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THE CHARACTERS - CHARACTER LIST / ANALYSIS (continued)
• YOUNG MR. EMERSON (CHAPTER 9)
Young Mr. Emerson is the son of the trustee to whom the seventh of Bledsoe's sealed letters is addressed. Young Emerson opens the letter and explains to the shocked narrator what the letters have really said. Do you admire young Mr. Emerson for this action? It seems like a step forward in the narrator's development. After all, he cannot grow until he stops idealizing people like Norton and Bledsoe. Emerson's decision to tell him the truth may enable him to take a step forward.
The question remains: What does Emerson offer him in place of the world of Bledsoe and the college? Read Chapter 9 carefully and look at the details of young Mr. Emerson's world-a world of nightclubs like the Club Calamus (named for Walt Whitman's "Calamus" poems, a group of openly homosexual poems), a world of jazz joints in Greenwich Village and Harlem where blacks and whites can mingle. Young Mr. Emerson thinks of himself as Huckleberry Finn and he thinks of blacks as being like Jim. Just as Huck in Mark Twain's novel decides not to turn Jim in, so young Mr. Emerson feels that he is helping the narrator by freeing him from the slavery of ignorance. Do you believe Emerson is really helping the narrator? What are his motives? Are they clear?
In thinking about him, you may wish to consider the symbolism of his name. Remember that Ralph Ellison was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson. Biographical information on the historical Emerson may be found in a Note to Chapter 9. Is there a parallel between young Mr. Emerson and the famous nineteenth-century essayist? Have you read "The American Scholar" or "Self Reliance"? What might the author of these essays say about young Mr. Emerson? Have Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideas been diluted and corrupted over time?
• MARY RAMBO (CHAPTER 12)
After his shattering experiences in the paint factory in Chapters 10 and 11, the narrator returns to Harlem but is too weak to care for himself. The person who saves his life is Mary Rambo. Mary is important in the novel because she starts the narrator on the right track by offering him love and care without asking anything in return. She doesn't expect him to be something for her. The fact that the narrator has been living at Men's House, a place where important blacks gather to impress one another, is significant. After the paint factory experience, the narrator is like a newborn child. He cannot survive at Men's House. He needs a mother to care for him, and Mary Rambo serves that role. She feeds him, shelters him, and gives him love. She is part of that important southern folk tradition that the narrator has abandoned, the tradition of the relatively uneducated but morally upright southern black mother. The narrator has come to believe he is too good for such people. He traveled to New York to make his way among whites and educated blacks. He has had nothing to do with the servants, farmers, and housekeepers of his childhood in the South. Mary reminds him of those true values he has forgotten. "I'm in New York but New York ain't in me," she tells him. "Don't git corrupted." He calls her "a force, a stable, familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown...."
Though he leaves Mary's, what she stands for remains so important to him that, at the end of Chapter 25, when he is nearly killed in the street riot, he tries to get back to Mary's, where he can be loved and cared for. But he never does. Instead he remains in the hole that becomes his new home, his new room or womb. Do you see parallels between his room at Mary's and the underground hole?
• BROTHER JACK (CHAPTER 13)
In Chapter 13 the narrator makes a powerful speech at a sidewalk eviction. The speech attracts the attention of "a short insignificant bushy-eyebrowed, white man with red hair." The man is Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, who dominates the narrator's life for the next ten chapters. It is not until the crucial showdown between the narrator and Brother Jack in Chapter 22, after the funeral of Tod Clifton, that the narrator finally sees the truth about Brother Jack, a truth that is vividly symbolized by Brother Jack's glass eye, which drops out of its socket into a glass of water during the argument. You might want to explore the symbolism of the glass eye further.
Brother Jack's red hair may stand for his Communist ideology, just as the Brotherhood may represent the Communist party, to which Ellison and other black writers and thinkers were drawn during the 1930s. Certainly the sequence of events in Chapters 13 to 22 roughly parallels the relationships between many black American intellectuals and the Communists during the Depression and the early years of World War II. Jack, as the leader, expresses much of the party's ideology.
