Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison Summary and Analysis Chapters 18-19

Summary

Opening his morning mail in his Harlem District office, the narrator discovers an unsigned letter, warning him not to "go too fast" and that "this is a white man's world." Distraught, he turns to Brother Tarp, who says not to worry about the letter, reassuring the narrator that he has lots of support. Brother Tarp tells the narrator about his imprisonment for more than 19 years because he dared to say "No" to a white man, and he gives the narrator a link from the chain he was forced to wear as an inmate. Although he doesn't know what to make of Brother Tarp's gift, the narrator is honored by his gesture.

Brother Wrestrum soon enters and, noticing the link of chain on the narrator's desk, recommends that he remove it, so as not to dramatize the racial differences between the black and white members of the Brotherhood. When the narrator objects to his remark, Brother Wrestrum cautions him that there are people in the Brotherhood who are only interested in using the organization for their own gain. Realizing that he has the narrator's attention, Brother Wrestrum informs him that Brother Tod Clifton struck a white man, not realizing that he was part of the Brotherhood. He points out that wearing Brotherhood emblems could prevent such incidents.

The narrator receives a call from a magazine, requesting an interview. Partly to spite Brother Wrestrum, he agrees to give the interview. About two weeks later, the narrator is shocked to learn that Brother Wrestrum has filed charges against him, accusing him of being an opportunist. The disciplinary committee revokes the narrator's leadership role as spokesman for the Harlem District and puts him in charge of the Woman Question. Angry and humiliated, the narrator leaves Harlem without saying goodbye to anyone.

At his first speaking engagement, the narrator is seduced by a white woman who pretends to be intrigued by his speech, but is actually attracted to his "primitive" qualities. When the woman's husband walks in on them, the narrator is horrified that the man does not seem to care.

The following day, at a meeting of the Brotherhood, the narrator learns that Brother Tod Clifton is missing.

Analysis

The anonymous letter left on the narrator's desk is yet another in a series of notes and letters that have a critical impact on the narrator's fate. Like Dr. Bledsoe's seven letters and the letter the narrator discovers in his briefcase in Chapter 1, the anonymous letter has a similar impact: It keeps him running. The anonymous letter warning him not to "go too fast" is essentially the same as the school superintendent's verbal warning in Chapter 1: "We mean to do right by you, but you've got to know your place at all times." The message also recapitulates Trueblood's comment, "I had to move without movin." The narrator is expected to project an image of progress (to support the image of the Brotherhood as a progressive, liberal organization without actually moving forward).

Brother Tarp's link of chain, symbolizing his escape from prison as well as his escape from mental slavery, contrasts with the smooth, unbroken chain on Dr. Bledsoe's desk. While Brother Tarp's chain represents his freedom, Dr. Bledsoe's chain is a reminder of his continued enslavement to power and materialism. Brother Wrestrum's obvious discomfort with the chain on the narrator's desk, a painful reminder of slavery, indicates that he is not comfortable with his racial and cultural identity.

Brother Wrestrum's low self-esteem and his desperate need to be recognized and respected are also reflected in his conversation with the narrator, revealing him to be precisely the type of opportunist he accuses the narrator of being. His suggestion that all Brotherhood members wear an emblem or insignia to identify each other provides the perfect opportunity for him to tell the narrator about Brother Tod Clifton's hitting a white man. Obviously aware of the potential power play between Brother Clifton and the narrator, he could be trying to ingratiate himself with the narrator, whom he perceives as being the man with the most power, by casting suspicion on Brother Clifton. When his plan fails and the narrator virtually ignores him, Brother Wrestrum decides to get even by openly challenging his leadership and authority.

The narrator's new position as spokesman on the Woman Question is also significant and somewhat humorous, considering the narrator's obvious lack of knowledge concerning women's issues. Although the details of his job are not revealed, his new platform presumably will focus on women's rights issues such as economic equity in the workplace. Because he himself has not achieved this equity, this situation is filled with irony. Once more, the Brotherhood's focus is on groups rather than on individuals, because their interest lies in addressing broad issues such as the Woman Question and the Negro problem rather than in helping individual women or Negroes.

Ellison merges fact and fiction again in this chapter, as the image of the narrator speaking on behalf of women's rights recalls the role abolitionist Frederick Douglass played in the late nineteenth-century Women's Suffrage Movement. Lauded as one of the strongest advocates for women's suffrage, Douglass eventually withdrew his support for the movement when he realized that white women were quick to dismiss the struggle for racial equality once they realized it might undermine support for women's suffrage.

The ease with which the narrator allows himself to be seduced by Hubert's wife again indicates his naiveté. He doesn't stop to think how getting involved with a white woman will affect his credibility, not to mention his safety. Despite his reckless behavior, the narrator is becoming somewhat less self-centered and possibly even more compassionate. Learning that Brother Tod Clifton is missing, the narrator immediately forgets about his own problems.

Glossary

Dick Tracy comic strip popular during the 1940s and 50s that featured a private detective who always got his suspect.

Paul Robeson American actor and singer (1898-1976) who was the first black actor to play Othello on Broadway with a white supporting cast. He is perhaps best known for his powerful renditions of black spirituals and working-class folk songs such as "Old Man River." His career was eventually destroyed because of his controversial political stance and his outspokenness against racial injustice.

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