Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison Summary and Analysis Chapters 14-16

Summary

Returning to Mary's, the narrator is overwhelmed by the odor of cabbage, which reminds him of his impoverished childhood. The odor also makes him realize that cabbage is probably all Mary can afford, because he is still behind in his rent. Later, as he lies in bed listening to Mary singing, he resolves to be more responsible and decides to call Brother Jack to discuss his job offer.

The narrator is surprised to find that Brother Jack apparently expected his call, because he immediately gives the narrator directions to an address on Lenox Avenue. When the narrator arrives at the designated address, a car pulls up to the curb with three men inside, plus Brother Jack, who tells him to get in and informs him that they are going to a party. After a short ride through Central Park, the car stops and the men enter the Chthonian, an exclusive private club, where they are met by a sophisticated woman (later identified as Emma). Wondering about the contrast between the room's lavish decor and the men's poor clothing, the narrator surveys the scene. Brother Jack guides him into a larger, even more lavishly decorated room filled with well-dressed people. The narrator overhears Emma asking Jack if he thinks that the narrator is black enough to be an effective leader. Deeply offended by her remark, the narrator crosses to a nearby window where he remains lost in thought. Soon the narrator is asked to join a group in the library where he is given a new name and informed that he will be the new Booker T. Washington.

In the midst of the celebration, a belligerent drunk demands that the narrator sing an old Negro spiritual. Before the narrator can respond, Brother Jack orders the forcible removal of the man from the room, and the crowd lapses into an embarrassed silence, finally broken by the narrator's near-hysterical laughter. After numerous apologies Emma asks the narrator to dance, and the party resumes.

Later that night, back at Mary's, the narrator decides that it would be best to simply place his rent money on the table the following morning, in order to avoid an emotional farewell scene with Mary, and move into the apartment Brother Jack provided for him.

The next morning, he is awakened by the sounds of someone banging on the steam pipes. He looks for something to use to strike the pipes and discovers Mary's coin-filled, cast-iron bank in the shape of "a very black, red-lipped, and wide-mouthed Negro," which he finds obscene and repulsive. He bangs on the pipes with the bank, it shatters, and he frantically tries to hide the broken pieces and gather up the coins. But when Mary knocks on the door and tells him to come to the kitchen for breakfast, he hastily stuffs the pieces into his coat pocket, planning to get rid of them on the way downtown.

Realizing that he has no choice but to speak to Mary, he goes into the kitchen and tries to give her a hundred-dollar bill, which she at first refuses to accept. Suddenly, the kitchen is invaded by a horde of roaches that have been shaken loose from the steam pipes. After helping Mary kill the roaches and clean up the kitchen, he leaves to go shopping for his new clothes and to find his new apartment. Along the way, he tries unsuccessfully to get rid of the broken bank, but finally decides to add it to the items in his briefcase.

Later that evening, Brother Jack picks him up and takes him to an old sports arena in Harlem, the site of the Brotherhood rally where he is to give his first speech. Across the dressing room, tacked to a wall, a faded photograph of a former boxing champion blinded in the ring reminds the narrator of the stories his grandfather told him about the boxer. Finally called to the podium, the narrator delivers a passionate speech on dispossession, and is bewildered when Brother Jack and several other members of the Brotherhood criticize his speech for being "incorrect." The evening ends with Brother Jack informing the narrator to report to Brother Hambro for training in scientific rhetoric.

Back in his apartment, the narrator reflects on his speech and realizes that he spoke spontaneously and from the heart. Pondering over exactly what he meant by declaring that by joining the Brotherhood, he felt "more human," he recalls a lecture from his former literature teacher, Mr. Woodridge, on the problem of Stephen Daedalus. He also reflects on how his rejection and betrayal by Dr. Bledsoe and Mr. Norton brought him to the Brotherhood. As he drifts off to sleep, he imagines the leadership potential available to him through the Brotherhood and resolves to take full advantage of his new position.

