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

CHAPTER 16

Chapter 16 is an important and exciting chapter, consisting largely of the narrator's first speech for the Brotherhood and the reaction of the Brothers to it. The chapter is shot through with images of sight and blindness. Look for them as you read, and ask yourself what they are suggesting.

The narrator is driven by Brother Jack and some others to an arena in Harlem that is usually used for boxing matches. He remembers his father telling him how a famous boxer had been beaten blind in a fight in that arena, and the narrator notices the boxer's picture on the wall. He is nervous in his new blue suit, wondering how he will do and whether the people will like him. He paces up and down in the locker room, goes outside, then comes back in again, anxious to get started. Then Brother Jack gives the signal and they all march in, as the crowd sings "John Brown's body lies a mold'ring in the grave." The narrator's eyes are blinded by the spotlights as they move toward the stage.

The speeches begin. Each speaker touches on a different aspect of the problem. Then comes the narrator's turn. He is the one the crowd has been waiting for, the hero of the eviction protest, the young man who spoke and disappeared and then was found again by the Brotherhood.

At first he doesn't know what to do, but, as in the eviction speech, he follows instinct. He goes back to what he knows, the tradition of southern political oratory that he grew up with. "They think we're blind," he tells his audience. "Think about it, they've dispossessed us each of one eye from the day we're born.... We're a nation of one-eyed mice." Playing on the metaphor of blindness, he asks the members of his audience to join together and help one another to see better rather than using the one eye that each of them has to attack others. "Let's reclaim our sight; let's combine and spread our vision."


Moved by his own words and the response of the crowd, he becomes more personal. "I feel, I feel suddenly that I have become more human," he tells the crowd almost in a whisper. There is at that moment a special bond between the speaker and his audience, a bond that is personal and deeply emotional. He finishes, and the crowd goes wild. The brothers file from the stage, and Brother Jack is excited. But the reaction of the other brothers is not so positive. The narrator is stunned. The speech has been the greatest moment of his life, and the brothers are telling him that it was "a most unsatisfactory beginning."

Two of the brothers in particular-one identified as the man with the pipe and the other named Brother Wrestrum (whom we will meet again)-say that the speech is backward and reactionary. They tell the narrator and the other brothers that such emotional tactics are not in keeping with the scientific discipline of the Brotherhood. The people must be taught rationally to understand their role as part of the process of history. Emotional rabble-rousers like the narrator are simply of no use to the Brotherhood's design.

Brother Jack, who has listened carefully to both praise and criticism, finds a middle road. The new brother is to be trained. He will not be allowed to speak again until he is properly indoctrinated into the Brotherhood's philosophy and methods. He will be sent to Brother Hambro. The group agrees that the narrator is to begin training with Brother Hambro the next morning, and so he goes home, exhausted, disappointed that the brothers did not approve, but happy about his relationship with the people. As he lies in bed, trying to figure out what has happened, he wonders what he meant by the phrase "more human." Was it something he learned in college? He remembers an English teacher named Woolridge who taught him Joyce and Yeats and O'Casey, those great writers of the Irish Renaissance, and he remembers something Woolridge said: "Stephen's problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face.... We create the race by creating ourselves...."

NOTE: "THE UNCREATED FEATURES OF HIS FACE"

Almost every critic who writes about Invisible Man discusses this phrase, which has become one of the most widely quoted lines from the novel. Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, leaves Ireland at the end of the novel to begin his task as an artist of creating "the uncreated conscience of my race." Ellison plays on Joyce's phrase by changing "conscience" to "features" and "race" to "face." Ellison is an individualist who believes that the job of each individual is to create himself, to become genuinely and honestly a single individual. Stephen wants to become a spokesman for the Irish people, his race, but Ellison does not want to be thought of just as a black writer. His hero is an individual in the act of creating himself, in the act of becoming a person, a "more human" person.

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