Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 16

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 16 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 16 | Summary



The narrator travels with Brother Jack to the Brotherhood rally where he is to give his first speech. While waiting in the dressing room, the narrator discovers a photograph of a boxer who lost his sight, reminding him of a story his father told of also being beaten blind in a fight. This makes the narrator increasingly sad and restless. He is nervous and notices his legs in their new blue trousers. He contemplates how these can be the same legs that went through so much pain (school, the hospital, and battle royal). He realizes they are the same legs "on which I've come so far from home," and if he is successful tonight, these legs will take him on a road to something new. As the narrator waits to go onstage, his mind wanders through daydreams and memories, remembering first a syphilitic man begging for change with a diseased hand and later a neighborhood dog, Master, who despite being chained to a tree frightened the narrator as a boy.

The signal comes for the narrator and the others to enter the stage. As he walks out, the spotlight temporarily blinds him and he falls. He can no longer see the audience. He starts off nervously, but applause kicks in his adrenaline. In all the excitement, the narrator forgets the freshly learned phrases of the Brotherhood and decides to just rely on his instinct and tradition. He gives a passionate speech about dispossession using an analogy of a man throwing stones at a pair of one-eyed men. The one-eyed men blame each other because in their partial blindness, they don't see the third man. The narrator urges the audience to work together to fight against dispossession, saying, "Let's take back our pillaged eyes! Let's reclaim our sight!" He is so overwhelmed by the emotion in the room that he begins to weep. The narrator feels the speech is an overwhelming success, but the Brothers surprisingly offer only negativity and criticism. They call the speech "dissatisfactory" and "the worst you could have done." They say the speech was hysterical, irresponsible, incorrect, backward, and reactionary. Nevertheless, when the narrator returns home that night, he is proud of what he said and of the connection he felt to the audience and the black race.


This chapter is full of references to blindness, eyes, and seeing clearly, linking the theme of vision to the narrator's quest for identity. In his speech the narrator suggests that blindness to each other's realities pulls a society apart (like the pair of one-eyed men blaming each other on the street). Speaking passionately, the narrator urges the audience to work together for advancement against social dispossession. In short, this speech summarizes many of the novel's events. So many characters, such as Dr. Bledsoe, Mr. Norton, Lucius Brockway, and even the Brotherhood itself, blind themselves to the individuality of those around them to protect their personal gains. The narrator sees that for an entire community to be raised up, everyone must work together. The speech rallies the audience into a frenzy. They believe him and are ready to take action. The narrator feels surprise, then, when the Brotherhood claims his speech was a disaster. They are only interested in progressing the organization's politics, not in truly uplifting the community. They had hired the narrator to be an unthinking mouthpiece for the organization and are worried about the true power of his persuasive speech. They send him for further education with Brother Hambro, which will no doubt be similar to the "white is right" education he received in college.

This chapter is also filled with foreshadowing. Although the narrator doesn't yet understand that the organization is using him, he feels uncomfortable with their request for unquestioning obedience. He compares Brother Jack to the dog, Master, from his childhood. Even though the dog was chained to a tree, he still worried it could hurt him. The other daydream, of the syphilitic man with the disfigured hand, hints at the personal destruction and emotional decay the narrator must undergo in his pursuit of money and fame with the Brotherhood. The fact that both dreams are summoned from his childhood suggests that the narrator will sacrifice even more of his personal identity in pursuit of his dreams. In his new suit, he already struggles to recognize himself as his transformation begins to take place.

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