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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 23

The narrator is sent to Brother Hambro for instructions about the new policies of the Brotherhood. On his way downtown he runs into Ras the Exhorter, the last person he wants to see. Ras attacks him for doing nothing about the shooting and demands to know what the Brotherhood has to say for itself. The narrator has no answer, and he leaves, followed by two of Ras' men who attempt to beat him up in front of a movie theater. The movie doorman intervenes, and the narrator escapes temporarily. His problem is how to keep Ras' men from harassing him, now that the Brotherhood organization has fallen apart.

All at once he notices three men in "natty cream-colored summer suits" and wearing dark glasses. An idea comes to him. He goes into a drugstore and buys himself some dark glasses. Immediately everything changes. The world looks green through the glasses, and a woman comes up to him and calls him "Rinehart." He answers, and she realizes from his voice that he isn't Rinehart, but the mistake has been made. He has learned from the woman that Rinehart usually wears a hat, so he goes to a hat shop and buys a wide-brimmed white hat to go with his glasses, and as if by magic a couple of men on the street call him Rinehart. He even walks by Ras the Exhorter, who has now changed his name to the DESTROYER, and is not recognized. He decides to test the disguise even further by going to the Jolly Dollar, and even Barrelhouse, the Bartender, and Brother Maceo mistake him for Rinehart. He ends up-as Rinehart-having a fight with Maceo and getting thrown out of the bar.

Who is this Rinehart, anyway? Out on the street a woman comes up to him and asks him for the day's last number. A police car stops and asks him for the usual police payoff. Rinehart seems to be some kind of a con man, a numbers runner, a gambler. A beautiful girl comes up to him and starts to seduce him until she realizes he isn't Rinehart. Apparently Rinehart is quite a lover, too. The narrator runs off and finds himself in front of a store that has been converted into a church. The minister's name is the Rev. B. P. Rinehart, and a member of the congregation comes up to the narrator on the street, mistaking him for this minister.

NOTE: WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?

You may wish to consult The Characters section under "Rinehart" for some analysis of this strange and elusive figure. Much can be said about him because everything Ellison does here with Rinehart is open to interpretation. Is he real? Is he one person? Is he several people? You don't know. You do know that he is, for Ellison, a symbol of life in the real world. He is a man who can live in the chaos of reality and survive by simply adapting to it and taking advantage of it. Rinehart represents another possibility for the narrator-a strategy for coping with reality that from here to the end of the novel he will call "Rinehartism." We might define it as a kind of cynical opportunism. It's another identity that a man can adopt, and Rinehart, with his magical hat and glasses, seems to be protected against the hurt of the world. He is in control.

Whatever Rinehart represents, the narrator is not quite ready to deal with it. "I caught a brief glimpse of the possibilities posed by Rinehart's multiple personalities and turned away. It was too vast and confusing to contemplate." The narrator wants some order and structure in his life. That is why he joined the Brotherhood in the first place. So he puts away the hat and glasses and goes to see Hambro. Hambro is honest and brutal. When the narrator asks him why his district is being allowed to fall apart, Hambro answers simply, "We are making temporary alliances with other political groups and the interests of one group of brothers must be sacrificed to that of the whole." The philosophy of the Brotherhood is purely utilitarian: Do what is best for the whole. If some suffer, that is unfortunate but necessary. Individuals are not important. They are merely part of the whole. The narrator argues with Hambro, calling this view of individuals just another form of Rinehartism. Of course Hambro doesn't know who Rinehart is. The narrator begins to see the situation even more clearly than he had in the previous chapter. "Hambro looked as though I were not there." To Hambro, the narrator is an invisible man. "Well, I was," he says, "and yet I was invisible, that was the fundamental contradiction. I was and yet I was unseen."

The narrator leaves Hambro's and goes home to think through the day's experiences. He is exhausted. He has been through the funeral, the grueling fight with the committee, the experience with Ras the Exhorter, the strange disguise as Rinehart, and the discussion with Brother Hambro. His mind is trying to sort it all out. He realizes that he was always invisible-to Norton, to Emerson, to Bledsoe, to Jack, to everyone. Only now he knows it. Before he had been nothing because he was nothing to himself. Now, though he is invisible to others, he is a self.

With this insight he comes to a decision. At last he understands the meaning of the event with which Chapter 1 began, the deathbed advice of his grandfather. His grandfather had said, "I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open."

His grandfather's words have haunted him all his life, but until now they only made him feel uncomfortable. He has never either understood or believed in what his grandfather had said. Now he does. And he decides to follow that advice. He will stay in the Brotherhood, but he will be a spy in their midst, yessing them to death and destruction while he pretends to be a loyal worker. He will pretend to be an Uncle Tom, but in reality he will seek to undermine them. He plans to begin the next day by using their women as a source of information about them. He has a new purpose.

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