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Free Study Guide: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison - Free BookNotes

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INVISIBLE MAN BY RALPH ELLISON: ONLINE NOTES / SUMMARY

CHAPTER 2

Summary

His days at the Negro college offer many experiences for the narrator to recount. He remembers how he often fantasized of forbidden places, such as the road to the insane asylum. He recalls the nearby prostitutes, in whom he saw great sadness. He also remembers the perplexing statue in front of the school. It was of a father figure holding a veil halfway over a slave's head; one could not be certain if the veil were being lifted or fitted more securely. He recalls the way the school was conducted, almost militarily. He also pictures the frequent visits of the millionaire benefactors, whose contributions paid for the school. He remembers a particular occasion when he was assigned to be a driver for one of the millionaires, Mr. Norton. The narrator finds himself identifying with this rich man, who appreciates tradition and talks of his good intentions concerning black people. He tells the narrator about his grief over his deceased daughter and claims that everything he does, including deeds for the black community, is done in memory of her. As a result of the millionaire’s encouragement, the narrator opts to take a new route, a forbidden road. He is then overcome with guilt as he remembers his grandfather’s words.

The two men arrive at the house of Jim Trueblood, a black man who is looked down upon by the entire black community. Mr. Trueblood's wife and daughter are both pregnant, and the narrator tells the millionaire that Mr. Trueblood is the father of both. Mr. Norton is shocked by the incest and wants to talk to Mr. Trueblood about it. When Mr. Norton approaches him, Mr. Trueblood tells his story. He explains how poor his family is. They have no heat and no beds; when they sleep on the floor, they stay close to each other to keep warm. He claims to have been having a dream when he awoke to find himself on his daughter, Matty Lou. Kate, Matty Lou's mother, woke up and pointed a shotgun at him. Eventually, she injured him with an ax.. Mr. Trueblood says that no one in the black community believes his story, not even the preacher.

Mr. Trueblood says the white men in town have asked him to re-tell his story over and over to different people, as if they were pleased with the tale. In fact, they gave him some new clothing for his family, gave him some work, and allowed him to stay on the land where he now lives. Mr. Trueblood ends by talking about his confusion; he has done one of the worst things a person can do, but the white community has seemed to embrace him for it, treating him better than he has ever been treated in his life.

Mr. Norton originally wanted to shame Mr. Trueblood for his crime; instead he gave him one hundred dollars, for he was troubled by the story. After leaving Mr. Trueblood, Norton asks the narrator to take him somewhere quickly for some whiskey, for he feels a little faint over the entire incident. The narrator is worried about Mr. Norton and drives him to a nearby dive called the Golden Day, where he can get a drink.

Notes

The statue on the grounds of the Negro college is a central symbol in this chapter. The revered statue depicts a slave with a veil halfway over his head; it is not clear whether the veil is being put on or taken off -- whether the slave is being put in his place or freed. It alludes to the blacks’ ongoing confusion about their status in life. The veil is also another metaphor for the narrator’s blindness, his inability to discern life as it is.

When the narrator thinks about the statue, he remembers it is stained with bird droppings, which makes it seem more important than a new, clean statue. The bird stains indicate the statue has a history, a past. The narrator decides that having a past makes one important; since, as a black man in America, he has no past to speak of, he concludes he is not important. Having a past, like having power, is all-important.

Mr. Norton, the rich, white millionaire, has a past; he feels as if he has done something worthwhile in life because he has contributed to the Negro College. He proudly thinks that if young black men in America succeed because they have been able to go to college, he will share in that success. The irony is that Mr. Norton’s financial success in life is related to the economic failure of black people; he has kept them down so that he can rise.

Trueblood's account of his family's poverty is shocking and grotesque, but probably close to the truth; however, his tale of how his daughter came to be pregnant is unbelievable, even though Trueblood delivers the story matter-of-factly without sensationalism or self-defense. In the end, the real horror is not just what he has done, but also his own moral confusion over the implications of his sin. Much of the confusion is caused by the white community. Although the blacks do not believe his story and hold him accountable for his wrong doing, the white community mysteriously gives him various kinds of support, almost as a reward for his criminal behavior. The white men like it when a black man reinforces their own feelings of superiority and morality.

To connote the difference between the races, Ellison makes heavy use of words referring to lightness and darkness or blackness and whiteness. The constant reliance of the narrator upon this color imagery is a testament to how distorted his thinking has become. As a young man, he accepted the white man’s color ideology in which light or "white " is good and dark or "black" is bad. His oppression is reinforced because he has adopted the value system of the oppressor. By the end of the novel, the narrator is fully aware of the negative aspects of this light/dark ideology and its implications. He is aware that as a dark-colored individual, his humanity is invisible to the white man; and yet he is still no less humane because of his invisibility.

Mr. Norton proves he is no different than his less influential white peers who live near Trueblood; he ends up giving Trueblood one hundred dollars, which helps to reinforce in his mind his fated “connection” with all black men. The encounter with Trueblood makes Norton weak. To help erase the tale from his mind, he tells the narrator that he badly needs a drink of whiskey. The narrator, striving to excel in his service to the millionaire benefactor, rushes him to the nearest bar, which happens to be a sleazy black dive called the Golden Day.


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