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

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INVISIBLE MAN BY RALPH ELLISON: BOOK SUMMARY / NOTES

CHAPTER 18

Summary

One day the narrator receives an anonymous letter warning him to back off in the Brotherhood or the white men in the Brotherhood will remove him. The narrator is upset and confused by the letter and cannot find out who wrote it. He is told by Brother Tarp not to worry; as long as a few support him, he will still be able to do his work. Tarp then tells the narrator about his lame leg. For nineteen years, he dragged a chain on that leg because he would not let some one take something that was his. He finally broke the chain and escaped. Tarp pulls out the link of chain he broke to free himself and gives it to the narrator as a reminder of why they are fighting for the blacks. The narrator slips the link around his finger up and hits the letter on the desk. He does not want the link, but feels obligated to accept it, like a son would accept an out-of-date watch from his father.

Brother Wrestrum enters the office and slouches down into a chair, looking nervously over the narrator's desk. The narrator feels he is a snoop and does not know his true function in the Brotherhood. He only understands that Wrestrum has some amount of power within the organization. Wrestrum asks about the link on the desk. When the narrator explains what it is, he tells him he should not display such things, because it points out people's differences. He says that those differences are what the Brotherhood is fighting against. Wrestrum goes on to explain how those in the Brotherhood must watch themselves and get rid of anything that does not make for a Brotherhood. The narrator begins to wonder if Wrestrum wrote the letter. He pulls the letter out, playing with it, and drops it on top of the link. Wrestrum looks at it, but shows no recognition. The narrator is disappointed not to have found the author. Wrestrum warns the narrator that not everyone in the Brotherhood believes in the Brotherhood. The narrator is horrified by the idea that anyone would be forced to shake his hand or call him brother.

Wrestrum explains how he seeks to find whatever is in him that is against the Brotherhood and expel it from himself daily. He confesses that the most common element is resentment, but he keeps it checked and cleaned out. Wrestrum then proceeds to ask the narrator about creating some way for black brothers to recognize each other, some sort of Brotherhood emblem that they might wear. Wrestrum tells him how Clifton was in a scuffle and got confused and began beating up a white brother. He thinks that perhaps an emblem would help this problem. Their conversation is interrupted when the narrator receives a call to be interviewed as a hero for a local youth magazine. He tries to refuse, but ends up accepting. Wrestrum leaves after the phone call.


About two weeks pass, and the narrator attends a meeting where Wrestrum calls a complaint on him before the committee. As he is being accused, the narrator notices a certain spark of pleasure in Jack's eyes as he scribbles on a pad. Wrestrum accuses him of being a petty individualist, sabotaging the Brotherhood by exploiting it for his own purposes. He offers the magazine article as proof, saying that the interview was arranged by the narrator to celebrate himself as an exceptional individual. The narrator denies offering anything but the standard explanation of the organization and regular literature handouts when speaking to the reporter. He is asked to step out momentarily while the committee discusses the matter.

He is called back in the room and dismissed of the charges of being an enemy, but questions remain about the magazine article. The narrator is furious that the charges were made in the first place; however, the situation is explained to him in such a logical manner that he feels he must accept. A charge was made and, right or wrong, they have an obligation to investigate. Now they ask him to relocate until all charges against him may be cleared. He has been reassigned to speak on behalf of feminist issues. He is disappointed, but too ambitious to refuse relocation. He will speak on anything important for the Brotherhood as long as he can advance. The narrator decides that the relocation is an expression of the Brotherhood’s unbroken faith in him. After all, he is being asked to address a taboo topic and open the Brotherhood to women. He leaves with misguided optimism.

Notes

The letter he finds in the beginning of the chapter calls to mind the other two letters in the novel: the one he dreamed about and the one Bledsoe gave him. All three are designed to keep “the nigger running;” the narrator is to be kept in his place, uncomfortable with his abilities and unsure of his identity in the world. Later it becomes evident that the author of the letter is none other than Brother Jack, who is seen smiling when the narrator is formally charged with a complaint. For now, however, the narrator is kept guessing, kept running.

In this chapter, Ellison brings out the issue that the individual has no place within the Brotherhood. In fact, Wrestrum is introduced to point out that the Brotherhood is not interested in individual experience or identity. He nit-picks with the narrator, saying he should not have things such as a link on his desk, for he shows individuality. He reminds the narrator that the Brotherhood is about one mutual cause. Time and again the narrator is cautioned against being unique, individual, personal. Wrestrum complains to the committee that the narrator is too interested in his own identity, bringing out in the open some of the narrator’s internal struggle. It is obvious that Wrestrum is jealous of the narrator's growing influence and is fairly ridiculous in his accusations and presentation. It is obvious that Wrestrum is the one who makes the complaint about the narrator to the committee.

The invisible man cannot figure out why the committee would listen to Wrestrum, whom he judges as a “clown.” He cannot understand why he must stand in front of others in the Brotherhood to be judged. The scene is similar to the night of the battle royal of the first chapter. The committeemen sit around smoking and seem to enjoy making the narrator squirm with discomfort. Like the white leaders who paid for the young black men to fight one another and jump on electric rugs, these leaders in the Brotherhood give Wrestrum a forum in which to degrade the narrator. Even though the narrator sees clearly that Wrestrum is jealous of him and trying to get rid of him, he continues to accept orders from the committee; he leaves Harlem, which he loves, to take a new a assignment. He does not dare to complain, for fear of losing more favor. Neither does he recognize that the “dance” he is doing for the Brotherhood is degrading to himself the same way the Battle Royal was degrading to the young men.


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