Summary and Analysis
As the chapter opens, the narrator is a student at the black college to which he received a scholarship. Continuing his quest for acceptance and identity, and eager to impress Mr. Norton, a visiting white trustee, the narrator chauffeurs Mr. Norton to the old slave quarters on the outskirts of the campus. Along the way, Mr. Norton tells him about his dead daughter. As the narrator drives by Jim Trueblood's log cabin, Mr. Norton orders him to stop the car so that he can talk to Trueblood. Horrified, fascinated, and mesmerized, Norton listens to the sharecropper's story of his incestuous encounter with his daughter, Matty Lou. Before departing, Norton gives Trueblood a hundred-dollar bill, then instructs the narrator to get him some whiskey to calm his nerves. Deciding that downtown is too far to go, the narrator heads for the Golden Day, a local black bar with a dubious reputation.
Raising several critical issues concerning love, family loyalty, mortal sin, and morality, this chapter explores the concept of moral absolutes: Are certain acts morally wrong, regardless of circumstances, or are there shades of right and wrong? Finally, the text addresses the complex themes of black sexuality and manhood. Trueblood's story is central to all these issues.
Through Trueblood, Ellison explores our all-too-human tendency to judge an individual on the basis of a single, isolated act. Trueblood's behavior before and after the incident with his daughter characterizes him as an intelligent, hard-working, loving man. Despite his extreme poverty, Trueblood is the only man in the entire novel — black or white — who has a family and provides for them to the best of his ability.
Mr. Norton's one-hundred-dollar reward indicates that Norton is no different from the other white men who have exploited Trueblood's pain for their own vicarious pleasure. Norton, whom the narrator describes as a "Bostonian, smoker of cigars" has much in common with the men at the smoker and with Mr. and Mrs. Broadnax (Broad-in-acts), philanthropists who make a public display of helping blacks while referring to them as "niggers."
Ironically, the narrator, who experienced the same type of treatment at the hands of the men at the smoker, is totally oblivious to Trueblood's situation. Instead of empathizing with him or being sympathetic to his pain, the narrator dismisses Trueblood as a brutal, animalistic creature. The narrator also fears that Trueblood's behavior might convince Mr. Norton to think less of him. Consequently, he is eager to get back to the campus so that Norton can see "civilized," educated blacks, hoping Norton will forget about Trueblood.
By comparing Trueblood and Norton, Ellison explores two cultural myths that are equally false. Just as Norton sees Trueblood as an incarnation of the sexually insatiable black buck, the narrator (and Trueblood himself) sees Norton as the incarnation of Santa Claus, the benevolent, paternalistic white man who bestows gifts on children to reward them for good behavior. But Norton, representing a perversion of the Santa Claus myth, rewards his children for bad behavior. Similarly, Trueblood, who would undoubtedly be condemned for his behavior if he were white, is instead rewarded for reinforcing and perpetuating the white stereotype of blacks as sexual animals who must be segregated from "civilized" (white) society, and especially from white women.
The process Ellison uses to transform these myths warrants our close attention. First, he explores the myths of the jolly, generous Santa Claus and the sexually insatiable black stud — tracing their origins to white, Eurocentric culture — through the characters of Norton and Trueblood. Then, Ellison transcends these myths by separating the illusion from the reality. Finally he transforms them to conform to the reality of Southern blacks, thereby enabling us to see the myths from a black, Afro-centric perspective. By debunking both myths, Ellison not only encourages a search for the truth behind the myth; he also asks the reader to consider the potentially dangerous, destructive impact of cultural myths.
Trueblood understands his perceived mythical role in the white community, but sacrifices himself in order to protect his family. Fully aware of the game, he decides to play the nigger to get his prize: a chance to stay on his land and provide for his family. Trueblood stays true to his blood (family) and emerges not as slave or Nigger Jim, (a character in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn), but as a humane, compassionate human being who fights the system and wins.
Trueblood's situation raises the issue of moral absolutes. Although Trueblood's behavior cannot be condoned or dismissed, considered within another context, the reader learns that the reason Trueblood's daughter shared a bed with him and his wife in the first place was because the family was trying to survive the bitterly cold winter by huddling together for warmth. Viewed from this perspective, the initial tendency to judge the family's sleeping arrangements as immoral or perverted is reevaluated.
Having dealt with this issue, an analysis of Trueblood's relationship with his wife, Kate, and daughter, Matty Lou, prior to the incident is warranted. Here again, Trueblood was a loving husband and father who provided for his family to the best of his ability. Consequently, Trueblood may be seen as a complex, caring human being, and less likely to be denounced as a monster, based solely on a single (likely unintentional) act committed under highly unusual circumstances.
As in Chapter 1, dreams and illusions play a vital role in defining the character's reality. Like Eliot's Prufrock in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, who experiences the sensation of drowning on being awakened by human voices, Trueblood experiences a similar metaphorical death. Awakened by Kate's screams, Trueblood realizes that the woman in his arms is not his wife or his former girlfriend, Margaret, but his own daughter.
Through Trueblood's dream of being trapped inside the clock, Chapter 2 introduces the image of "the man in the machine," which is explored further in subsequent chapters.
. . . the bronze statue of the college Founder, . . . his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting the veil allusion to the statue of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University (formerly Tuskegee Institute), which depicts Washington lifting the veil off the head of a kneeling slave. Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915), founder of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, was one of the foremost speakers and educators of the twentieth century. A former slave, Washington believed blacks could achieve success without social equality through education and hard physical labor.
Founder's Day allusion to the anniversary of the founding of Tuskegee Institute.
Ralph Waldo Emerson U.S. essayist, philosopher, and poet (1803-82). Emerson is best known for his philosophy of self-reliance. Invisible Man author Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after Emerson.
sharecropper a tenant farmer who works on someone else's land for a share of the crops.
white man's burden the alleged duty of the white peoples to bring their civilization to other peoples regarded as backward (blacks).
the black-belt people people living in a region of the Deep South known as the Black Belt because of its large black population.