Summary and Analysis
Leaving college on a bus headed for New York, the narrator meets the vet from the Golden Day, who is being transferred to St. Elizabeth's (a mental hospital in Washington, D.C.), and his new attendant, Crenshaw. The vet reminisces about his first trip north to Chicago and speculates about the exciting new things the narrator is bound to experience in New York. He also tells the narrator that he hoped for a transfer to Washington, D.C., for a long time but wonders what brought it about so suddenly. As the bus reaches its next stop and they go their separate ways, he gives the narrator some last-minute advice about surviving in New York.
Arriving in New York, the narrator takes the subway to Harlem, where he is amazed to see so many black people. He is especially surprised to see an angry black man with a West Indian accent addressing a group of black men in the street without being arrested. After passing the group, the narrator asks two white policemen for directions to Men's House, where he registers, immediately goes to his room, and takes out his packet of letters, planning his job search.
Over the next several days, the narrator distributes six of the letters from Dr. Bledsoe, only to meet with polite but firm refusals. Worried about his lack of a job, the narrator decides to change his tactics: He writes a letter to Mr. Emerson, requesting an appointment and explaining that he has a message from Dr. Bledsoe. He also writes a letter to Mr. Norton offering his services. After three days, he is disappointed by the complete lack of replies, but resolves to remain optimistic, even though his money is almost gone. The next morning, he feels confident that his luck has changed when he receives a letter from Mr. Emerson.
On his way to meet with Mr. Emerson, the narrator encounters an old man singing a familiar blues song and pushing a cart filled with discarded blueprints. Although the narrator is at first alarmed by the cart-man, whose nonsensical riddles and rhymes remind him of the vet at the Golden Day, he gradually begins to relax and recognizes some of the rhymes as songs from his childhood. Next, the narrator stops at a drugstore for breakfast. Upset with the counterman's suggestion, "the special" — pork chops, grits, eggs, biscuits, and coffee — because the counterman has correctly identified him as being from the South, the narrator orders orange juice, toast, and coffee instead. As he leaves the drugstore, he seems surprised to see the counterman serving "the special" to a white man.
Finally arriving at Mr. Emerson's office, the narrator is met by a young man who identifies himself as Mr. Emerson's son, then reveals the devastating contents of Dr. Bledsoe's letter. Aware of the shock his revelation has on the narrator, young Mr. Emerson first offers him a job as his valet and then offers to get him a job at Liberty Paints, but the narrator refuses both offers.
Back in his room, he experiences the full impact of Bledsoe's betrayal. Emboldened by rage, he calls Liberty Paints and is surprised to be offered an interview. That night, his dreams of revenge make it hard for him to sleep.
These three chapters mark a major transition in the narrator's life as he leaves his beloved college behind and heads north to New York. Traveling from the South to the North (South Carolina to New York), the narrator traces the path of millions of blacks who left the South in droves to seek a new life in the North during the Great Migration (1930-45), headed for cities like Chicago, Detroit, and New York. But unlike these individuals who left the South with a sense of hope and promise, relieved to leave behind the back-breaking labor of the plantation life, the narrator doesn't want to leave his beloved college. In fact, the only thing that sustains him is the thought of returning to the campus as soon as he earns enough money to continue his education and gained Dr. Bledsoe's forgiveness.
The narrator's conversation with the vet on the bus illustrates his continuing blindness to events around him. While the vet reminisces about his own adventures in Chicago and talks about all the exciting things the narrator has to look forward to, the narrator never stops to ask the vet why he returned to the South, nor does he make any conscious connections between the vet's transfer to Washington, D.C., and his own "transfer" to New York. Instead, he worries that the vet may become violent and resents being forced to sit with him and Crenshaw in the Jim Crow section of the bus.
At this point, the narrator has not yet recognized the power of words as weapons and draws no connection between the vet's violent outburst at the Golden Day and his own violent outburst in Dr. Bledsoe's office. Nor does he recall the violent impact of his grandfather's dying words or the battle royal. Only when he discovers the contents of Dr. Bledsoe's letters does he become fully aware of the formidable power wielded by those who use words as weapons.
