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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

this speech.

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

‘empty’ eyes.

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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