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

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INVISIBLE MAN BY RALPH ELLISON: ONLINE BOOK SUMMARY

CHAPTER 23

Summary

The narrator walks through Harlem and finds different groups organized throughout the community, apparently a result of Clifton’s motivating funeral. He feels relieved that things might continue to happen despite the disapproval and discouragement from the Brotherhood. He then comes upon a crowd listening to Ras the Exhorter. Ras notices him and points him out as a representative of the Brotherhood. He asks the narrator in front of the crowd what the Brotherhood is doing in response to the tragedy. The narrator defends the Brotherhood, though with some misgivings; he hears his defense for what it is -- a sell-out.

Two men approach the narrator from behind, and he calls out to Ras to tell his men to leave him alone and stop following him. The two men depart with hatred in their eyes. When the narrator leaves, he encounters them again, and they begin hitting him. A doorman nearby comes to his aid, and the fight is stopped before he is too badly injured. He continues walking in fear until he notices three men on the street wearing dark sunshades. He decides to purchase a pair, walking into a nearby drugstore. Immediately upon leaving the drugstore with the sunglasses on his face, he is approached by a woman who calls him Rinehart. They briefly embrace, and she invites him to her home. When he speaks, she realizes he is not Rinehart.

The narrator heads back toward the area where Ras is speaking, hoping to pass without being identified or harassed. Once again he is mistaken for Rinehart, this time by a group of men. He waves at them as he passes and goes on. He begins to grow curious about who Rinehart is. As he passes the two men who harassed him earlier, they do not recognize him due to the sunshades. When he is greeted a third time as Rinehart, he decides to put his disguise to a test. He returns to a bar where the people have been very angry with him for being a sell-out for the Brotherhood. He orders a beer from Barrelhouse, the bartender, who does not recognize him and calls him Poppa-stopper. He feels relieved that his new disguise works so well. Then, the narrator sees Brother Maceo and approaches him. Maceo does not recognize him as a member of the Brotherhood and is fearful that the narrator is going to pull a knife on him; he tells him to go ahead and kill him. The narrator breaks a bottle and approaches Maceo, but Barrelhouse tells them to stop. He calls the narrator Rinehart and tells him to get out. Once outside, he relieves his tension with laughter, treating the whole incident is a joke. He wonders once again who Rinehart is.


As the narrator walks down the street, he is addressed as Rinehart again by two men who are drinking. When they ask him for a job, he waves them off and continues down the street. Suddenly, his arm is taken by a woman who calls him Rine. She wants to know some figures from him since he is the numbers runner. He explains that he is not Rine. She apologizes and she says she would have known if she had looked at his shoes. Rine wore knob-toed shoes. The narrator is next approached by a police officer who mistakes him for Rinehart. The narrator explains that he is not Rinehart, but the officer does not believe him. The officer tells him that he better give him his cut in the numbers business if he does not want trouble.

A group of men with guns show up as the police officer leaves. They want to know if the officer has been harassing him. He tells them that the officer had mistaken him for Rinehart. They cannot believe that anyone would mistake him for Rinehart, though a couple of them admit that he does favor Rinehart a little. They tell him that they are patrolling the community to put a stop to police violence. The narrator is amazed that a hat and shades can change his identity so quickly.

Another woman approaches him on the street calling him Rinehart and trying to give him money. He regrets to inform her that he is not who she thinks he is. She insults him, a fight erupts, and he walks away. He comes to a church where two boys are handing out leaflets. He accepts one, only to be informed of what the community is doing. He cannot believe that the reverend listed on the leaflet is Rinehart. He wonders if this could be the same Rinehart, the numbers runner. He enters the church and is immediately mistaken for Rinehart. A group of old Southern women introduces a new member who has come up North just to hear him. They report on their recent sales on his latest sermon recordings. He feels safer not telling them he is not Rinehart. Again, the narrator wonders about Rinehart. He figures the man must be years ahead of him, understanding the world of possibility when one is invisible. He tries to understand how this sort of dual existence fits in theoretically with the wisdom of the Brotherhood.