Analysis

These three chapters, which focus on the narrator's induction into the Brotherhood, analyze his transformation from an independent individual to a member of a powerful political organization that promises to make him a community leader, but treats him like a puppet. The narrator's naïve willingness to accept Brother Jack's orders without question is striking. Eager to be a leader, the narrator meekly accepts his new name, his new apartment, and his proposed role as the new Booker T. Washington.

Chapters 14 through 16 also trace the narrator's transformation as he moves from the warmth and safety of Mary's house to the coldness and danger of the Brotherhood. The numerous references to surprise underscore the uncertainty and danger that await the narrator as he plunges into the underworld of the Brotherhood. This uncertainty is characterized by his initial visit to the Chthonian, where nothing is what it appears to be, beginning with the door knocker that turns out to be a door bell. The scene in which the narrator attempts to give Mary the hundred-dollar bill is also important because it recalls the scene in Chapter 2 in which the narrator resents the fact that Mr. Norton gives Jim Trueblood a hundred-dollar bill.

Shopping for new clothes and attempting to rid himself of Mary's cast-iron bank, the narrator does his best to rid himself of his old identity in preparation for his induction into the Brotherhood. Lacking a positive self-image, the narrator sees Mary's bank as a grossly distorted caricature of himself. (Note the narrator's remark that his head feels as if it is about to explode. Minutes later, as he bangs the bank against the pipes, the bank's head explodes.) Viewed from another perspective, the bank also represents the racist symbols and images that still pervade our culture, perpetuating the destructive Sambo stereotype.

The scene in which the narrator tries desperately to rid himself of his "shattered image" offers a unique twist on the themes of invisibility and identity. Normally, a black man walking down the streets of Harlem early in the morning would be virtually invisible, yet this particular morning, the narrator is highly visible. While he is simply trying to throw away some trash, his actions are perceived as being much more significant by two bystanders who interpret what he does based on their perception of who he is. The Northern mulatto woman sees him as a Southern "field nigger," with no respect for personal property, the Southern man sees him as a slick New York Negro/con artist. Even though both share his racial identity, neither identifies with him on the basis of race, choosing instead to see him as an outsider on the basis of regional, cultural, and class differences, thus shattering the image of the homogeneous, one-dimensional black community.

The narrator's arrival at the Chthonian marks a dramatic change in his environment, as he moves from the warmth and safety of Mary's house into a cold, white world of danger and violence. The narrator also moves from a world of sound (symbolized by Mary's singing) to a world of silence (symbolized by the musical instruments suspended by the neck and the silent radio at the Chthonian).

As in previous chapters, these chapters provide numerous examples of Ellison's wordplay. For example, when the narrator hesitates about joining the Brotherhood, Brother Jack remarks, "It's a party; you might like it." Party can refer to either a social event or a political group.

Glossary

dunning demanding payment of a debt.

"Back Water Blues" song made famous by blues singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937), known as "The Empress of the Blues."

Chthonian of the underworld of the dead and its gods or spirits.

Sun Yat-sen Chinese political and revolutionary leader (1866-1925).

Danny O'Connell Irish nationalist leader (1775-1847).

tam short for tam-o'-shanter, a Scottish cap with a wide, round, flat top and, often, a center pompom.

pince-nez eyeglass without temples, kept in place by a spring gripping the bridge of the nose.

Nijinskys referring to the dancer's artistic movements; pluralized proper name of Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), famous male Russian ballet dancer known for his leaps and jumps.

dialectics the art of logical argumentation.

James Joyce, William Yeats, and Sean O'Casey Irish authors whose works focused on the lives of the working class.

Stephen's problem allusion to Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of James Joyce's autobiographical novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the novel, Stephen represents the individual struggling against society to realize himself as an artist. Stephen believes his name provides a spiritual link to Daedalus, the mythological Greek inventor who created the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete, in which he and his son Icarus eventually found themselves imprisoned.

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