Summary and Analysis
Anxious to fulfill Mr. Norton's request for whiskey, the narrator arrives at the Golden Day, a disreputable bar on the outskirts of the college community. Big Halley, the bartender, refuses to let the narrator take a drink outside to Norton. Inside, Norton is propositioned by a prostitute, insulted by a veteran, and overwhelmed by the "inmates" — institutionalized war veterans who fill the bar.
After the narrator and Norton witness the chaotic events at the Golden Day, including the brutal beating of the veteran's attendant, Supercargo, the narrator finally manages to get a distraught Norton — collapsed under the strain of being in a situation where he has no control — back into the car, and the two head back to the college campus.
After dropping Norton off at his rooms, the narrator heads back to the administration building to see Bledsoe. After briefly describing their misadventures and informing Bledsoe that Norton wants to see him, the narrator is shocked and bewildered by Bledsoe's angry outburst that the narrator should have known better than to take Norton to see Trueblood's quarters, regardless of his request. Moments later, he is equally shocked as he watches Bledsoe undergo an astounding transformation as he masks his anger and assumes an attitude of conciliation and servility as he prepares to meet with Norton.
On Norton's recommendation, Bledsoe dismisses the narrator and orders him to attend chapel that evening. Back in his room, the narrator is interrupted by a freshman who tells him that Bledsoe wants to see him. Arriving at Bledsoe's office, the narrator is surprised to see Norton, who informs him that Bledsoe had to leave. After apologizing to Norton again, the narrator offers to drive him to the station. Disappointed that his offer is refused, the narrator assures Norton that he intends to read the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. This seems to please Norton, who comments on the virtues of Emerson's philosophy of self-reliance, then reminds the narrator about his meeting with Bledsoe. As the narrator leaves, he feels somewhat reassured by Norton, but apprehensive about his impending meeting with Bledsoe and his mandatory attendance at chapel.
Chapters 3 and 4 contrast the chaos and violence at the Golden Day with the apparent order and tranquility at the college campus. The two chapters also challenge us to consider what is more normal: A bar in which crazy people, openly expressing their feelings, dare to challenge a corrupt system that denies them the right to lead dignified, productive lives; or a college that fosters and perpetuates the racist myth of white supremacy, while purporting to prepare its black students to become productive members of society. This quandary is highlighted by the vet's reference to Hester, the prostitute, as "a great humanitarian" whose "healing touch" enables the vets to cope with their broken, empty lives, while the "real" humanitarian — Norton — is likened to "a formless white death."
Symbolizing power, the car is a key element in these chapters. Although the narrator is driving, he is not in control and the car he is driving is not his own. While the narrator exaggerates his importance as Norton's driver, the only power he has is that which Norton bestows on him. Realistically, Norton is in control and the narrator is being driven to conform to his expectations. This scene also suggests that the black college controlled by the white trustees is merely an extension of the white power structure.
Furthermore, Bledsoe, under the constant vigilance of his white trustees (represented by Norton), is no more in control of the campus than Big Halley, under the constant surveillance of Supercargo (who also represents the white power structure), is in control of the Golden Day. Big Halley, who resents any outside interference with his bar, in many ways exercises more control than Bledsoe, who willingly accepts the trustees' money and has no qualms about "selling his people."
The chaos at the Golden Day mirrors the confusion at the battle royal. But the roles of the key players have been reversed. At the battle royal, a group of prominent white men drink whiskey and behave like animals. At the Golden Day, black men drink whiskey and behave like animals, as they brutally beat Supercargo and engage in meaningless sex with various prostitutes. At the battle royal, the narrator and his classmates were forced to fight a boxing match while blindfolded. At the Golden Day, the veterans are equally in the dark as they try desperately to find some sense of pride and dignity in their wasted, empty lives. In the earlier episode, the narrator arrives at the hotel expecting to give his speech, but is forced to participate in a brutal boxing match instead. Similarly, arriving at the Golden Day, the narrator expects to buy whiskey for Norton, but is relentlessly drawn into the lives of the veterans and forced to witness the brutal attack on Supercargo. In both instances, the narrator's behavior is prompted by his eagerness to please a white man and his belief that if he plays his role well, he will be rewarded.