If you wish to pursue the study of Brother Jack as a symbol of communism in America during the 1930s, remember that a good many leftist writers and critics did not like Ellison's portrayal of Brother Jack and thought the chapters about the Brotherhood the weakest section of the novel (see The Critics section of this guide for some examples of their reaction). Whether you agree with them or not, Brother Jack is a character who merits close study.
His name, Jack, is a common slang term for money, and money is what attracts the narrator to Brother Jack in the first place. He uses the money to pay Mary Rambo, to buy new clothes, and to move into a social set that includes wealthy white women. The name "Jack" combined with Jack's glass eye also suggests the "one-eyed Jacks" in playing cards. Jack pretends to be the king of the Brotherhood in New York, but when the real international kings make changes in policy, Jack turns out to be nothing more than a discard. Do you see any parallels between Jack and Bledsoe, those two figures who dominate the narrator's life throughout the better part of the novel?
• BROTHER TOD CLIFTON (CHAPTER 17)
In Chapter 17 the narrator is made the chief spokesman of the Harlem District for the Brotherhood, and at his first meeting he is introduced by Brother Jack to Brother Tod Clifton. Clifton is tall, black, and strikingly handsome. This young, muscular man is passionately engaged in his work. As a Harlem youth leader, he is sympathetic to the narrator's idea of organizing community leaders to fight evictions. The two begin their crusade as true brothers in the cause, and their friendship deepens when they end up literally fighting side by side against Ras the Exhorter, the militant black nationalist, and his men. Ras both hates and loves Tod. He hates him because Tod works with white men, but he loves him because he is black and beautiful. He doesn't kill Tod, because he hopes that Tod will some day join his cause.
Tod Clifton is one of the genuinely loveable and tragic figures in the novel. He is the hope of the black community. His intelligence, physical grace, strength and cunning on the streets, as well as his loyalty to his people, make him a hero. Then, without warning, he disappears from the district. The narrator does not know why, because it is during the time that the narrator himself has been exiled from Harlem. The narrator returns to the district in Chapter 20 and begins his search for Tod. And he finds him, not in Harlem, but downtown near the main building of the New York Public Library, hawking Sambo dolls. What did Ellison have in mind by making Tod a mockery of himself, a mockery of everything that he and the narrator have stood for in Harlem?
If you are going to deal with Tod as a character, this is the first important question you must answer. Reread Chapter 20 carefully and look for clues. Perhaps Tod left Harlem because the Brotherhood betrayed him and changed its emphasis to national and international issues. Perhaps he gave up because he realized, as the narrator finally does, that the Brotherhood was just using him. What is your interpretation, at this point in the novel, of Tod's role?
Suddenly the ludicrous comedy of Tod's part as a sidewalk peddler turns into a tragedy. Tod is shot and killed by a white policeman for resisting arrest. Again you must ask, "Why"? Is Tod's death primarily the result of social forces, of white prejudice, of police brutality? Or does Tod in a sense take his own life? Would it help you to know that the German word for "death" is "Tod"? Does this name have particular symbolic importance in the novel? If so, what? Even if the name Tod suggests death, it still does not answer the question of why Tod must die.
Tod's death has a powerful impact on the narrator. His friendship with Tod evokes a moving and terrible grief, which he tries to put into words at Tod's huge outdoor funeral. Tod Clifton, in death, becomes a symbol for all black people, for all the young and talented black people who are symbolically shot down in all sorts of ways. Tod is dead, and the narrator moves the crowd to grief. But he cannot move them to political action. He can, however, rouse himself to human action against the Brotherhood which destroyed Tod. Tod Clifton is the catalyst for the narrator's final awakening to self in Chapters 22 and 23. In that role, Tod is one of the truly important figures in the novel.