The narrator's first dream-like impressions of New York differ radically from Richard Wright's first impressions of Chicago in Black Boy, in which he describes the city as "unreal." The shock of being transported from the agrarian South to the industrial North seems to demand tremendous adjustment and adaptation from blacks who found themselves suddenly uprooted from their homes and thrust into an alien culture where the laws of the South no longer apply. (At this point, the narrator has not yet discovered that even though he has infinitely more freedom than he had in the South, the Northern version of covert racism is just as devastating as the overt racism of the South.)
Finally safe in his room at Men's House, the narrator concludes that Harlem is an unreal city of dreams where none of the old rules seem to apply. His first instinct is to fall back on religion (symbolized by the Gideon Bible on his nightstand), but he rejects that notion, deciding that because it reminds him of home, it will only make him homesick. Next, he considers reading the letters, but reasons that by doing so, he would be violating Dr. Bledsoe's trust. In short, the narrator struggles to hold on to his values, but soon discovers that the rules of right and wrong don't always apply in a world where people arbitrarily change the rules to suit the circumstances. In this way, Ellison advances the theme of game-playing, which is emphasized by the narrator's comparing the letters to "a hand of high trump cards."
Through the narrator's encounter with the counterman at the diner and the blues-singing cart-man with his discarded blueprints (who identifies himself as Peter Wheatstraw), the chapters also explore the role of black culture through folklore and food. [Peetie (or Pete) Wheatstraw was the stage name of William Bunch, a blues singer who produced more than 160 recording between 1930 and 1941. The name was also a pseudonym adopted by other singers.]
From his encounter with the cart-man, the narrator learns that he cannot escape his past, or his Southern "roots." He also learns that in order to live in New York, he must learn not only to survive, but to adapt. Providing a sharp contrast to the cart-man, Mr. Emerson's son admits to feeling somewhat guilty, yet openly revels in his father's material wealth, leading the narrator to conclude that "these men must be kings of the earth." Like Mr. Norton, Mr. Emerson has exploited blacks for his personal gain, as illustrated by the opulent artwork and furnishings of his office, which the narrator refers to as "a museum." But unlike the museum at his college, which housed only the relics of slavery, Mr. Emerson's "museum" includes priceless treasures from Asia and Africa, symbolizing the exploitation of both continents by Europeans. Suggesting imminent danger and recalling animalistic behaviors in both the battle royal and Golden Day episodes, the jungle imagery is also significant.
The relationship between Mr. Emerson and his son who, appears to be homosexual, is important as well. Having experienced the pain of rejection and alienation himself, Mr. Emerson's son can identify with the narrator, which prompts him to reveal the contents of Dr. Bledsoe's letter. The narrator describes young Emerson as "moving with a long, hip-swinging stride," a phrase used earlier to describe the vet, thereby drawing our attention to the similarities between blacks and whites while simultaneously highlighting the vast differences in their social and economic status. When the narrator returns to his room at Men's House and acknowledges the full impact of Dr. Bledsoe's betrayal, he initially feels that his life is over and sets his sights on revenge. But his rage prompts him to call Liberty Paints for, as he points out, "I had to have a job and I took what I hoped was the quickest means." Ultimately, the narrator is driven by his need for economic survival, which, as in subsequent chapters, provides the catalyst for many of his rash and impulsive actions.
allow me to chew the rag slang for "let me speak freely" or "indulge me."
Red Cap a baggage porter as in a railroad station, easily identified by his red cap.
the belly of a frantic whale Biblical allusion to the story of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah is often represented as the bearer of bad luck.
staccato made up of abrupt, distinct elements or sounds.
Huckleberry reference to Mark Twain's classic novel, Huckleberry Finn, the story of Huckleberry Finn, a Southern white boy, and his friendship with the runaway slave, "Nigger Jim."
Charlie Chaplin pants Charlie Chaplin (Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, 1889-1977), an English film actor, director, and producer, was a famous comedian in the United States, noted for wearing big, oversized pants and playing a loveable clown in films such as The Little Tramp.
Totem and Taboo a book by Austrian physician and neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), hailed as the founder of psychoanalysis. Published in 1913, Totem and Taboo elaborates on Freud's theories of the division of the unconscious mind into the id, the ego, and the super-ego.
aviary a large cage or building for keeping many birds.
helical having the form of a helix or spiral.
rookery a colony of rooks (European crows) or swindlers (cheats).