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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES

PROLOGUE

You might think of the Prologue as a personal introduction. "I am an invisible man," is the first sentence of the novel. It establishes immediately the fact that this is to be a first-person narrative and that the theme of invisibility-which gives the novel its title-is extremely important. The nameless narrator explains that this invisibility is not literal but metaphorical or symbolic. He is invisible, he tells you, because people don't see him. They see only "my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination." One reason for this is racial. The narrator is a black man, invisible because white people in America refuse to see black people as human beings, as individuals. He is also invisible because he has never developed his own identity but has instead played the roles that other people, especially white people, have required of him. But he doesn't really know that yet. It is something he will come to learn as he tells his life story.

The narrator is living in an abandoned cellar in a section of New York City bordering on Harlem, but it is not a dark cellar. It is lit by 1369 light bulbs, paid for by Monopolated Light & Power, which doesn't know where all that electricity is going. The narrator is fighting white power by draining off their electricity. It is also a warm cellar, a place where he can think and listen to music and try to figure out the meaning of his life up to this point. The narrator presents himself as a man in hiding who is preparing for a return to the real world, where he can take part in some action.

NOTE: LOUIS ARMSTRONG, "WHAT DID I DO / TO BE SO BLACK / AND BLUE?"

Three times in the Prologue the narrator refers to the great black trumpet player and singer, Louis Armstrong, playing and singing this song, a recording of which is available. It is the first of many references to the blues, an important tradition in black music that allows both performer and listener to express their suffering in musical terms, to make art out of their pain and sorrow. Ellison himself writes in his essay, "Richard Wright's Blues," "The Blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." The title "Black and Blue" is a pun on both words. It means "bruised" or "hurt." It also means "a member of the black race" and "sad or depressed." Thus, when the narrator asks, in the last line of the Prologue, "What did I do to be so black and blue?", he is asking several questions at the same time. The story that begins in Chapter 1 is the narrator's attempt to answer those questions.


CHAPTER 1

Chapter 1, originally published before the rest of the novel as a short story called "Battle Royal," is the most famous chapter of the novel. It is often discussed by readers as a story complete in itself. You may enjoy reading it as a kind of parable about the general condition of black people in the South before the Civil Rights movement that began in the late 1950s.

The narrator is seventeen or eighteen. He has just graduated from high school in a southern town called Greenwood and has made a speech in the style of Booker T. Washington calling for blacks to be socially responsible and cooperative with whites. He has been invited, as the topranked black student, to give the speech again to a group of the leading white male citizens of the town at an evening "smoker" in the ballroom of the town's main hotel. What he does not know is that before he is allowed to give the speech, he must participate with nine other black boys in a "battle royal."

The ten black boys, supplied with shorts and boxing gloves, are herded like cattle into the ballroom, where they are forced to watch a blonde white woman do a provocative striptease, full of sexually arousing movements. The narrator is both attracted and repulsed by this woman. She is a symbol of everything the black man must confront in America. He is made to want her, but told he cannot have her, ordered to watch her, but punished should he show any signs of desiring her. At the same time she is mauled and caressed by drunken white men who can do what they want and go unpunished because they have the power.

The whites are both sadistic and hypocritical. They obviously enjoy watching the black boys suffer and seem to feel no guilt over their own behavior. After the girl is carried out, they blindfold the ten black boys and force them into a ring where they will blindly attack one another and get paid by the whites for it. Many readers have noticed that the "battle royal" is a prefiguration of the ending, where the blacks in Harlem riot, essentially hurting one another, while the whites stand by and watch.

NOTE: BLINDNESS AS SYMBOL

Throughout the novel the contrast between sight and blindness will play a major role. In this scene the symbol of blindness is introduced through the imaginative use of the blindfolds. Reread the battle royal scene and look for the various ways in which the inability to see outwardly parallels the inability to understand inwardly. The narrator is able to avoid being hurt when he can peep through his blindfold. One of the boys breaks his hand because he hits the ring post. The fight is sheer anarchy, because blindness reduces the black boys to nothing more than flailing beasts. How can blacks expect to gain dignity when they are figuratively "blindfolded" by whites?

After a period of time, the blindfolds are removed and the narrator finds himself alone in the ring with a big black named Tatlock. They are expected to box for the championship. At first the narrator does well, but when he hears one of the powerful whites say, "I got my money on the big boy," he stops trying, because he is afraid that he might offend the whites by winning and thus not be asked to make his speech. As a result, he is knocked out.

But his humiliation is not over. When he recovers, the other boys are brought back in, and all of them are told to get their money from a rug covered with coins, bills, and gold pieces. They scramble for the money, only to be violently shocked. The rug has been electrified. This scene is not only horrifying in itself, but as some readers have noticed, it foreshadows the scene in Chapter 11 when the narrator is given electric shock therapy in the factory hospital, again by white people, who find it interesting to "experiment" on blacks.

Before he is allowed to receive the award for achievement, the young narrator is forced to undergo one more humiliation. He must give the speech, his mouth filled with blood and saliva, to an audience of drunks who either mock or ignore him. He is forced to repeat the phrase "social responsibility," and at one point he mistakenly says "social equality." There is a sudden stillness in the room; the boy corrects himself, and everything is all right. But the point of the lesson is clear. Blacks are to rise, but always and only by the rules whites make.

To encourage him along these lines, the white leaders present him with a calfskin briefcase, in which he finds a document announcing his scholarship to the "state college for Negroes." Both of these props are important in the subsequent development of the novel. The briefcase follows the narrator through all his adventures and remains in the hole with him at the end. Most of the narrator's significant possessions wind up in that briefcase. The scholarship, of course, is the first item in the briefcase. More importantly, it is the first of three crucial pieces of paper given to the narrator by white groups. Each of these pieces of paper serves to identify him, name him for a portion of the novel.

The meaning of these documents is suggested in a dream the narrator has at the end of the chapter. He dreams he is at the circus with his strange grandfather and that he is asked to open his briefcase. In it is a letter, and in that another letter, and so endlessly until a final document engraved in gold contains the words: "To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." At the time the narrator is too young and too naive to understand the meaning of the dream. What is your interpretation?

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