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THE CHARACTERS - CHARACTER LIST / ANALYSIS (continued)
• BROTHER TARP AND BROTHER WRESTRUM (CHAPTERS 17 AND 18)
At the same time that the narrator meets Tod Clifton, he also meets two other black brothers, Brother Tarp, who becomes an inspiration to him, and Brother Wrestrum, who becomes a Judas figure. They may symbolize two equal and opposite reactions to the black situation-one good, the other evil.
Tarp is a genuine freedom fighter. Like his hero, Frederick Douglass (see the Note to Chapter 17), whose picture he puts over the narrator's desk, Tarp has been cruelly punished for fighting tyranny. "I said no to a man who wanted to take something from me," and for saying no he was sentenced to nineteen years at hard labor. So he broke his chains, outran the dogs, headed north, and joined the Brotherhood because it seemed like a good place to be in his fight for freedom. He is old, and as a symbol of his age, he gives the narrator the piece of chain which he had filed from his leg and saved. For Tarp this is a way of passing on the fight to the younger generation. Tarp, the narrator realizes, reminds him of his own grandfather, whose image has haunted him since his childhood.
The narrator keeps Tarp's leg iron on his desk as a reminder of the fight against slavery in which they are all involved. He is stirred and reassured by the gift, which he later puts into his briefcase and uses as a weapon of self-defense during the riot described in the final chapters.
Brother Wrestrum sees the leg iron on the narrator's desk and complains about it. He is a "pure brother," and he wants no reminders of the black man's past in the office. He wants all Brotherhood members to wear buttons or pins so that they can be instantly recognized. Wrestrum is not working for black freedom, but for the Brotherhood, and he is perfectly willing to turn against any black member who does not follow Brotherhood discipline to the letter. It seems as if Wrestrum is a kind of paid spy for the higher-ups like Brother Jack. After all, it is Brother Wrestrum who turns the narrator in to the board, charging him with selfish opportunism and causing him to be sent downtown to lecture on the Woman Question. Is Brother Wrestrum acting on his own initiative when he accuses the narrator in the middle of Chapter 18, or is he acting on orders? You don't know, but in either case there is something consistently sneaky and dishonest about Brother Wrestrum, whose name sounds unmistakably like "rest room." In Chapter 24 the narrator refers to him as "that outhouse Wrestrum." Need anything more be said?
• RAS THE EXHORTER (CHAPTER 17)
Ras the Exhorter enters the novel with Tod Clifton in Chapter 17 but survives Tod's death to become the most dominant figure in the book's closing chapters. Ras the Exhorter, who becomes Ras the Destroyer during the final race riot, is a black nationalist who has organized the Harlem community along racial lines. The name "Ras" clearly suggests "race." The name may also come from "Ra," the name of the Egyptian sun-god, who is pictured as a man with a hawk's head. Literally, the name comes from the Amharic word Ras, which means "prince" or "king." The Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was Ras Tafari before he became emperor, and the Jamaica-based religion Rastafarianism believes that its members derive their ancestry from Ethiopia and, if traced all the way back, to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rastafarian ideas were well known in Harlem during Ellison's time. Ras is inspiring because he has a message that blacks want to listen to, the unity of race. On the other hand, he is terrifying, because his methods are violent and lead finally to the terrible reality of black fighting against black in senseless mutual destruction. When the Brotherhood is no longer interested in Harlem, they turn it over to Ras, who uses the pretext of Tod Clifton's death to start a race riot. What Ellison seems to be suggesting through Ras is that the ultimate implications of Ras' philosophy are totally self-destructive. Ras and the Brotherhood appear to be equally wrong choices for different reasons.
One of the unusual things about Ellison's portrait of Ras is that it is not based on any particular figure. Ellison was asked if he had Marcus Garvey in mind, because Garvey was a black nationalist from Jamaica who spoke with a Caribbean accent similar to the one Ras uses in Invisible Man. Ellison said that Ras came from his imagination. Rather than being historical, the figure of Ras is prophetic. Within fifteen years after Invisible Man was published, figures like Ras sprang up all over America. Some, like Malcolm X, became Black Muslims. Others, like Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, called themselves Black Panthers and carried weapons, as they said, to defend themselves against white violence. America's cities-Watts (Los Angeles), Detroit, Newark, Chicago-were rocked with race riots, and many blacks turned away from any kind of dialog with whites. Today the figure of Ras, and the riot at the end of the novel which he engenders and prolongs, seem to prophesy what America would go through in the 1960s when the calmer voices of integration gave way to the radical shouts of the Black Muslims and Pan-African movements. Ras is a powerful and frightening figure who may symbolize some of Ellison's worst fears.
• RINEHART (CHAPTER 23)
Rinehart is a student's dream. Almost anything you say about him is likely to be true. About Rinehart there are far more questions than answers, and you should have an exciting time exploring this mysterious figure who never appears.
You know that someone or perhaps several people named Rinehart exist, because the narrator is mistaken for Rinehart a number of times in Chapter 23 after he puts on a pair of dark glasses and a white hat to disguise himself from Ras the Exhorter's men. The glasses and the hat are magical. "They see the hat, not me. There is magic in it. It hides me right in front of their eyes..." the narrator thinks to himself. Not only does it hide him, it gives him a new identity, another new identity-that of a man named Rinehart who, it seems, is a numbers runner, a lover, a storefront evangelist, and a hipster. But can one man be all these things at once? Could there be at least two or three Rineharts? Is Rinehart a character at all? Is he really more a symbol, a type, than an individual?
The narrator thinks about the meaning of Rinehart's name. "Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway?" Later he says, "So I'd accept it, I'd explore it, rine and heart." If we are trying to discover the meaning of Rinehart as a symbol, we need to look at both the words "rind" and "rine." "Rind" means a thick outer skin, like the rind of an orange. It means a kind of toughness that enables one to survive. "Rine" is really street talk for "rind." A man with a lot of "rine" is a tough dude, one who can survive in the chaos and confusion of the unstructured world of the street. Ellison said in an interview that "Rinehart is my name for the personification of chaos. He is also intended to represent America and change. He has lived so long with chaos that he knows how to manipulate it."
Rinehart is a con man, a manipulator. He lives in the world, but he doesn't really do anything for the world except use it. The identity of Rinehart may be a temporary sanctuary for the narrator, but it is another identity he must reject if he is to find himself as a person. Eventually he discards the glasses and the hat and takes to his hole to think out his true identity. You will have a fascinating time following the glasses and the hat through Chapters 23 to 25 and exploring what they suggest symbolically about the elusive and ever-present Mr. Rinehart, and the narrator's adoption of his lifestyle. Early in Chapter 25 the glasses are broken, and the narrator must face Ras the Destroyer without the protection of Rinehart. What might that suggest?