itself toward the end of the chapter, in both the questions he asks and the descriptions of the world around him.
One possibility to consider is that, in addition to his recent accident at the factory, the narrator is probably very tired. The incident at Jim Trueblood’s cabin took place not many months before, and in that time the narrator has had a lot of exhausting adventures.
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Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis
Mary (Mary Rambo) (Miss Mary): the woman who finds the narrator on the street and brings him to her home
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 Baptist preacher.
As he settles into his new home, the narrator is aware of new feelings of intense anger inside him.
This chapter contains the first act of kindness in the novel, and the first period of rest for the narrator. Though the narrator regains the equilibrium he lost in the previous chapter, he feels that he has lost his direction. At the same time, he discovers new feelings deep inside himself; we can tell that he is still learning about himself. This is an important time for the narrator.
The narrator’s comprehensive description of the residents of the Men’s House contains many observations he had not made earlier, and highlights his growing ability to notice....
(The entire section is 238 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis
Brother Jack: the first member of the Brotherhood, a group the narrator becomes involved with
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.
Soon afterward, a man approaches the narrator and suggests that they talk. Although quite suspicious, the narrator meets with Brother Jack, as the man calls himself. The narrator learns that the movement is interested in universal brotherhood, yet the narrator himself is not at all sure that he shares this point of view—his loyalties are determined by race.
The narrator is left to consider his options.
The narrator shows more emotion, especially positive emotion, in this chapter. Having endured many misfortunes, he is learning more and more about himself. He feels a new vitality when he pursues what he cares about—foods that he enjoys eating, and public speaking, a subject with...
(The entire section is 302 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis
Emma: an attractive woman involved in the Brotherhood; she lives well and hosts Brother Jack and others for a combination business-meeting/party.
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 Booker T. Washington. They have plans to change his life—a new place to live, new clothes, and even a new name, which Emma gives to the narrator for him to memorize.
Before the narrator can get used to such a barrage of information, he is introduced to a crowd having gathered for a party. There are many important people there, all of whom are eager to talk. Also at the party is a drunk man, who loudly asks that the narrator sing a song. This provokes an angry reaction from Brother Jack, and the drunk man is thrown out. The narrator is amused, yet his reactions are conflicting. After staying at the party for a while longer, the narrator goes home to Mary, wondering about the changes ahead of him.
(The entire section is 426 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis
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 drops the package in a garbage can, but is instantly commanded to take it back. The woman of the house lectures him on bad manners and will not listen to his reasonable appeals. He soils his arm in retrieving the package. Next he leaves it on the sidewalk, yet a man follows him for two blocks to give it back to him, amid ludicrous accusations that the narrator was trying to plant incriminating evidence of some kind.
The narrator’s mood turns as he buys the clothes that Brother Jack demanded. The narrator sees an article on the eviction protest, which refers to him in passing. After selecting his new clothes, the narrator finds his new address.
This chapter is filled with symbols of the...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary and Analysis
Brother Wrestrum: the chief speaker of the Brothers present when the narrator gives his speech
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, in his new suit and new name. He ponders whether or not he knows this new person.
One set of thoughts leads to the next, until the Brotherhood group finally enters the arena. The narrator stumbles while walking, but then regains his balance. The speeches blend into each other, without making much impression on the narrator, until it is his turn to speak.
Although the narrator feels he started off badly, his ability to move a crowd comes to him, and he finishes amid the roars of the audience. Moments after the congratulations of the crowd, some members of the Brotherhood severely criticize the narrator’s performance, using forms of disapproval from “unsatisfactory” to “hysterical.” Although there is division...
(The entire section is 521 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis
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
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 next morning, Brother Jack calls a meeting in the Harlem office. Brother Tod Clifton is late; his entrance is understated and somewhat dramatic. The narrator describes him as very black and handsome, with a curiously Anglo-Saxon face.
Brother Clifton tells Brother Jack he was late due to a doctor’s appointment. He is bandaged, having fought with Ras the Exhorter and his men. The narrator does not recall the name, yet it turns out that the narrator does remember when he first came to New York City, in Chapter Seven, and saw a man speaking from a ladder. That man was Ras.
Brother Jack reminds them that the Brotherhood is opposed to violence. Then Brother Jack leaves, and discussions on strategy and future...
(The entire section is 677 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary and Analysis
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 against the idea at first, they are now bragging about it.
Tarp then tells the narrator about how he got his limp. There is nothing physically wrong with his leg, but the trauma from dragging a chain (having escaped from a work-gang for some unnamed crime) stayed with him ever since. Tarp unwraps a package from his pocket, revealing the ankle link he forced open to escape. Tarp gives the narrator the link he kept for so long.
Tarp leaves, and the narrator decides that the letter was sent to confuse him, and he must stay focused on his work. Yet he wonders who sent the letter.
Brother Wrestrum visits the narrator and takes exception to the exposed link. Brother Wrestrum says the Brotherhood has enemies from both...
(The entire section is 725 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis
Hubert’s wife: an unnamed woman with whom the narrator has an affair
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.
It becomes clear to the narrator that the woman’s interests are not all intellectual in nature. His feelings are conflicted. He is about to leave when he is overcome by the moment, and he stays.
