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

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After a time, the narrator grows restless with just reading books. His thoughts center on tough questions about his identity. Out in the streets, he notices many store signs, many of which are religious or symbolic. One advertisement advocates "whiter" skin as the solution to happiness and beauty. He wants to punch the glass casing with his fist but continues down the road. He comes upon a peddler selling hot yams. He orders one and starts to eat it immediately. It creates a feeling of nostalgia in the narrator, which suddenly triggers a feeling of freedom. He is exhilarated to be walking down the street while eating a yam -- without fear and by himself. This is something he would have been ashamed to do in the past. Now he feels no shame and realizes that he likes who he is. As he orders two more yams, he wonders how much enjoyment he has missed in life because he has felt too ashamed to do anything other than what is expected. He thinks of Dr. Bledsoe and fantasizes about accusing him in public for being a chitterlings eater, crushing him emotionally with humiliation.

As he walks further down the street, the narrator encounters a crowd. Two white men are carrying furniture out of an apartment. A woman sits in one of the chairs being carried out of the house, and she throws punches at the men. A second woman from the same apartment is also yelling. The narrator is filled with disgust as he watches the scene and the crowd, which is silent, self-conscious, and ashamed to be watching what is going on. The narrator feels bad that he has mistakenly identified their household items for junk. When one of the women makes eye contact with the narrator, he looks away out of embarrassment. Her crying affects him deeply. He feels drawn to her, but is afraid of his strong emotions. He wants to leave, but cannot make himself go away. He looks at the personal possessions on the ground, including old baby shoes and newspaper clippings. He is startled to see a paper that certifies that a slave has become a free person. The nausea of the narrator turns to rage. He overhears that the event being witnessed is an eviction.

One of the women tries to go back into her apartment to pray. The white man tells her she is evicted and cannot re-enter. He threatens to hit her, but she charges ahead anyway. She is knocked back to the sidewalk, and someone yells that the white man hit her. Before a fight erupts, the narrator runs between the people and the marshal to intervene. He begins to deliver a speech, even though he fears they may laugh at him. Instead, people take him seriously and listen for a moment; they then storm up the steps anyway. Shots are fired, the marshal is beaten, and the narrator finds himself on the ground, having been trampled over.

The narrator picks himself up and helps the others as they chase the marshal away. They then begin to carry furniture back into the apartment. There is a mood of excitement, empowerment, and pride amongst the blacks. Suddenly, the narrator notices other that other white men are present; they represent some organization and claim to be friends of all people. They encourage the blacks to hold a demonstration. Before they can march, a police officer arrives and orders everyone to clear the streets. The officer calls into headquarters to report a riot and questions the white people as to why they are in Harlem.

In the midst of the confusion, the narrator escapes quietly into the apartment building and up the stairs. A woman recognizes him as the speechmaker and warns him that he is headed in the wrong direction; she encourages him to escape over the roof, so his identity will remain unknown. As he leaves by way of the roof, the narrator realizes he is being followed by a man who does not shoot or shout at him. Once he reaches the street, he believes he has escaped safely. A man standing at the corner compliments him for his speech; he realizes it is the same man who has followed him on the roof. The narrator pretends that he does not know what the man is talking about. The man compliments him again and invites him to talk in a coffee shop, because it is not safe to be seen together on the street.

Once in the coffee shop, the narrator has a feeling that the man is not being totally himself and wonders how much he can trust him. The man, who calls himself Brother Jack, gives him the same compliment the woman at the roof gave him; he stirs people to action with his words. The man explains to the narrator that individuals are not important; he needs to focus his speech-making abilities on the masses. The narrator is offended by this statement, for he identifies himself with individuals, such the old people who have been evicted. The man tells him that while he may have been like those people once, he is different now. The narrator disagrees and distrusts the strange man; he also declines an offer to work for the man giving speeches and bringing local people to action by expressing their grievances. The man explains that the difference between individual and organized resistance means the difference between criminal activity and political activity. The narrator takes the man's phone number and leaves. Although he does not understand everything that has been said, the narrator believes that Brother Jack has spoken with confidence and assurance and feels intrigued.


In this chapter, the central event in the novel occurs as the narrator feels a sense of liberation; he feels exhilarated and free when he is not ashamed to eat a yam on the street, something he would never have done in the South. He has risen above his fear of seeming backward and “black”. The white power structure demands that certain things be valued and others scorned; the narrator realizes how much he has given up in his life to go along with what society has said he "should" like and do. Now he understands how absurd it is to feel ashamed for being who he is and doing what he enjoys. It is a realization that liberates and energizes the narrator.

In the next scene, the narrator uses his liberation as a stepping stone toward identity. A crowd of people stands around on the street watching an old couple being forcibly evicted from their home. There is a great deal of shame as the spectators watch their household items being poured out on the sidewalk. The narrator is prompted to speak out--to tell the spectators that it is perfectly normal to want to help the couple; it is all right to want to stop the cruel eviction. With a zeal he has not had since his experience with the white leaders in the first chapter, he makes a speech energizing the black people to express their feelings. The ensuing scene is wild, and the narrator is smart to flee when things get out of hand. However, he is followed and recognized by people who apparently support and compliment him on his speech making abilities. Brother Jack offers him a job, but the narrator is suspicious, for the strange white man is secretive and mysterious. He tells the narrator that he needs to speak out for a cause - to represent the masses, not just individuals, like the old people. The narrator is bothered, for Brother Jack asks him to suppress his personal identity for the good of all, just at a time when he is beginning to discover it and revel in it.

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