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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Three years have passed. The narrator is now a junior at the state college for blacks. He is doing very well and has been such a model student that he is entrusted with the job of chauffeuring important guests around the campus and its surroundings.
NOTE: THE COLLEGE AND ELIOT'S THE WASTE LAND
Before the action of Chapter 2 begins, the narrator describes the
college in terms borrowed directly from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
We know that Ellison read the poem during his years at Tuskegee Institute
(the model for the college in the novel), and in this section he implies
that the college was a kind of waste land by using Eliot's language. "Why
does no rain fall through my recollections?" the narrator asks, paralleling
the narrator's thoughts of dryness in Eliot. And the phrase "Oh,
oh, oh those multimillionaires" is borrowed from Eliot's "O
O O O that Shakespeherean Rag." When you get deeper into the book,
you will be better able to understand why the narrator views the college
as a waste land. What clues do you have at this point?
The chapter opens on Founder's Day, the day set aside each spring to honor the mythical founder of the college. Many of the distinguished white multimillionaires who serve as trustees are present for the occasion. The narrator has been engaged to drive one of them, a Mr. Norton. Since there is plenty of time before Mr. Norton's next engagement, they drive into the country and end up at the run-down farm of a black sharecropper named Jim Trueblood. Mr. Norton wants to find out the age and history of the place, but the narrator is uncomfortable at the thought of stopping. Trueblood had created a scandal by having fathered a child of his own daughter, and the narrator knows the school officials will be furious if they discover that Mr. Norton has been to see Trueblood. But Norton is fascinated, and the more the narrator tells him about Trueblood, the more Norton wants to talk with him. We begin to understand Norton's interest in Trueblood when we remember the white man's conversation with the narrator at the start of the chapter. Norton had been telling the narrator about his only daughter, whom he loved more than anything else in the world. He and his daughter had been traveling in Europe when she died. Norton's gifts to the black college have all been in her memory. Did Norton feel an incestuous attraction to his daughter? Is he fascinated by Trueblood because Trueblood did what he, Norton, wanted (in his blood) to do but was terrified of doing? You will have to decide what you think here, but many readers have found the parallels between Norton and Trueblood intriguing and important.
Norton persuades Trueblood to tell his story. What Trueblood has to say is important not only for what he reveals but also for how he tells it. Trueblood is the first of several important Afro-American folk figures that Ellison creates. He is a storyteller, a singer of spirituals, and a blues singer. He tells Norton, "...while I'm singin' them blues I makes up my mind that I ain't nobody but myself and ain't nothin' I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen." This is a lesson that it will take the narrator the entire novel to learn.
Trueblood doesn't think it out before he commits incest with his daughter. He doesn't plan it. Perhaps his name "True" combined with "blood" suggests his character. He is true to himself and he follows his blood. The incest takes place almost in a dream where he can feel his body doing it without his mind really knowing that it is happening. Afterwards his wife Kate nearly kills him with an axe, but he decides to stay with his wife and daughter and both their children. He will live the best he can, no matter what people say. The blacks at the college hate him (and, of course, the narrator is one of them) because they see him as the sort of black man they are trying not to be. But white people are fascinated by Trueblood. They give him money and come to hear his story, and so he ends up much better off than he was before the incident. Norton, too, gives Trueblood $100 after hearing the story, and the narrator is furious. "You no good bastard!" he says under his breath, not wanting to offend the white man, and the scene is complete.