Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 15

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 15 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 15 | Summary



The narrator awakens after his long night out with the Brotherhood. His ears throb, his body aches, and he scratches himself until he bleeds. Someone in an apartment upstairs pounds the steam line, causing an unbearable commotion. Searching for something to bang against the pipes in protest, he finds a cast iron Negro bank, a piece of "early Americana." The "self-mocking" image that consumes coins through a red, grinning mouth fills the narrator with rage. He wonders why Mary would keep such a hideous item in her home. He smashes the bank against the pipe, destroying it. Coins and pieces of the iron bank's face fall to the ground. He sweeps the broken pieces into a package and hurries into the kitchen to meet Mary for breakfast. He gives Mary a $100 bill, which she initially refuses, certain the "white folk" will think she stole it. Suddenly, the kitchen is overtaken with a swarm of roaches, which the narrator helps her kill before leaving. As he walks to his new office, he tries to discard the broken bank pieces in a garbage can, but a "short yellow woman" calls him a "field nigger," implying he is not clean or respectable. When she threatens to call the police, he digs the package out of the garbage can, soiling his clothes and hands in the process.

The narrator continues on his way, feeling lonely and depressed. He drops the package in the snow, glad to finally be rid of it, but a few blocks later a man chases him down to return it to him. He calls the narrator a "confidence man" trying to work a "pigeon drop." On the subway he notices a man reading a newspaper with an article about the "Violent Protest over Harlem Eviction." The narrator rushes to the next newspaper stand, buys a newspaper, and hungrily reads about the events. This restores his confidence, and he goes to buy an expensive suit. The narrator's new apartment is comfortably furnished and bright. He takes a bath and reads about the Brotherhood. He notices the package with the broken bank pieces on the table and decides to dispose of it later.


The central thematic image from this chapter is Mary's bank, which the narrator destroys at the same time that he "shatters" his old identity and accepts the new one created for him by the Brotherhood. In a way, the bank represents the narrator's distorted views of himself: he is eager to take the money and prestige offered to him by the white man, willing to give up everything and blindly follow another white man's (Brother Jack's) bidding. The bank is ominously "choking, filled to the throat with coins," suggesting the narrator's decision to join the Brotherhood for money will not end well. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that in the Brotherhood, the narrator is another black man unquestionably doing the bidding of a white man—in a way, he is a "slave" to the Brotherhood's wishes. It is not a coincidence that the narrator notes his head is "about to explode" only moments before he "explodes" the bank on the pipes.

The symbolism of the bank shifts later in the chapter. Like the Sambo doll and the chain in the briefcase, the smashed pieces become symbolic of the "baggage" of slavery that all black men must carry with them, underscored by the narrator's frustrating inability to dispose of the pieces. Both people who stop the narrator from discarding the pieces are black and, like his grandfather, encourage the narrator to maintain a subservient attitude. This reinforces the theme of inner racism, suggesting that the security the narrator felt upon arriving in Harlem was due to Mary's kindness rather than belonging to the black community at large. The bank pieces return a final time, at the end of the chapter, when the narrator is bathed and wearing an expensive new suit. Despite his best efforts to create a new identity, he is reminded that true transformation is impossible. Instead of embracing his new identity truthfully, the narrator is forced to lie throughout the chapter—to Mary about the money, to the man about the package, and to himself about his identity—in order to progress.

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