Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623
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 is dangerous. The young blacks active in the unions condemn Brockway’s isolationist position, while Brockway himself is put in a rage to hear that the narrator has had anything to do with the union men.
The fight that the narrator and Brockway have over this subject is based on a misunderstanding, yet its violence escalates. Brockway escapes just before the huge explosion that ends the chapter. The narrator is not so fortunate.
The narrator begins work feeling that he has made a move of his own to improve his life. Yet he finds that he has taken someone else’s job, and benefited from a misunderstanding about his having been to college.
After his initial problems, his move to the boiler room proves to be a small improvement. The relationship between Brockway and the other black laborers at the factory provides the narrator with yet another lesson in the politics of race and power.
What Brockway shows the narrator, and the reader, is how he has kept his position and his power. Brockway’s career and survival are remarkable. He is perfectly aware of this, as we see in the anecdote about Mr. Sparland, the rich owner, who visited Brockway in person to convince him not to retire.
What has allowed Brockway to succeed, especially in his later years, is a complete conviction in what he does. He has no time to be, or interest in being, ambivalent. This has kept him focused on living his life, which involves a lot of responsibility and self-satisfaction.
Everyone who comes into Brockway’s world represents a potential threat, including the narrator. At first, Brockway decides that the narrator is harmless. When that perception changes, then Brockway must act to protect himself, which he does.
Some of the conversation between Brockway and the narrator recalls what the Vet had said in Chapter Three. Both of the men have spent far more time around white people than the narrator has at that point in his life, and they have learned the truths to which the narrator alluded in the Prologue.
Twice in this chapter, the narrator’s name is spoken. It represents the first confirmation that he has a name, but does not shed light on why that name is never shared with the reader.
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