These two chapters also advance the theme of reality versus illusion, as things are never quite what they appear to be. Seeing the veterans straggling down the road on the way to the Golden Day, the narrator describes them as looking like a chain gang, although he adds that a chain gang would be walking in a more orderly fashion, thus drawing attention to the veterans' seemingly aimless wanderings. This image of the veterans as prisoners is highlighted again when they are referred to not as patients but "inmates," immediately raising several questions: If these are disabled military veterans, why aren't they in a veterans' hospital? And if they need mental and physical therapy, why are they going to a bar? Although these seem like logical, legitimate questions, Ellison reveals that the veterans are not part of a logical, legitimate society. Although they are indeed war veterans, they are also veterans of the race war. Thus, their wounds are not physical, but psychological. Deprived of the opportunity to practice their skills and forced to live in a segregated society that refuses to reward their accomplishments or acknowledge their achievements, the veterans have social responsibility without social equality.
The Golden Day represents a microcosm of American society from a black perspective, and the shell-shocked veterans represent black men unable to function in the real world as a result of the brutal treatment received at the hands of racist whites.
Here again, Ellison merges fantasy and reality as the vets share their true-to-life stories. Recalling the atrocious behavior towards black World War I veterans, some returned to the States to face extreme hostility for daring to think that their military service earned them the right to equal treatment under the law. The hostilities led to the lynchings of hundreds of African Americans, many of them soldiers still in uniform. The lynchings culminated in the violent Red Summer of 1919, with race riots erupting around the country, especially in major cities such as Detroit and Chicago.
The chapters also provide numerous examples of Ellison's skillful transformation of cultural myths and stereotypes. Edna, the prostitute who fantasizes about Norton's extraordinary sexual prowess, inverts the myth of the black male as sexual stud. Supercargo, the carrier of the black man's burden, transforms Norton's vision of himself as carrying the white man's burden. Supercargo not only literally carries his human cargo — the vets — from the hospital to the Golden Day each week; he also symbolizes the collective psychological burden or cargo (guilt, shame, pain, humiliation) of black men, which is why he invokes so much hatred. The scene in which Supercargo is stretched out on the bar with his hands across his chest like a dead man underscores his role as the scapegoat sacrificed for the sins of his people.
Invested with power by whites, who rely on him to keep the vets under control, Supercargo also represents the white power structure. Consequently, the vets, who are unable to directly attack their white oppressors, vent their pain and frustration on Supercargo, who is beaten (possibly to death) when they finally get their hands on him. (In Chapter 6, the vet is escorted by Crenshaw, a new attendant.) The similarities between Supercargo and Tatlock, the blindfolded boxing match winner, are striking. Both are large, physically imposing men, and both are tokens singled out by whites to keep blacks in their place. Their role is much like that of the black plantation overseer who was often hated more than the slaveholder and who — because of his extreme self-hatred — was often excessively cruel and brutal.
The mechanical man imagery, first introduced in Chapter 2 when Trueblood imagines himself as the man inside the clock, is also important. Rather than being depicted as human beings, individuals are referred to as robots and cogs in the machine. This theme is advanced through the brief conversation between the narrator and Norton when, in response to the narrator's question, "Will you need me this evening, sir?" Norton responds, "No, I won't be needing the machine."
General Pershing General John Joseph Pershing (1860-1948), a veteran of the Spanish-American War (1898) who was named by President Woodrow Wilson as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
armistice a temporary stopping of warfare by mutual agreement, as a truce preliminary to the signing of a peace treaty. Armistice Day (November 11), now known as Veteran's Day, marks the anniversary of the armistice of World War I in 1918.
Tell him we don't jimcrow nobody Jim Crow laws were designed to legalize discrimination against blacks.
Thomas Jefferson American statesman (1743-1826), third president of the United States (1801-1809), drew up the Declaration of Independence. Recent revelations concerning the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his black mistress, Sally Heming, focused renewed attention on America's system of chattel slavery.
fungo-hitter a batter who hits a fly ball after he has himself tossed the baseball into the air.
balustrade a railing held up by small posts, or balusters, as on a staircase.
homburg a man's felt hat with a crown dented front to back and a stiffened brim turned up slightly at the sides.
moiling marked by confusion and turmoil.