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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 18

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 18 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 18 | Summary



The narrator finds an unsettling letter mixed into the Brotherhood mail warning him that it's a white man's world and not to "go too fast" or "they will cut you down." The letter unnerves the narrator and he calls in Brother Tarp. Brother Tarp promises that the Brotherhood is pleased with the narrator's work and that he shouldn't worry. Later, he tells the narrator that he worked on a chain gang for 19 years, finally escaping by twisting open his leg chain. He pulls the oily piece of metal from his pocket and gifts it to the narrator for luck. Although the narrator is uncertain what to do with the link, it reminds him of the tradition of a father passing a watch down to his son. He is flooded with memories of his past that he swiftly tries to suppress. When Tarp leaves, the narrator feels confident again. Before long, the "meddling" Brother Wrestrum enters the room and demands to know the meaning of the chain, and when he learns the story, he requests that the narrator get rid of it. Wrestrum chastises that symbols like these only dramatize the difference between black and white men. He implores the narrator to trust "other" (white) Brothers because they are the organizers who will free black citizens from their oppression. Perplexed and annoyed by Wrestrum's unsolicited rant, the narrator wonders if Wrestrum wrote the letter. Two weeks later, at a Brotherhood meeting, Wrestrum accuses the narrator of using his position within the Brotherhood for personal gain. Wrestrum steps up his claims by supposing the narrator is an opportunist who wants to be a dictator. Seething with anger, the narrator looks around the silent room and sees Wrestrum is getting away with his outrageous claims. When asked if he has anything to say to defend himself, the narrator contends that Wrestrum is a liar and a scoundrel. Brother Jack asks him to briefly leave so the rest of the committee can discuss Wrestrum's claims.

Although Wrestrum's claims are later deemed false, Brother Jack defends him, saying he was only "thinking of the good of the Brotherhood." While the Brotherhood investigates the narrator more fully, he has been reassigned to the women's division downtown. Disheartened but refusing to be broken, the narrator convinces himself that this new transfer will be a challenge and that he has the skills to effectively promote any part of the Brotherhood, even women's issues.


The most significant symbol in this chapter is Brother Tarp's leg shackle. A physical symbol of his slavery, the chain is now twisted open to symbolize his freedom. The fact that Brother Tarp still walks with a limp, however, suggests that the wounds of slavery can never completely be forgotten. In keeping the chain, Brother Tarp acknowledges that he is never free of his baggage, in the same way that the narrator carries around the calfskin briefcase. By giving the narrator the chain, he becomes like a father figure, encouraging the narrator to learn and grow from his own struggles. Wrestrum's tone-deaf request that the narrator dispose of the chain suggests that he, like Mr. Norton, cannot accept that people continue to be affected by the legacy of slavery after emancipation. The chain is a brutal reminder of the exploitation of African Americans, a reminder that blames the men like Wrestrum (and Norton) who benefited.

Wrestrum's accusation that the narrator is an opportunist is particularly ironic. It's clear that Wrestrum is desperate to make a name for himself in the organization and uses his false accusations to be viewed as a dedicated, sacrificial leader. He is exactly the type of opportunist he accuses the narrator of being. In this way, Wrestrum becomes yet another white man who keeps the narrator "running."

The letter in this chapter parallels the recommendations given to the narrator when he left the college. The whites in the Brotherhood, like Mr. Norton, reveal the racist truth behind their public actions.

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