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

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The narrator arrives at the bus station and recognizes the veteran surgeon from the Golden Day. Though he does not want to sit by the man since the experience from the day before still haunts him, he has no choice, for blacks are relegated to a small section in the rear. When he sits next to him, the narrator learns that the veteran is being transferred to another mental institution. The veteran begins to tease the narrator about traveling north to seek freedom. He also warns the young black man to wake up and be aware of the lying that goes on; he insists that he does not have to believe in the lies to succeed. He explains that the reality is that people do not see the narrator, for he is black; he then tries to explain the advantages of being invisible. The narrator, confused, ignores the old man. Before getting off at the first stop, the veteran acts in a nurturing manner towards the narrator, putting his hand on his shoulder and offering some last advice. He tells the narrator to be his person, for the world is full of possibility. He also warns him to stay away from the Mr. Nortons in life.

When the narrator leaves the bus, he heads towards Harlem, feeling worldly and sophisticated with his suitcase and leather briefcase in hand. Entering the subway system, he struggles against the crowd. He is afraid of standing close to the woman on the subway and thinks that riots must regularly happen because of such crowded situations. He decides that next time he will enter the subway with his hands on the lapels of his jacket. Walking into Harlem, he is shocked to see the multitudes of black people living and working as normal employees, such as cashiers and police officers. Perhaps he can believe what the veteran has said about a world of possibility.

The narrator is suddenly jolted by the voice of Ras, a West Indian man standing on a soapbox and yelling angry words about the government. The narrator feels sure the speech will spark a riot; however, he notices two white police officers calmly talking amongst themselves with their backs turned to the scene. The policemen see him staring and question him. He asks for directions to the Men's House. Upon getting there, he relaxes, realizing he will not be able to take in Harlem all at once.


While Bledsoe advised the young narrator to accept responsibility and not be bitter about it, the veteran tells him to be his own person and not to associate with the Mr. Nortons of the world. Most importantly, he tells him that the world is full of possibility if he understands his invisibility and uses it to his advantage. Ultimately this realization will belong to the narrator, but for now he seems to cling to the fears and limits set on him by Bledsoe’s warnings.

Ellison offers a sharp contrast between the North and the South in this chapter. The young narrator, who comes from the South, is shocked at the number of black men openly congregating and working at real jobs. On the subway he experiences terror as he bumps into a white woman in close quarters, expecting peoples’ reactions to be the same as they are in the South. Ellison hints about the mainstream belief that the North is less racist than the South. By the end of the novel, he has debunked the Northern myth, for both South and North have the same societal problems. While the white police appear to be indifferent in this chapter to the West Indian black who shouts against the government from his soapbox, the reader later learns they are only indifferent to him so long as he does not provoke them or stir black men into action.



The narrator prepares to interview for jobs. He goes out in the morning to offices of the men to whom his letters are addressed. Each time he gets to an office, he is met by a secretary. His letter is taken and he is told he will be written a letter of response. Walking down the street, he begins to wonder about the white in New York. He eats next to them and rides the subway with them. They do not seem to have an air of too much self-importance, and they apologize whenever they bump into him. Yet he feels certain they do not acknowledge him in their politeness. Their reactions are mechanical, for he is invisible to them.

The narrator grows impatient, not hearing from the employers to whom he has given his letters. He only has one letter remaining. He does not send this last one, for he knows the man is out of town, and he suspects his letters rarely make it past the secretaries. He spends some time typing a perfect letter to the last man, requesting an appointment wherein he will pass on a message from Dr. Bledsoe. He waits anxiously and finally a letter from this man, Mr. Emerson, arrives.


In this chapter, Ellison provides the reader with more of the cultural differences between the North and South. While he does acknowledge that these whites eat, walk, and sit next to him (in contrast to strict Jim Crow laws of the South), he becomes acutely aware of something false and impersonal in the interaction. He realizes the truth of the fact that he is truly invisible to these people. Rather than the young narrator being treated as an equal or even as a lesser person, he is simply ignored. This general feeling of not being acknowledged by the people around him affects him in a personal sense. He realizes that the potential employers to whom he has delivered his letters ignore him in the same way. That the narrator must emotionally endure people ignoring him is one issue, but that he must endure being ignored by economic institutions is quite a different level of severity, because he needs to be recognized in order to live. In hopes of being seen or heard, the narrator types out a perfect letter requesting a meeting with Mr. Emerson, the only employer who he has not called upon. The narrator feels relieved when he receives a response from him.

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