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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
If the primary symbolism of Chapter 10 is black vs white, then Chapter 11 operates around the symbolism of death and rebirth. In this chapter the narrator, who has been symbolically killed in Chapter 10, is resurrected with a new identity.
The action takes place in the factory hospital, where the narrator has been taken after the explosion. He is examined and then subjected to electric shock treatment. After the electric shock, he wakes to find himself lying in "a kind of glass and nickel box." He is being used for some sort of experiment. He hears men talking outside the box. One is a surgeon who would like to do a prefrontal lobotomy on him, or perhaps, castration. The surgeon wants to cut out of the black man anything that would allow him to be thoughtful or creative, in any sense.
The other man is the inventor of the machine in which the narrator finds himself. The man believes that his machine-with its electric shock-will have all the positive effects of the surgery (making the black man docile and cooperative) without the negative effects. The two argue over the narrator as if he were some kind of object, finally deciding to use the machine. After another series of shocks, the narrator feels himself in a warm, watery world. It is as if he is an infant being born.
He emerges from the womb, and people begin to ask him questions. WHAT IS YOUR NAME? WHAT IS YOUR MOTHER'S NAME? WHO WAS BUCKEYE THE RABBIT?
NOTE: BUCKEYE THE RABBIT
In Afro-American folklore, Buckeye the Rabbit is the same as Brer
Rabbit. Both had the reputation in a variety of tales of being able to
escape from the most difficult predicaments by their cleverness and toughness.
The most famous of these tales is the story of the Tar Baby, to which
Ellison refers more than once in the novel. Perhaps the narrator, like
Brer Rabbit, escapes from the machine because he remembers these stories
from his childhood and they help give him a toughness, an identity of
sorts, at a time when the whites are trying to destroy it altogether.
Because he says nothing to them, they don't know what he is thinking.
As the chapter ends, the narrator is released from the hospital, having been pronounced "cured." The whites believe that he is "safe" now, that he will not do any more harm, because he has lost his old identity entirely. They get him to sign some release papers, and they will pay him compensation in return for a promise not to hold them responsible. He leaves the hospital, remembering the song he sang at the end of Chapter 9: "They picked poor Robin clean."
Chapter 12 is a transitional chapter, marking the end of the first half of the novel and the beginning of the second. The narrator emerges from the subway onto Lenox Avenue in Harlem feeling like an infant. Totally helpless after his experience in the hospital, he needs someone to care for him, and that someone appears in the person of Mary Rambo (see The Characters).
The narrator is a child who needs a mother, and Mary-big bosomed, deep-voiced, patient, and loving-has been created for the role. She takes him to her boarding house, puts him to bed, and watches over him until he is strong enough to go back to Men's House. She invites him to come back and stay, where she can care for him and keep him from becoming corrupted by New York.
He returns to Men's House, but he is not the same man who left it: "My overalls were causing stares and I knew that I could live there no longer, that that phase of my life was past." He can no longer dream of moving up in the white man's world. And because he no longer has that dream, his vision of Men's House changes. He (in his painter's overalls) sees the young men with their Brooks Brothers suits and briefcases and umbrellas as a bunch of phonies. As he starts toward the elevator he sees a figure in front of him whom he immediately believes to be Bledsoe. In his mind he calls him "Bled," appropriate for the man who has "bled" him so. Suddenly all the hate and frustration in him rises, and he picks up a brass spittoon full of "brown liquid" and dumps it over the man's head. But it is not Bledsoe! Instead, it is a well-known Baptist minister, and the narrator is forced to run for cover. This is the last he sees of Men's House; they have barred him for "ninety-nine years and a day."
His old identity is gone, and a new one has started to grow within him. He returns to Mary's as a child returns to its parent. She nurtures him, but she also pushes him, as a mother, to grow up and do something responsible. He senses that she is right, but he doesn't know what to do. He has no contacts, no job, no direction. His compensation money is running out, and winter is coming on. His head is full of voices, full of the desire to speak out (but about what he doesn't know). He tries to face the reality of his condition for the first time. The invisible man is on the verge of discovering a new self, another identity.