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Invisible Man | Chapter 14 | Summary

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Summary

The narrator returns to Mary's apartment, where she is cooking cabbage, another smell from his childhood. Realizing that Mary cooks cabbage three times a week and thus must be poor, he decides to take the job and contribute to the household. Brother Jack soon picks him up in a car filled with three other men, saying they are going to a party. The car pulls up in front of an expensive-looking building, the Chthonian. The narrator is shuffled into a large, opulent room where he meets Emma, a beautiful woman who does not move away from him when they are pressed together in a doorway. As Emma pours him Southern bourbon to drink, the narrator reflects on feeling actually "seen" by her on an equal, human level, not based on the color of his skin. This comfort though is dashed when he overhears Emma whispering to Brother Jack, "But don't you think he should be a little blacker?" He wonders again why he is there and what they could possibly want from him.

Later the narrator is brought into the library, where a group of men, "the Brotherhood," have gathered. They say their mission is to work for a better world for all people, to combat the dispossession of heritage. They praise the narrator's gift for speech and ask if he would be interested in being the new Booker T. Washington. The narrator cannot believe what he is hearing. He concurs that Booker T. Washington was an important figure in black history, but not as great as the Founder. The narrator is uncertain whether they have chosen the right man, but he takes the job anyway. To join the Brotherhood, however, the narrator must adopt a new name, identity, and apartment.

After the narrator returns to the party, a drunken man asks him to sing some old Negro spirituals. Brother Jack lashes out that the narrator doesn't sing, but the drunken man repeats his request until Brother Jack has him removed. The guests are deeply embarrassed, and the room falls deathly quiet. The narrator laughs hysterically, which is somewhat infectious. He stays at the party until 5 a.m. and then stumbles home to Mary's. When he sees that she has changed his sheets, he is filled with gratitude. He will be sad to leave Mary, but decides that "history makes harsh demands of us all."

Analysis

Although the narrator doesn't fully trust Brother Jack, he takes the job offer hoping to better Mary's life. He is deeply appreciative of Mary's generosity, and even though her determination was annoying, she desires to make him into something she will be proud of. His financial goal to make Mary's impoverished life more comfortable is contrasted starkly with the opulence of the party at the Chthonian. The great hall is revealed to be a Brotherhood building, which leads the narrator to wonder how they can afford such lavishness; certainly the money they've earned should go back into the community they claim to serve. Although the narrator doesn't realize it yet, this scene clearly portrays the organization's corruption.

Emma's question of whether the narrator is black enough to lead their Harlem division sheds light on inner racism within black communities. Throughout the novel various characters are mocked or criticized for having light skin. To the outside world, lighter skin is better—readers many recall the skin-lightening products that angered the narrator in the previous chapter—because "white is right." But in strong black communities where cultural heritage is still appreciated, lighter-skinned blacks are viewed with the same distaste as whites. Emma questions whether the black community will listen to the light-skinned narrator. It leaves the narrator feeling depressed that he is still judged by his skin color even within the black community. It also perpetuates the idea of image being more important than individuality.

Even though the narrator has made a successful step forward in his life, he still feels pressure to hide his true self. For example, he hides his fear when dancing with Emma, and he hides his admiration of the Founder's views. He feels uncomfortable having to leave Mary's home, but he desperately wants to make something of himself. The theme of reemergence is expanded as the narrator must cease contact with his family and take on a new identity: he sheds his old life in the expectation that this metamorphosis will allow him finally to be seen as an individual in the world.

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