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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 11

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 11 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 11 | Summary



The narrator wakes, dazed, in a hospital, being peered over by doctors who discuss his treatment. Although the narrator is merely stunned from the explosion, the doctors decide to keep him a few days for observation. He is given a pill and promptly passes out. When he wakes again, he is being roughly strapped to an electric shock machine. Without explanation, he is given three rounds of shock treatments, which are horrifically painful and almost completely erase his memory. As he bounces wildly on the table, one of the doctors jokingly remarks that "they really do have rhythm, don't they?" After the treatments, the narrator can no longer remember his name, where he came from, or why he's in the hospital. In the recovery area, a doctor writes questions on a card. Questions like "Who are you" and "What is your name" are met with a blank stare, much to the doctor's frustration. Trying a different tactic, the doctor writes, "Boy, who was Brer Rabbit?" At first the narrator is angered by the question, but a wave of comforting nostalgia washes over him. Soon after, he is able to rise from his hospital bed, is deemed "cured," and is released. Before he goes, he signs papers acknowledging that the paint factory is not responsible for his injuries. In exchange he receives a small compensation.


This chapter functions as a metaphorical "rebirth" for the narrator. His past is literally erased through the invasive shock treatments, and he has no choice but to recreate his identity. The reader is reminded of the veteran doctor's advice in Chapter 7 to "be your own father" in that the narrator reenters the world alone. The doctor's question of "What is your mother's name" elicits no response. The narrator has no mother, no father, no identity. Interestingly, he responds to questions about Brer Rabbit and Buckeye the Rabbit, two characters from slave folktales. This suggests that even in reinventing himself, the narrator will never be able to escape the slave culture. At first the narrator is angered by these cultural references—they represent the same aspects of culture he despised in Trueblood and the cart-man—but that disgust melts into comfort. He is no longer interested in "whitewashing" his identity, and he doesn't have to hide his cultural identity any longer.

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