Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

The narrator starts his new job at the Liberty Paints factory. He reports to his gruff supervisor, Mr. Kimbro, and is given the task of dropping black oil into muddy paint and then stirring it vigorously until it becomes "optic white." The batch of paint the narrator works on is the government's large order for repainting a national monument. The work is fine until the narrator runs out of the black "dope" needed to turn the paint white. Mr. Kimbro, who has already warned the narrator not to ask any questions and to simply do what he's told, vaguely tells him to get more dope from the tank room. The narrator is faced with 10 different tanks, however, and the dope he chooses actually turns the paint a gooey gray. Kimbro is outraged and threatens to fire the narrator. He adds another mixture to the paint that lightens the gray effect.

Later, the narrator is sent down to the boiler room to work alongside the crotchety Lucius Brockway. Brockway is an old man who has been working the machines for more than 25 years, clinging onto his job by spewing vitriolic hatred at anyone—including the narrator—whom he perceives as a threat. He hates young black men because they're "ungrateful" for their jobs, and to prevent losing his job to one, Brockway refuses to write down any information about the machines and how they work. He knows everything about the machines and the layout of the factory, and it's his job to create the base for all the paint. He gives the narrator one job: watching the boiler gauges to ensure they don't overheat.

During lunch, the narrator returns to the locker room and unintentionally interrupts a union meeting. He knows very little about unions and has no intention of joining one, but the members immediately accuse him of being a snitch and threaten to harm him. Their leader convinces them to perform an internal investigation of the narrator's character before passing judgment, and they let him go. Returning to the boiler room, Brockway is furious that the narrator attended a union meeting and attacks him. The two come to blows, beating each other. When he realizes that he is physically no match for the narrator, Brockway rigs the boilers to explode.

Analysis

Liberty Paints functions as an extended metaphor for race relations and race expectations in the novel. The main paint color produced at the factory is Optic White, which is described as being so pure that one would have to crack open a lump of painted charcoal "with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn't white clear through!" It is impossible to ignore the comparisons of the paint factory covering "blackness" with white paint to the narrator's desire to suppress his black heritage and appear more educated, or "white." Ellison reinforces this comparison by calling the finished paint a "graduate." The fact that the paint is being sent to a national monument, however, suggests a larger theme of "whitewashing" national history by failing to acknowledge black contributions. This idea is underscored by the details of Lucius Brockway's contributions to the Optic White paint. He seemingly created the formula and masterminds daily production—"ain't a ... thing that happens down here that ain't as iffen I done put my black hands into it!"—yet he receives no credit for his work. He is confined in a hot, dirty room 3 feet (.9 meters) below ground level. He is despised by his coworkers and constantly fears losing his job. Meanwhile, the white bosses, who admittedly don't understand how he bases levels of production work, get rich.

Brockway could potentially benefit from his contributions with the support of a union, but he's too fearful (and angry) to join. Brockway is from the same generation as the narrator's grandfather, believing that financial success is enough, and the black race shouldn't agitate for social equality. He hates the young union boys because they threaten his job. Like Bledsoe, Brockway is only concerned with his personal success, not the success of the next generation.

Throughout this chapter the narrator is repeatedly told not to ask questions and to simply be obedient: "You have to catch on by doing exactly what I tell you." Everyone in the factory has an idea of who the narrator is—Mr. Kimbro thinks he's a fool, the union members think he's a snitch, and Brockway thinks he's a liar. Everyone casts judgment on him without giving him the opportunity to explain himself. This suggests that even though the North is freer than the South for a black man, the narrator is still a victim of racial expectation. In the North he is still invisible as an individual and will have to fight to create his own identity.

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