Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

Delivering his final letter of recommendation, the narrator travels to the home of Mr. Emerson. Along the way he meets a black man hauling a cart of discarded blueprints, singing blues songs the narrator recognizes from his childhood. The man approaches the narrator and repeats the same puzzling question—"is you got the dog?"—growing more agitated by the narrator's confusion. For his part, the narrator is alarmed by the cart-man, comparing him to the "insane" vets from the Golden Day. As the cart-man follows him, however, the narrator softens, and the two begin talking. The man explains that he's carrying around real blueprints because "folks is always making plans and changing 'em." He compares Harlem to a bear's den, and he forgives the narrator for misunderstanding his question about the dog. Although the narrator barely understands what the man is talking about, he feels a strange comfort talking to him. When they part ways, the narrator is overcome with a feeling of pride for his race. Leaving the cart-man, the narrator stops at a café for breakfast. The waiter suggests a typically Southern breakfast of pork chops, grits, and biscuits, which offends the narrator. He orders toast and juice, even though the special sounds much better. When he leaves, he is angered to see the waiter serving the Southern special to a white man.

Emerson's son greets the narrator when he arrives. Young Emerson leaves the narrator alone while he reads the letter, and the narrator surveys the home, filled with so many artifacts from Asia and Africa that it resembles a museum. He is particularly taken with the aviary filled with exotic birds. When Young Emerson returns, he has a strange look on his face, and he babbles about his therapy sessions and injustice in the world. He performs a sort of interview in which he questions the narrator about his experience at college and tries to convince him to finish his studies elsewhere. Eventually, he lets the narrator read Bledsoe's letter. Bledsoe's "recommendation" is actually a warning that this "former student" is permanently expelled from the college for behavior so terrible he had to be misled into leaving. The letter suggests that for everyone's safety, he continue undisturbed in his "severance with the college." In short, the letter suggests that the narrator is dangerous and contact with him should be avoided. Blind with anger, the narrator storms from the house. Young Emerson shouts that the Liberty Paints factory is hiring. Resolved on finding revenge, the narrator calls the factory and is hired immediately.

Analysis

The narrator is confronted with his Southern past twice: first with the cart-man's songs and then with the Southern breakfast in the café. Both times his automatic response is offense. To him, the silly songs and Southern food represent slave history and "lesser than" blacks—much like Trueblood's character did in Chapter 2—and he doesn't want to be associated with those stereotypes. After some time, however, he finds comfort in the cart-man's songs because they remind him of home, and he's been terribly homesick since leaving campus. The cart-man's question—"is you got the dog?"—is a black idiomatic greeting basically asking how things are going or if everything is okay. His character further symbolizes black history in his references to jazz music and black folktales such as Jack the Bear. Like Bledsoe, the narrator had previously been disgusted by those base aspects of his identity and had tried to hide them, appearing "whiter" and more educated than ignorant counterparts like the cart-man. As they part ways, however, the narrator thinks fondly of the songs and feels a sense of pride in his people. This suggests to the reader that his character is changing, already discarding some of the harsh brainwashing from his education.

His views of the world are completely shattered when he learns the treacherous truth of Bledsoe's letters. It's unclear why Bledsoe has put so much effort into breaking the narrator down, but the novel suggests self-hatred. Like the narrator, Bledsoe had once been blindly obedient and idealistic. Bledsoe completes his transformation from uplifting mentor, like the Founder, to someone who upholds the myth of white supremacy, like those who broke his own spirit. Although he hasn't literally "lynched" the narrator to maintain his power, Bledsoe believes he has lynched (or destroyed) the narrator's future.

Young Emerson is an interesting character because he straddles the reality between being a powerful white man and an outcast. He may be homosexual. Although this is never stated explicitly, he rests his hand gently on the narrator's knee, and he refers to himself as an "unspeakable." He feels compelled to aid the narrator, battling his sense of injustice in the world. He is sympathetic to the feeling of being an outsider and of having someone else—in this case Bledsoe—define your future. He is wary of telling the narrator the truth, however, because he knows it will shatter the narrator's views of the world. Yet he carries on saying, "There is no point in blinding yourself to the truth." His efforts to help the narrator seem somewhat self-serving, however, as he is clearly struggling with acceptance himself. The novel contrasts these two outsiders: the narrator is truly alone, broke, and without a safety net; however, though Young Emerson may feel isolated from his father, he has enormous wealth, many friends, and opportunities for advancement the narrator could only dream of. When Young Emerson sees a bit of himself in the narrator, the novel reminds the reader that—although well intentioned—he is simply another white man defining the narrator.

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