The narrator continues to Hambro's house to talk about his future in the Brotherhood. He asks Hambro what he should do with his district. Hambro announces that the members of his district will have to be sacrificed for the good of the larger plans of the Brotherhood. He realizes that since he has awakened to the lifestyle of Rinehart, living many lives in his invisible state, there is little to say between him and Hambro anymore. He does not understand why his district is to be sacrificed. He asks Hambro why the sacrificed are not informed so that they may at least be willing to offer themselves as a sacrifice. Hambro tells him that the new objective will be to slow down the people of his district for their own good. The narrator cannot believe this. He wonders how he could have relied on the Brotherhood for so much integrity, seeing now how they are acting, how they have used him and his district. Hambro tells him his new job will be to teach whoever will listen. The narrator says he would feel two-faced. Hambro admits that it is impossible not to take advantage of the people, but argues it is in their own best interests. The narrator becomes frustrated with Hambro and tells him how everywhere in his life he has been asked to sacrifice for the good, to give up the weak for the benefit of the strong. He leaves in a worse mood than when he came. He wonders what Hambro would think if he were the one being sacrificed.

The narrator agonizes over what to do; what to tell his district. Suddenly he realizes he does not have to tell them anything. They do not know anything about him. He is meaningless to them beyond giving them hope. He can probably walk amongst them unrecognized, unwelcomed. He can become a Rinehart, an invisible man. This realization confuses the narrator; he wonders how he can exist and yet be so invisible to the people he is with.

The narrator becomes filled with resentment for the Brotherhood. They know nothing of the community nor do they appreciate the work done in their name. He is flooded with emotion and memory when he realizes they cannot take his identity from him any more than they can give it to him. They may not be able to see him, but he is made of his experiences, and they cannot take that from him. He had thought they accepted him regardless of color, but now he sees they only used him. He understands at last his invisibility and is ready to test it to its fullest.

The narrator believes he understands the words of his grandfather now and decides to set out to "overcome them with yesses," the phrase his grandfather used to describe his resistance strategy. He will use his invisibility to confirm all of their misconceptions; he will not be accountable because he is not visible. He realizes that he has already changed his whole identity once without anyone ever questioning him about it. He decides to deceive the Brotherhood, coax them into a false sense of security about his compliance in relation to the district. He will become a spy, an invisible force

The narrator knows he has no theorists with whom to work and no allies. He must find his possibility on his own within the lifestyle of Rinehart and invisibility. He falls asleep trying to figure out how he can invade the intelligence of headquarters. When he wakes up, he wonders how Rinehart would have behaved in his position. Suddenly, he thinks that the solution to his problem of infiltrating the Brotherhood is through using a woman. He recalls a woman involved in the Brotherhood who is making plans for Jack's upcoming birthday party. It is a significant recollection.

Notes

This chapter is extremely important for it teaches the narrator new lessons about being invisible. When he buys new sunglasses to disguise himself, he is repeatedly mistaken for a man called Rinehart. He is amazed that a hat and glasses can change his identity so completely. Because he is called Rinehart so often, he beings to wonder who Rinehart is. When a woman approaches and tries to give him money, the narrator realizes that Rinehart is a numbers runner. This is confirmed by a policeman who threatens him if he does not get a cut of the numbers business. One thing for sure is that Rinehart is not invisible; he seems to be known by everyone. Then the narrator discovers that Rinehart has a second identity. He is a preacher at a neighborhood church, where he is loved and respected. The narrator cannot believe that one Rinehart can be so invisible to the other, that he can be a yes man to so many different people. The narrator thinks he suddenly understands the words of his grandfather and decides to use the knowledge to his advantage in the Brother.

The narrator goes to Hambro looking for answers to his confusion, only to discover that Hambro does not have the answers. Instead, he tells the narrator that his district must be sacrificed for the good of the larger purpose. The narrator is infuriated at this idea. He realizes once again that he has been naïve and foolish to trust the Brotherhood, which has only used him for their purposes; he resents the fact that he has been exploited. He resolves to live the kind of life his grandfather warned him about--the life of a spy, agreeing with the enemy to cloak his underhanded motives.


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