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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 12

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 12 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 12 | Summary



The narrator takes the train back to Harlem and plans to return to his room at the Men's House, but he collapses on the street. A kindly black woman named Mary helps him up and takes him back to her house. She lets him rest in her bed and feeds him warm soup. She talks at length about the responsibility young, black men have to uplift their race, suggesting that the narrator should become a community leader. When he's feeling well again, he returns to the Men's House. As soon as he walks through the doors, though, he realizes that he won't be able to stay here. He feels angered by all the people he sees, the "college boys working to return to school down South," the cultural leaders, the reverends, the dreamers who still believe in "freedom within segregation." As he walks to his room to collect his things, he sees a laughing man he believes to be Dr. Bledsoe. In a rush of fury, he empties a spittoon over the man's head, only to learn that it's not Bledsoe but a prominent black preacher. Banned from the house, the narrator must elicit the help of a porter to retrieve his belongings.

With nowhere else to go, the narrator returns to Mary's house. He pays rent for as long as he can, until his compensation check from the factory runs out. Even when he can no longer pay, Mary allows him to stay and feeds him well. She hopes that the narrator will make something of himself and repay her kindness in the future. The narrator doesn't know what to do with his future and finds Mary's constant preaching about his social responsibility annoying.


A complete opposite to Dr. Bledsoe, Mary believes firmly in the strength of the black community and that all black people have a responsibility to look out for one another. She takes the narrator in without question, and feeds and houses him until he is strong enough to return to the club. She does so out of a feeling of obligation to her race, and with the hope that the narrator will feel inspired to uplift his race as well. Mary is one of the only kind characters in the novel, and she represents the new type of mother for the narrator.

When the narrator returns to the Men's House, he is faced with a variety of characters who represent everything he is leaving behind: students, educators, cultural leaders, and so on. He has no desire to define himself within these groups; he is going to create a new identity for himself, completely individual to the labels these black men seem to have accepted for themselves. By dumping the spittoon over the man's head thinking he is Bledsoe, the narrator reveals that he is capable of lashing out against his perceived injustice. His character is growing from the naive, obedient boy at the novel's opening. As such, he shirks everyone's expectations for him. For example he finds Mary's insistence that he become a cultural leader annoying, and he wants to identify himself without help or input from anyone else.

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