Free Study Guide: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison - Free BookNotes|
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INVISIBLE MAN BY RALPH ELLISON: FREE NOTES / ONLINE SUMMARY
At the beginning of this chapter, the naïve and hopeful narrator hears a black man singing the blues and wonders what the lyrics to common folk songs mean. Although he knows them by heart, he does not understand them. After he encounters the young Mr. Emerson and the truth of Dr. Bledsoe's letter, he can no longer fight disillusionment. After experiencing this shock, the lyrics to the folk songs he sings begin to make sense to him. He recognizes himself as the disenfranchised subject of the common folk song.
Though it is not yet clear to the young narrator, there is an obvious connection
between the letter written by Dr. Bledsoe and the letter he dreamed about
the night of the Battle Royal. Both letters state that it is best to keep
this young “nigger” running.
The narrator arrives at the Liberty Paint factory and learns he is one of several young black men brought in to the plant to replace striking union workers. Shortly after arriving, he gets an assignment with Mr. Kimbro, a very loud and angry man. He learns to mix chemicals into paint to make it white. However, Mr. Kimbro does not explain everything properly, and the narrator ends up making batches of useless gray paint. After he finishes correcting his work by adding a darker paint, he is sent back to the main office where he is assigned another position in the plant, as Lucius Brockway's assistant.
Lucius Brockway does not really want an assistant, fearing that personnel
is trying to replace him from his job. He accepts this young man, since
the narrator does not appear threatening. His first assignment is to read
the gauges in the basement. Mr. Brockway talks a little more about himself
and the company before the narrator leaves to take his lunch in the break
room, where he is stopped by members holding a union meeting. Fearing
he is a traitor, they hassle him. Eventually, he has lunch and returns
to the basement. Mr. Brockway threatens to kill him when he hears that
he encountered a union meeting. They engage in a physical fight, until
Mr. Brockway gives in. Then Mr. Brockway leaves the scene laughing when
the narrator loses control of a machine. There is an explosion of machine
parts, which fall on him, and the narrator loses consciousness.
Ellison points out the absurdity of lightness being associated with goodness when he introduces the white paint company's logo: "Keep America Pure." The black narrator is trying to be a part of a traditional system which will never admit him as a worthy member, because the ideology specifies that only "white" is pure. In addition, the paint being made especially for the government is metaphoric for the connection between this light/dark ideology and the fact that it is supported by real power.
Interestingly, the paint the narrator mixes becomes whiter when drops of black are added to it. The symbolic suggestion in the context of the novel is that a necessary element of blackness in society serves only to highlight and enhance the overwhelming whiteness. Ellison also builds on this ideological system to show how black people fit into the socioeconomic picture. It becomes obvious that the worst jobs are given to black men. If the paint factory is a microcosm of society where "white" is pure, then one can see who does the dirty work to maintain that "white" purity. In other words, just like there is a black man in the basement toiling away to make pure white paint possible, there are black men working hard daily in society, doing the dirty work, which supports the upper crust, the economically successful white men.
In the midst of this symbolic commentary, Ellison also provides a background
of union activity where people in the lower economic class are organizing
to work in solidarity together. Yet, this attempt at solidarity to counter
the economic discrimination they encounter is opposed by the severity
of their economic insecurity. Lucius does not trust the narrator and ensures
that the narrator will lose his job. Moreover, despite these men's efforts
at working together in solidarity, they are strikebreakers themselves.
Unions at the time were segregated and, therefore, did not work to strengthen
all workers, a fact that contributed to their vulnerability.
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. 05 June 2008