Summary and Analysis
The following day, watching the Harlem community "going apart at the seams," the narrator initiates his plan, telling Brotherhood members whatever he thinks they want to hear. Later that afternoon, he tests the effectiveness of his tactics by announcing that his group has launched a clean-up campaign in Harlem to get the people's minds off Brother Clifton's death. He turns in a fake list of new members, amazed at how easily the Brotherhood accepts his lies.
Giving up on his plan to pursue Emma to get information about the Brotherhood, he pursues Sybil, the wife of a Brotherhood member, instead. But while he thinks he is using Sybil to meet his needs, she uses him to fulfill her sexual fantasy: being raped by a black man.
Following their abortive attempt to have an affair, the narrator puts Sybil in a cab and takes a bus back to Harlem. After getting off the bus and running toward the Harlem neighborhood, the narrator passes underneath a bridge and is forced to use his briefcase as a shield to protect himself from the droppings of pigeons perched on the bridge.
The narrator's attempt to have an affair with Sybil, George's sexually frustrated wife, illustrates the uneasy relationships between black men and white women. Sybil, the forbidden fruit, represents the taboo of the white female symbolized by several of the white women in the novel: Hubert's nameless wife; Mr. Norton's nameless daughter; Emma, the sophisticated hostess at the Chthonian; and the naked blonde at the battle royal.
Similarly, representing a strict taboo, the narrator is especially appealing to Sybil. But because Sybil sees the narrator as a racial stereotype, he becomes disinterested.
According to Greek and Roman mythology, Sibyl was a famous prophetess who always told the truth, although no one ever believed her. In this instance, Sybil has obviously lied to her husband George, but she does tell the narrator the truth about her rape fantasies involving black men, whom she perceives primarily as sexual animals. Recalling the chaotic scene at the Golden Day, Sybil's fantasy of black men mirrors Edna's fantasy of white men as over-sexed creatures with "monkey glands."
The mythical Sibyl was also believed to be one of the Sirens whose haunting melodies lured sailors to their death. Perhaps additional connections between the symbolism inherent in Sybil's name and her role in the novel can be made.
Because the narrator is at least somewhat attracted to Sybil and even begins to feel protective towards her — although his initial motive for getting involved with her was to use her to get information — he has been lured by her "siren song." And in light of the screaming sirens in Chapter 25, which add to the confusion and chaos in Harlem, the narrator's disastrous encounter with Sybil foreshadows his disastrous encounter with Scofield and Dupre, the looters who convince him to participate in the riot by burning down the tenement.
An important aspect of this chapter as well as the previous two chapters is the emphasis on heat. The narrator meets with the Brotherhood committee (Chapter 22), Brother Jack admonishes him on several occasions to "Sit down, please, it's hot." In Chapter 23, when the narrator enters the bar, he overhears "a heated argument" over Brother Clifton's shooting. And in this chapter, the narrator tells us that his encounter with Sybil takes place on "a hot dry August night." The heat motif suggests that the black community is "heating up," much like a smoldering fire about to burst into flame.
The grotesque scene in which the narrator, walking underneath the bridge, is splattered by bird droppings, recalls an earlier scene in which the narrator watches the mockingbirds on his beloved college campus soil the statue of the Founder, symbolizing the white stain on black history. Here, the narrator, who has finally realized that his experiences shape his identity and that — like his grandfather — he is a part of history, suffers the same fate as the Founder.
a crazy Thurber cartoon allusion to James Thurber (1894-1961), American short-story writer and cartoonist.
a new birth of a nation allusion to Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Klansman), often described as one of the most racist films ever made.
the Palisades a popular New Jersey amusement park, now closed.