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The Narrator Essay, Research Paper
The narrator’s grandparents were freed slaves who believed they were
separate but equal after the Civil War. His grandfather lived a meek and quiet
life after being freed. However, on his deathbed, he tells the narrator’s father
that the lives of black Americans are a ‘war’ and that he himself feels like a
traitor. He counsels the narrator’s father to undermine the whites with ‘yeses’
and ‘grins.’ He advises his family to ‘agree ‘em to death and destruction.’ His
grandfather’s dying words haunt the narrator. He lives meekly, like his
grandfather. Like him, the narrator receives praise from the white members of
his town, but feels troubled that his grandfather branded such meekness as
On his graduation day, he delivers a speech preaching humility and
submission as the key to the advancement of black Americans. The speech is
such a success that the town arranges to have him deliver it at a gathering of
the community’s leading white citizens. He arrives and is told to take part in
the ‘battle royal’ that figures as part of the evening’s entertainment. The
narrator and some of his classmates don boxing gloves and enter the ring. A
naked, blond, white woman with an American flag painted on her stomach
parades about as the white men demand that they look at her.
Afterwards, the white men blindfold the youths and order them to
viciously pummel one another. The narrator is defeated in the last round. After
they remove the blindfolds, the contestants are led to a rug covered with coins
and a few crumpled bills. They lunge for the money, only to discover that the
rug is electrified. The white men attempt to force the victims to fall face
forward onto the rug during the mad scramble.
While the narrator gives his speech, they all laugh and ignore him as he
quotes verbatim large sections of Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition
Address.” In the midst of the amused, drunken requests that he repeat the
phrase ’social responsibility,’ the narrator accidentally says ’social equality.’
The white men angrily demand that he explain himself. He states that he made
a mistake. He finishes to uproarious applause. They award him a calfskin
briefcase. He is told to cherish it as a ‘badge of office’ because one day ‘it will
be filled with important papers that will shape the destiny’ of his people. He is
overjoyed to find a scholarship to the state college for black youth inside. He
does not even care when later he discovers that the gold coins from the
electrified rug are worthless brass tokens.
That night he has a dream of going to a circus with his grandfather who
refuses to laugh at the clowns. He instructs the narrator to open the briefcase.
Inside, the narrator finds an official envelope with a state seal. He opens it
only to find another envelope that contains another envelope. The last one
contains an engraved document reading: “To Whom It May Concern, Keep
This Nigger-Boy Running.” The narrator awakes with his grandfather’s
laughter ringing in his ears.
The narrator’s grandfather intensifies the theme of ambiguity. He
confesses that he feels as though his meekness in the face of the South’s
enduring racist structure makes him a traitor. It is unclear whom he feels he
has betrayed: himself, his family, or his race. All his life, he had espoused faith
in the Jim Crow structure of equality with segregation, but on his deathbed he
rejects this faith. He advises his family to have two identities as a form of
self-protection. On the outside they should embody the stereotypical ‘good
slaves,’ behaving just as their former white masters wish, but they should
never fully believe in this identity. On the inside, they should retain their
bitterness and resentment against the imposed false identity. By following the
grandfather’s model, they can refuse to accept second-class status internally,
protect their own self-respect, and avoid betraying themselves.
The theme of subterfuge through masks will become increasingly
important later in the novel. A mask becomes a form of defense against the
aggressive and hostile onslaughts of others against the individual’s
self-concept. The grandfather’s advice can also indicate a form of resistance.
He tells his family to play the role of the ‘good slaves’ so well that it almost
becomes a parody. Excessive obedience to Southern whites’ expectations can
become disobedience. The grandfather wants his family to exploit to their
advantage the rift between how others perceive them and how they perceive
The narrator believes that blind obedience will win him respect and
praise. The white men offer him success on one hand for obedience, but on
the other hand they use obedience to degrade him with the barbaric battle
royal. The boys are expected to accept blindness by wearing the blindfolds in
return for the dubious reward of false coins on an electrified rug. The white
men wear false masks of goodwill that barely conceal their real, racist
motives. They remain blind to their own brutish, drunken behavior by forcing
the boys to conform to the racial stereotype of the black man as a violent,
savage, over-sexed beast. The narrator has not yet learned to see behind the
surfaces of things. He believes that surface appearances are true only to
discover later that his ’sight’ failed him. The coins are false and the
innocuous-looking rug is electrified.
The narrator’s speech contains long quotations from Booker T.
Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address,” but he doesn’t actually name
Washington directly. Washington’s program for the advancement of black
Americans emphasized industrial education. He believed blacks should avoid
clamoring for political and civil rights and instead should put their energy
toward achieving economic success. The narrator’s grandfather lived by that
ideology only to recognize that it contained major limitations. Washington
hoped for racial equality through the assumption of the role of ‘the model
black citizen:’ “Work hard, but don’t draw attention to yourself by demanding
political and civil rights.” His philosophy could only go so far. The successful
black businessman was as vulnerable to racial prejudice as the poor,
uneducated sharecropper. He mistakenly believed economic success would
lead to freedom.
The narrator slips and says ’social equality’ while delivering his address.
Whereas the white men conceded some ‘benevolence’ to the narrator when
he embodied the ‘model black citizen,’ they show their true faces when he
slips. This turn reveals the limitations of Washington’s philosophy. The
narrator’s blind obedience to the ‘good slave’ role does not ‘free’ him from
racism. The moment he exhibits something like an individual opinion, the white
men demand that he return to the ‘good slave’ role. Retracting the verbal slip,
he does so, and they reward him with the briefcase and the scholarship. They
allow him to pursue social advancement, but only on their terms. They want
him to speak in such a way that affirms their belief in their natural superiority.
