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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Chapter 3

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Chapter 3 of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.

Invisible Man | Chapter 3 | Summary



Norton needs a "stimulant" after hearing Trueblood's story and asks the narrator to drive him to the nearest bar for a whiskey. He needs the drink immediately, he claims, so the narrator nervously drives him to the nearby Golden Day, a bar and brothel on the black side of town. The narrator tells Norton to wait in the car while he runs inside, but the bartender refuses to serve him whiskey to go. When the narrator returns to the car, Norton has fainted, so he enlists the help of some veterans to carry Norton's body inside. The narrator is beside himself with nerves, not only because Norton is the only white face in the black bar, but also because the customers are all shell-shocked war veterans enjoying an afternoon away from their assisted-living home.

Inside the bar the veterans' attendant is upstairs with a prostitute, leaving the disturbed men unattended. They surround Norton, intrigued by his presence. When the attendant—a brutish hulk of a man—demands order, the veterans lose control. A violent brawl ensues, with the men beating their attendant nearly to death. Norton faints again and is brought upstairs to rest in one of the prostitute's rooms. The veteran who helps carry Norton upstairs was once a successful doctor. In fact, his résumé deeply impresses Norton when he returns to consciousness. Norton presses to learn more about the veteran, who describes his education at the same college the narrator attends as well as his disillusionment with the world. No matter how talented or accomplished he was, he would always remain lower in society than white doctors. He criticizes Norton and the college for suggesting that black students can hope for freedom, and he blatantly calls Norton a narcissist masquerading as a philanthropist. When the narrator suggests they leave immediately, the veteran calls him a "walking zombie" and "the most perfect achievement of [Norton's] dreams. ... The mechanical man!" Outraged, Norton leaves the room, falls down the stairs, and rides back to the college campus in silence.


In an example of verbal irony, the group of "insane" war veterans speaks the truth. The doctor, in particular, has an enlightened view of the world, however disillusioned, that makes everyone else uncomfortable. He sees Norton's generosity as a mask for his narcissism, and he chastises the narrator's blind obedience. When the narrator ignores the veteran's warnings, he shouts, "Behold! a walking zombie! Already he's learned to [suppress] his humanity." By blindly following Norton's orders and being concerned with Norton's legacy, the narrator ceases to be human—he is invisible. He is Norton's "perfect achievement" because he, like the college superintendents, will carry out Norton's wishes without challenging his authority or questioning his motivations. It is much easier for the narrator and Norton to dismiss the man as crazy than to listen to him. When he can't ignore what's going on around him, Norton faints, repeatedly overcome by the realization that he has no control.

The veterans—who are labeled as crazy but actually speak insightfully—challenge the strict behavioral codes created to keep order. When provoked, they react violently, nearly beating their attendant to death. This reaction represents a suppressed person's desire to overthrow oppression and parallels the encounter with the white man that the narrator describes in the prologue. Ellison's novel was published during segregation, when discriminatory laws against blacks were put in place under the ruse of maintaining social order. Invisible Man is clearly a protest novel, and this scene nods to the brutality of violent uprising.

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