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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 2

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 2 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 2 | Summary



The narrator attends the college to which he received the scholarship. He describes the beautiful campus and a bronze statue of the college's founder. The Founder lifts a veil off the eyes of a slave, but when the narrator remembers it now, he isn't sure whether the veil is being lifted or "lowered more firmly in place."

In his junior year the narrator takes a job chauffeuring Mr. Norton, one of the white trustees of the college. The narrator takes the job, hoping the wealthy philanthropist will take a liking to him and "give [him] a large tip, or a suit, or a scholarship next year." Mr. Norton has some spare time before his next meeting and asks the narrator to drive him around campus. As they drive, Mr. Norton talks about his "pleasant fate" and how it is tied with the fates of the students at the college. He first began funding the college after his beautiful, good, and pure daughter died on a sailing trip. Everything Mr. Norton has done since her death has been as "a monument to her memory."

Mr. Norton becomes interested in the old log cabins he sees when the narrator absentmindedly drives through the outskirts of town. The area is where poor sharecroppers live, and Mr. Norton becomes particularly interested in two pregnant women he sees. The narrator knows who the women are and hopes desperately that Mr. Norton won't ask any questions. He does, and the narrator reluctantly tells him that Jim Trueblood impregnated both women: his wife and his daughter. Mr. Norton cannot contain himself and demands to speak to Mr. Trueblood. He approaches Trueblood, blazing with "something like envy and indignation" and demands an explanation. It's clear that Trueblood is used to the fascination and has told the story many times: His family was huddled together in one bed to keep warm. He had a vivid dream in which he was making love to a girlfriend he had when he was young, but when he woke up, he was horrified to see that he was having sex with his daughter. His wife also woke up and beat him senseless. Trueblood can't believe how the experience has changed his life. Suddenly, white folks have been giving him work and charity to help support his family. Mr. Norton, after hearing the story, shakily pulls a $100 bill out of his wallet and hands it to Trueblood before stumbling back to the car.


Norton's fascination with Jim Trueblood's incest story tells the reader a lot about his character. He's a little too interested in the details, particularly after describing at length his own daughter's beauty and purity. His look of "envy and indignation" suggests that he wishes he could have done what Trueblood did, but he would never stoop as low as the black "savage" that Trueblood's character represents. Trueblood's story reminds readers of the myth during segregation that black people, especially men, needed to be separated from white people because they were dangerous. Segregation laws perpetuated the idea of the "black savage"—an animalistic, violent, and sexually powerful black man living outside of civilized society. For being uneducated, Trueblood has mastered the art of storytelling, and it's clear he has told this story many times, perhaps even embellishing and polishing it to suit his audience. Although Trueblood's actions were deplorable, he uses the story to his advantage, knowing that white benefactors are only interested in "saving" the lowliest blacks: "Now lotta folks is curious and goes outta they way to help," Trueblood says. In exchange for money, white benefactors—like Norton himself, who gives Trueblood $100 after hearing his story—buy into the black savage myth by being able to say they helped Trueblood, while safely keeping him where he belongs, separated from "civilized" society.

For Norton, Trueblood is an extreme example of how he views all black men. He has dedicated his entire life to "civilizing" the black race, telling the narrator, "your people [are] somehow closely connected with my destiny." Although Norton's donations to the school seem charitable, he is simply feeding his own narcissism. He is not actually interested in bettering anyone's lives; he is interested in creating a grand legacy in which he is perceived as a generous white man lifting the black race out of darkness. He repeatedly demands success from the narrator, saying, "if you fail I have failed." The narrator has a moment of clarity wondering how he could affect Norton's legacy when Norton "don't even know my name," but he suppresses the doubt to remain obedient.

The theme of blacks being obedient to whites in order to achieve success is repeated many times in this chapter. The narrator blindly follows Norton's orders, hoping that the rich, white man will bestow gifts upon him. Similarly, the school administration is at the beck and call of its white trustees, so much so that the narrator questions whether the Founder's statue celebrates black enlightenment or white interests.

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