Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison Summary and Analysis Chapter 23

Summary

The narrator returns to Harlem and encounters Ras addressing a crowd that has gathered there to hear him speak against the Brotherhood. Ras sees the narrator, and the two argue briefly. As the narrator walks away, two of Ras's men follow and attack him, but a doorman at a movie theater intervenes on his behalf.

As the narrator waits for a cab, three men wearing dark glasses stand near him on the curb, whom he immediately identifies as Ras's men. Instead of running, the narrator buys himself a pair of dark glasses. From then on, he is mistaken for someone named Rinehart, especially when he adds a wide-brimmed hat to his disguise. Even Brother Maceo and Barrelhouse, the bartender, mistake him for Rinehart at the Jolly Dollar. The narrator marvels at how a hat and dark glasses enable him to hide in plain sight. He also decides to exploit his newfound invisibility.

Remembering his appointment with Brother Hambro, the narrator heads for Manhattan. When he expresses his concern about Ras and his men gaining more control in Harlem, Brother Hambro informs him that there is nothing the Brotherhood can do, as they have decided that the people of the Harlem community must be sacrificed. The narrator protests, pointing out that the Brotherhood has promised to stand by the people of Harlem. But Brother Hambro simply explains that the Brotherhood's plans have changed, that black people need to be "brought along more slowly," and that they cannot be allowed to upset "the master plan." Outraged by Brother Hambro's revelation, the narrator heads back to Harlem.

Walking the streets, the narrator realizes that he has been part of a sellout: He promised his people support, only to betray them. Recognizing that there is no escape from his predicament, he decides to use the Brotherhood's own methods against itself. Remembering his grandfather's words, he decides to "agree them [the members of the Brotherhood] to death and destruction." Wondering what Rinehart would do in his situation, he decides to use a woman. Recalling that Emma was once attracted to him, the narrator decides to use her to get information about the Brotherhood's new plans.

Analysis

Rinehart, whom the reader never actually meets in the novel, is the ultimate trickster and master of disguise. Simply by donning dark glasses and a hat, he easily assumes and discards his multiple identities as preacher, lover, numbers runner, and pimp. In effect, he becomes invisible at will, which enables him to mingle with society and go about his business without feeling compelled to explain his actions to anyone. Compared to all the other characters in the novel whose painful experiences have distorted their perceptions of reality, Rinehart seems virtually unscathed and unaffected by his environment because instead of allowing others to define him and shape his reality, he defines himself and creates his own reality.

If Rinehart appears to be especially devious and deceptive, in reality, he has simply learned to adapt to his environment. People in general play numerous roles throughout their lives — sometimes sisters, brothers, friends, students, workers, etc. — and each role that is played emphasizes certain aspects of the personality. Happiness and success in various areas of a person's life depends on how well the individual can play the part.

As his name suggests, Rinehart is both "rind" and "heart"; that is, he is a whole human being who doesn't need others to validate his existence. When the narrator finally removes his metaphorical blindfold and stops seeing his reflection in the eyes of others, he becomes Rinehart and regains his sense of self.

By disguising himself as Rinehart, the narrator uses his invisibility to his advantage. He realizes that just as he never noticed the zoot-suiters or the men in dark glasses before, people never really noticed him before. Instead, they recognized him only by his clothes, but not by his features. When people look at him, they see what they expect to see. Who he is, is not as important as who people think he is.

This revelation causes the narrator to reflect on his past, recognizing that he is the sum total of his experiences, and that it is his experiences — not the acceptance or rejection of others — that shape his identity.

One of the most important lessons the narrator learns in this chapter is the fallacy underlying the concept of a color-blind society. As he points out, "I had thought they [the members of the Brotherhood] accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men."

Glossary

like a bad dream of the Fiery Furnace allusion to the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3). After being thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar for refusing to worship a golden idol, the three Christians emerged unharmed. References to the fiery furnace signify a punishment that "boomerangs" by harming those who attempt to enforce it instead of the intended victims.

antiphonal sung or chanted in alternation. The allusion is to a child's game, such as "London Bridge Is Falling Down."

charlatan a person who pretends to have expert knowledge or skill; a fake.

hobnailed boots boots with short, broad-headed nails on the soles; in this context, an allusion to Hitler's armies.

a few Pullman porters allusion to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful black labor union in the U.S.

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At the beginning of the novel, where does the narrator live?




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