Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison Summary and Analysis Chapters 20-21

Summary

Searching for Brother Clifton and Brother Maceo, one of his best contacts and a regular at Barrelhouse's Jolly Dollar who has been missing for some time, the narrator is shocked to find Brother Clifton selling dancing, paper Sambo dolls on a street corner. Without a permit to sell the dolls, Clifton is arrested by a white policeman, who harasses and abuses him. When Clifton strikes back, the policeman shoots and kills Clifton.

Determined to pay tribute to his friend, the narrator organizes a lavish funeral and eulogizes. He also assumes responsibility for informing the neighborhood youth of Brother Clifton's death.

Analysis

These two chapters, which focus on Brother Tod Clifton's death and funeral, mark a major transition in the narrator's character and a pivotal point in the novel, highlighting and illuminating various themes, images, and symbols introduced in previous chapters.

Ellison uses the scene with the grotesque, dancing dolls to advance the theme of blacks perceived as dolls, puppets, and tokens introduced in Chapter 1 (the "battle royal" scene), in which the boys are forced to scramble for brass tokens on the electrified rug.

Brother Clifton's death has a profound impact on the narrator. For the first time, he becomes emotionally involved with the fate of another human being as he wrestles with his conscience, wondering if there was something he could have said or done to prevent this tragedy. As he recalls his feelings of humiliation and disgust at seeing Brother Clifton selling the Sambo dolls, he may also begin to recall the respect, admiration, and genuine friendship he felt for Brother Clifton prior to seeing him sell the degrading dolls. Thus, his friend's tragic death compels the narrator to examine the meaning of his own life.

Brother Clifton's death also presents the narrator with a complex moral dilemma as he struggles to reconcile his grief with his loyalty to the Brotherhood. (Recall that Jim Trueblood faced a similar moral dilemma as he struggled to reconcile the financial and material needs of his family with his desire to save face in the eyes of his community.) According to Brotherhood philosophy, an individual's worth is measured by his or her contributions to the organization. Consequently, because Brother Clifton's outrageous behavior violated the Brotherhood's mission of uplifting the race by working together for the common good of the people, he is no longer worthy of being part of the organization. In the eyes of the Brotherhood, Brother Clifton's behavior is more important than his life, which has little, if any, intrinsic value.

Because the narrator knew Brother Clifton personally, he knows his behavior was totally out of sync with his true character. He also knows that Brother Clifton was not only intelligent but street smart. He knew that by striking a white policeman, he was virtually committing suicide.

Plagued by these troubling thoughts, the narrator realizes that he must make a crucial decision: Will he dismiss his friend's murder as a necessary sacrifice and just another casualty of the race war, or will he honor Brother Clifton's memory and speak out on his behalf? By planning Brother Clifton's funeral and delivering his eulogy, he apparently opts for the latter.

The narrator's decision illustrates his growing emotional maturity, as he is able to separate Brother Clifton's irrational behavior from his essence as a man of principle and integrity and conclude that selling the dolls was totally out of character for him. As he ponders the possible reasons for his friend's behavior, the narrator also begins to examine his own feelings and to think for himself instead of jumping to conclusions and blindly following what others would tell him is the right thing to do.

The narrator's newly awakened empathy and compassion are particularly striking compared to his response to Brother Clifton's selling the Sambo dolls, and to his earlier response to Jim Trueblood's story. In both cases, he was appalled by the behavior of a black man. But this time, the narrator identifies with Brother Clifton as a true blood (brother) and fellow black man who has been subjected to the same hatred and prejudice he himself has experienced. The narrator did not attempt to analyze Trueblood's situation, but he does ask himself what could possibly have prompted Tod Clifton to not only sell the degrading dolls, but to strike a white policeman. He sees that selling the dolls was not a spiteful or ignorant act designed to humiliate the black community. It was a desperate, self-destructive act aimed at expressing his own self-hatred at selling his people by being part of an organization that exploits blacks, using them only to advance its own social goals and seeing them as nothing more than dolls or puppets.

Following this line of reasoning, Brother Clifton's striking the white policeman was not the act of an angry, out-of-control man ignorant of the consequences of his actions. It was the deliberate act of a man who has come to a crossroads in his life and realizes he has nothing more to lose. Realizing that Ras was right in accusing him of selling his people in exchange for power and recognition from whites, he decides that he can no longer deal with the pressure of living a lie. Reaching the breaking point, he explodes — much like the boiler in the basement of the Liberty Paint Factory — and vents his mental and emotional anguish by selling the dolls, ultimately choosing death over life in a culture that denies him the right to be a man.

Tod Clifton is the "dead man on a cliff" (see "Character Analyses") attempting to live between two conflicting cultures. Unlike Dr. Bledsoe and Rev. Barbee, who seem to have come to terms with their roles as token leaders, Brother Clifton refuses to be a puppet. Determined to live his own life, he decides that a life in which he has no control over his own mind and body is not worth living. His fierce desire for freedom is perhaps best expressed in the words of Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty, or give me death!" But while Patrick Henry became renowned as a patriotic American hero, black men such as Tod Clifton and Ras, who exist outside of history, are dismissed as agitators and militants. Brother Clifton's striking the white policeman was not the act of an oppressed American striking a blow for freedom, but a black man attacking the white power structure.

The narrator's funeral oration for Brother Clifton bears some resemblance to Marc Antony's funeral oration for Julius Caesar, who has been murdered by the treacherous Brutus. Hoping to focus the people's attention on Caesar's honorable deeds, Antony proclaims: "The evil that men do lives after them;/the good is oft interred with their bones. . . . " These lines capture the sentiment surrounding Tod Clifton's death. Once applauded as a leader and role model for Harlem's youth, he seems destined to be remembered primarily as the man who sold the Sambo dolls. But just as Mark Antony tries to reconstruct Caesar's true character, so the narrator attempts to reconstruct Tod Clifton's true character by emphasizing that a man's life should be judged by his cumulative works, not by a single, isolated act. Through his eloquent eulogy, the narrator hopes to instill Brother Clifton's memory in the minds of the people, partly through the frequent repetition of his name. He is also determined not to allow the policeman who killed Brother Clifton to be the one to write his history. By honoring his brother with a lavish funeral, he hopes to establish his legacy.

The narrator realizes that he can function outside the Brotherhood and no longer looks to the organization for his identity or values. His new vision of history as a matter of chance and luck (much like the image of the roulette wheel described by one of the vets at the Golden Day) sets him even farther apart from the Brotherhood, with its focus on history as progress.

Glossary

Peace, it's wonderful! a catch phrase attributed to Father Divine (George Baker, c. 1877-1965), a famous East Coast storefront preacher who became an important advocate for racial justice. He founded his first "heaven," or communal dwelling, in 1919. During the Depression his Peace Mission provided food and housing to thousands of people in Harlem and throughout the U.S.

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