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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 23

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 23 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 23 | Summary



After leaving the meeting, the narrator decides to visit Brother Hambro, hoping that he can answer more questions about the Brotherhood's new plans. On the street, Ras confronts him and demands to know how the Brotherhood will avenge Clifton's death. An angry crowd has gathered, and when the narrator responds peacefully, he is accused of being a talking head for the organization. Ras demands action and sends his goons to rough the narrator up. The narrator realizes that Ras is a great threat to his safety, so when he escapes he quickly buys a pair of sunglasses and a hat to hide his identity. In the new disguise, he is mistaken by multiple people on the street, who believe him to be a man named "Rinehart," who seems to be a feared and respected criminal. The narrator is shocked by how well his disguise works, as even close friends are unable to recognize him. A woman on the street slips money into his pocket, and he nearly starts a fight with Brother Maceo in the bar. Throughout the events the narrator adopts the mind-set, language, and actions of Rinehart, beginning to fool even himself. Confused at his willingness to fight a friend simply to remain undercover, the narrator notes, "I was ready [to fight] not because I wanted to but because of place and circumstance." Outside the bar after the near fight, the narrator learns that Rinehart was a gambler, a pimp, and, shockingly, a reverend.

When he finally arrives at Hambro's apartment, the narrator is full of questions and demands answers. He cuts right to the chase and asks what is to be done in Harlem. Hambro reiterates the importance of following the organization's plan, and eventually he admits that the residents of Harlem will have to be sacrificed to the greater good. The narrator is shocked. He has worked so hard to create unity within the community, but it was for nothing: like Mr. Norton, the organization was simply using them to build legitimacy. The narrator sees that he has helped the white man take advantage of his people. He vows revenge.


Through the character of Rinehart, the narrator learns the possibility of disguise. Rinehart uses his invisibility to hide in plain sight, embodying multiple identities at the same time: a preacher, a pimp, a gambler, and a hustler. Rinehart can captivate religious audiences, beautiful women, even white policemen without compromising his goals. This idea fascinates the narrator, who has spent his entire life trying to please others whereas Rinehart solely pleases himself. The narrator is surprised how easy it is to switch from one identity to another. Wearing a simple hat and glasses, he is completely unrecognizable to even close friends. He feels the change in himself, too, saying he is "ready to beat [Maceo] to his knees" during the fight even though it isn't real. He is accepted as Rinehart so easily, he realizes, because people see what they want to see when looking at him. In this way, he has always been invisible. No one sees him as an individual: they see only the label they have placed on him.

When he finally makes his way to Brother Hambro's house for further training, the narrator learns that the people of Harlem must be "sacrificed" to the Brotherhood's larger goals. Readers should note the symbolism here in that the name Hambro is a combination of Sambo and Brother. The narrator and Hambro engage in a debate about what sacrifice means—can the people be sacrificed if they don't give themselves willingly—before the narrator realizes that he has been duped all along. The Brotherhood was never interested in the needs of the disenfranchised Harlem residents. The group intended to create wealth and political sway, which explains why it can so easily disregard the needs of its community. The Brotherhood is no more interested in African American needs than Dr. Bledsoe was. By helping the organization exploit his community, the narrator realizes that he is a Sambo, allowing the powerful brothers to pull his strings. Enraged, he vows to destroy the Brotherhood from the inside. Finally understanding his grandfather's deathbed advice, he vows to "overcome 'em with yeses."

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