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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 17

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 17 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 17 | Summary



After four months studying Brotherhood ideologies with Brother Hambro, the narrator is thrilled to learn that he has been appointed chief spokesman for the Harlem branch of the Brotherhood. His main duty, Brother Jack says, will be to keep the people "stirred up," gaining as many new members as possible. He warns the narrator to "Say what the people want to hear," but "in such a way that they'll do what we wish."

At his first Brotherhood meeting, the narrator is pleased to have some of his ideas recognized. He also learns more about Ras the Exhorter, the powerful speaker he saw on his first day in Harlem. Ras, a separatist, believes in the superiority of the black race. As such, he views all black members of the Brotherhood as traitors to their people. He promotes violence as a way of demanding civil rights and loathes the Brotherhood for allowing white men to speak about social needs in a black community. The narrator finds himself drawn to Tod Clifton, a handsome and kind young Brotherhood member.

That evening the narrator gives a speech about the Brotherhood to a large group of residents in Harlem. Suddenly, a gang of 20 men attack the crowd, led by Ras the Exhorter. During the violence, the streetlamps break and men fight in darkness. A man attacks the narrator and calls him "Uncle Tom," but the narrator successfully fights him off. Clifton battles Ras, who pins him to the ground and pulls out a knife. Instead of killing Clifton, Ras begins to weep. Even though he views Clifton as a traitor, he says he cannot kill another black man. He pleads with Clifton and doesn't understand why he is working with white men, claiming they will just betray him in the end.


After years of struggle, the narrator believes he has finally been rewarded for all his hard work when he is promoted to chief spokesman. However, no announcement of his promotion is made during his first leadership meeting, and he is given the promotion on April Fools' Day. Both of these seemingly small details foreshadow the fact that this promotion will not be the personal advancement the narrator had hoped for. During the confrontation with Ras and his gang, the narrator is called an "Uncle Tom"—a racist term for a black man who is willingly subservient to white masters—and a "sellout." Both derogatory terms suggest that by working for the Brotherhood, the narrator is betraying his race for personal success. The thought of being pawns in a white man's plan is so emotional for separatists like Ras that it brings the violent man to tears. He pleads with the narrator and Clifton to join his work because "brothers are the same color"—meaning that all black men have the same goals. Although his words are powerful, they aren't necessarily true. The narrator has suffered terrible losses as a result of other black men's actions, such as the expulsion from Dr. Bledsoe and the factory explosion from Lucius Brockway.

This chapter is filled with bullfighting imagery—both in the bar El Toro (Spanish for "the bull") and in the fight between Clifton and Ras. Bullfighting is a violent sport where color is used to taunt and instigate action. The sport is an especially fitting symbol for the rising conflicts and violence in Harlem. In this ominous foreshadowing of violence, it's unclear whether the narrator is the bullfighter or the bull—the one causing destruction or the one fanning the flame.

Finally, this chapter creates a strong bond between the two young orators: the narrator and Tod Clifton. They are both talented, handsome, and ambitious. The parallels between the two men will become increasingly important as the novel progresses and Clifton grows disillusioned with the Brotherhood's ideals.

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