In the middle of the night, the narrator hears a sound. Looking up from the woman’s bed, he sees her husband looking at them. The husband and wife exchange a few brief, pleasant words, and the husband goes off, presumably to sleep in another room.
The narrator, angry with himself, dresses and leaves. The woman has gone back to sleep. The narrator considers whether he was set up in a compromising situation, and waits for words of censure and dismissal from the Brotherhood. Nothing happens, and the narrator arranges...
(The entire section is 577 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis
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 from grace in Harlem.
The narrator needs to confer with the downtown committee. When he is not asked to join their daily meeting, he travels downtown in an effort to ascertain the situation. Shut out and furious, he is on a separate errand when he sees a friend of Clifton’s. The narrator is about to ask the man about Clifton when he spies an object in the corner of his vision; it is a Sambo doll, like a marionette. The offensive object is being sold on the street, dancing puppet-style on a flat cardboard square. A sing-song spiel accompanies the pathetic dance, and then the narrator recognizes the man selling the Sambo dolls. It is Clifton.
The narrator, utterly aghast, can hardly believe his eyes. Clifton sees him...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary and Analysis
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 busy.
The funeral takes place on a hot Saturday afternoon and draws a great crowd. People from all social circles march, and the police watch carefully. The narrator observes all the details of the spectacle: the cheap gray coffin that seems to float above the heads of the mourners, the people looking on from the streets, the look of the clouds and the birds, and the sound of Tod Clifton’s name. Finally, the procession arrives at a local park. There, the narrator is given a signal to begin.
The narrator gives Clifton’s funeral address without any pre-written speech or notes. The novel includes all of the speech, which seems to harangue the crowd and sum up all of the narrator’s weariness and cynicism. As he...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary and Analysis
Brother Tobitt: the Brotherhood member who leads the attack upon the narrator in this chapter
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 than as part of a machine. The maintenance of discipline is their main focus.
The narrator feels that the situation called for immediate action, rather than for board meetings. The community needed to see that the Brotherhood still cared and was still a presence for change. That could only be accomplished by doing what the narrator did. He operated out of consideration of the community.
Other factors come into play, such as who knows more about the people of Harlem. It transpires that Brother Tobitt is married to a black woman.
The conflict is not easily solved. The parties have no interest in appreciating views other than their own. Since the narrator is outnumbered and without power, he is obliged to...
(The entire section is 398 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis
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”
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 crowd on his side. Soon afterward, the narrator is attacked by men loyal to Ras and realizes that Ras is becoming bolder.
Seeing the hipster dress of some men nearby, the narrator ducks into a drugstore and, despite the darkness, gets a pair of sunglasses. The world is different now, and so, it seems, is the narrator. He is immediately mistaken for someone named Rinehart. This happens a total of nine times in the chapter. Wherever the narrator goes, people call him Rinehart or simply assume that he is Rinehart, as long as he wears the dark glasses and the hat he buys. Also, it seems that Rinehart holds many jobs, for police, prostitutes, local toughs, and even churchgoers stop the narrator in the street.
(The entire section is 712 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary and Analysis
Sybil: the wife of one of the men (George) in the organization; she and the narrator have an abortive affair
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 titillating. She sees the narrator as a form of entertainment, and longs to satisfy her assumption that his sexual prowess is far greater than her husband’s. Having gotten tipsy, she wants the narrator to rape her, and this disgusts him. Yet he must endure Sybil’s inanities when she becomes too intoxicated to leave, and his questions about the Brotherhood lead nowhere. Only a phone call urging the narrator to get up to Harlem ends their tryst.
The narrator puts Sybil in a cab. As he says good-bye, the narrator learns that she does not know his name. A few moments later, Sybil appears in the same cab. The narrator has to get rid of her again. Soon afterward, the narrator finds her waiting for him at 110th Street. The narrator puts...
(The entire section is 455 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary and Analysis
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
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 accounts of its origin are circulating. There is widespread violence, blazing fires, and the unpredictability common to such situations.
A storeowner frantically persuades looters that he is colored, and his store is left undisturbed. At a hardware store, the men take flashlights and full buckets of fuel oil. Moving down the street, they pause at the spectacle of a milk truck topped with a singing fat lady offering free beer. They find this somewhat repellent.
Stopping at a tenement, the narrator sees that the oil was brought to burn it down. Dupre orders the men to evacuate the building. The narrator does not consider protesting, but a young pregnant woman begs Dupre to relent. He refuses.
The men douse the...
(The entire section is 827 words.)
Epilogue Summary and Analysis
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. Norton in the subway. Their meeting is brief and, at least for Mr. Norton, disturbing. He does not recognize the narrator, is confused about how the narrator knows his name, and, most of all, has no idea what the narrator means by accusing Mr. Norton of being this man’s destiny. Mr. Norton ducks into an available subway car, and the narrator gets a big laugh from it. Then he goes back to his unnoticed home and continues being lost in his thoughts.
Like the Prologue, the Epilogue takes place inside the narrator’s head. It is his last chance to explain his life and his choices. He gives the impression that he feels he made no choices, because history put him where he is.
If we were to...
(The entire section is 422 words.)