He is told to consider the briefcase a ‘badge of office.’ Ironically this ‘office’ is
that of the ‘good slave’ that they have forced him to play. The briefcase will
appear several times throughout the novel as a reminder of the bitter irony of
The narrator has yet to tell the difference between espousing an
ideology and playing a role. His dream hints at his vague awareness of the real
meaning behind the incident. The scholarship is a gift with ambiguous
significance. On the surface it appears to symbolize the white men’s
benevolent generosity, but underneath it symbolizes their control over his
Invisible Man – Chapters 2-3
The narrator is fascinated by his recollection of the bronze statue of the
college Founder. He describes the statue as a ‘cold Father symbol’ with
‘empty eyes.’ At the end of his junior year, the narrator is assigned the task of
driving around Mr. Norton, one of the college’s white millionaire founders. He
innocently drives Norton beyond the campus to an area of ramshackle cabins
nearby. The cabins are left over slave quarters now inhabited by poor black
sharecroppers. Norton is intrigued by them, and the narrator immediately
regrets having driven him to this area since Jim Trueblood lives in one of them.
The college regards Trueblood with hatred and distrust because he has
committed incest with his now-pregnant daughter. Norton reacts with horror
when the narrator reveals this information, but he insists on speaking with
Trueblood explains that he committed incest because he had a strange
dream, and he woke up while having sex with his daughter. Norton listens
with a morbid, voyeuristic fascination. Trueblood expresses wonder at the
fact that white people have showered him with more money and help than
ever before after he has broken the unspeakable taboo of incest. Norton,
shocked at the story, hands Trueblood a hundred dollar bill to buy toys for his
children. He gets back into the car in a daze and requests some whiskey to
calm his nerves.
The narrator, fearing that Norton might die from shock, drives to the
nearest tavern, the Golden Day, which also happens to be a brothel. When he
arrives, a group of mentally-disturbed war veterans are on leave for the
afternoon at the Golden Day. The proprietor refuses to sell take-out whiskey.
Some of the veterans help carry Norton inside as he has fallen unconscious.
Once they pour some whiskey down his throat, he begins to regain
consciousness. The attendant in charge of the veterans shouts down to ask
what the ruckus is about and a brawl ensues. Norton falls unconscious again,
and the narrator and one of the veterans carry him upstairs near the
This particular veteran claims to be a doctor and a graduate of the
college. After Norton awakes, the veteran mocks his interest in the narrator
and the college. He claims that Norton must view the narrator as a mark on
his scorecard of achievement, not as a man; and similarly, the narrator must
not relate to Norton as a man either, but as a God or a ‘great white father.’ He
calls the narrator an automaton stricken with a blindness that makes him do
Norton’s bidding. He claims that the narrator’s blindness is Norton’s chief
asset. Norton becomes angry and demands that the narrator take him back to
the college. During the ride back, Norton remains completely silent.
The theme of blindness continues with the description of the statue of
the Founder of the college. The statue does not really depict an individual, but
a ‘father symbol.’ It may appear that the Founder has made his mark on
history, but we never even learn his name. His individuality and his humanity
are lost. Only a cold, nameless bronze statue remains. The Founder’s
anonymity echoes the absence of Booker T. Washington’s name in the
narrator’s graduation speech after the battle royal even though the narrator
quotes verbatim large sections of his “Atlanta Exposition Address.”
Washington exercised an enormous political influence over race
relations, but even his name disappears from the history the narrator tells in his
speech. The Founder and Washington become doubles. Both men set out to
design a program for the advancement of black Americans. Both fought for
the right to higher education for black Americans and both are fervently
worshipped by their followers as ‘great visionaries.’ And sadly, both have
become invisible men since not even a record of their names exists in the
novel. The novel also reveals that they are stricken with blindness:
Washington’s program partook of the mistaken illusion that economic
advancement would equal ‘freedom’; while the Founder’s statue shows
Just as the dubious rewards of the battle royal incite the narrator and
his classmates to turn on one another, the rewards of social advancement
offered by the college incite the students and faculty to turn their backs on one
of the least-empowered group of American blacks: the poor sharecropper. In
an attempt to conform to the role of the ‘model black citizen’ expected of
them by white trustees, they disown Trueblood for his incestuous act. Perhaps
this dividing influence echoes the grandfather’s statement that blindly
conforming to the ‘good slave’ role equals an act of treachery. Norton’s
character complicates the relationship between the black American
beneficiary of the wealthy, white benefactor’s generosity. His interest in the
college lies less in his genuine desire to improve the difficulties of black
Americans than in his own self-interest. He tells the narrator that he became
involved in the college because, “I felt . . . that your people were somehow
closely connected with my destiny.” He tells the narrator, “You are my fate.”
Norton remains most concerned with his own self-image; he doesn’t even
concede to the narrator the right to claim his fate as his own–instead, their
fates become one.
Norton feels most proud of his work with the college because it has
allowed him to be involved in ‘organizing human life.’ Rather than the students
being his fate, he is, in fact, the organizer of their common fate. He represents
the power of invisibility because despite his absence and distance, his power
allows him to become intimately involved in the lives of thousands of black
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