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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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Chapter 7 is a transitional chapter between two major sections of Invisible Man. Ellison does not divide the novel into formal parts or books, so you must make the divisions yourself. Many readers place a major break here in Chapter 7, following Ellison's own suggestion. In "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," Ellison says, "Each section begins with a sheet of paper; each sheet of paper is exchanged for another and contains a definition of his identity, or the social role he is to play as defined for him by others." (See The Critics section for the entire passage.)

The first piece of paper referred to seems to be the scholarship given him in Chapter 1. The second piece of paper may well be the letters given to him by Bledsoe at the end of Chapter 6. These letters will define his identity in New York in Chapters 7 to 9. But first he has to get there, and much of Chapter 7 is taken up with the bus trip to New York, where he meets again the vet-patient-doctor from Chapter 3, Burnside. Burnside is being transferred to St. Elizabeth's mental hospital in Washington and is being accompanied on the trip by an attendant named Crenshaw.

Burnside, as he did in Chapter 3, plays the role of the wise fool. He knows the truth, and for his knowledge he is called crazy. Bledsoe, it seems, has had him transferred to St. Elizabeth's to get him out of the way. For those who run the system, people like Burnside are dangerous, because they threaten to expose the truth. During the bus ride, Burnside gives the narrator some good advice about life, experience and self-knowledge. He tells him to play the game, but "play it in your own way.... Learn how it operates."

The narrator seems to understand little of what Burnside is saying. He is too young, too tired, too lonely, and too scared. At this moment all he can think of is survival. He gets to New York and is terrified by the mass of bodies crushed together in the subway that takes him uptown. Everything is new to him-the huge city with its impersonal masses, the mixture of black and white he had never seen in the South, the noise, the strange sight of a short black rabble-rouser named "Ras," who will much later in the novel figure very significantly. He has arrived in Harlem.


The narrator settles in at Men's House in Harlem, a respectable place for young men "on the way up," as he believes himself to be. He rejects the Bible in the room as fit reading for someone in New York; instead, he spreads his seven letters from Bledsoe on the dresser and admires them. He believes they are his ticket to success, and he starts out early the next morning to deliver them, one at a time, to the important people to whom they are addressed. Most of these people work on Wall Street, and at first the narrator is frightened of the tall buildings and the swiftly moving crowds of white businessmen. He thinks people suspect him of some crime because he is black. But he finally gathers the courage to go into one of the buildings, and after he has delivered the first letter, delivering the others is easier. But the letters do not seem to do any good. All the recipients say they will contact him, but no one does. He tries to reach them by telephone, but he can never get past the secretaries. Something is wrong, but he doesn't know what it is.

Finally, he has only one letter left, the one addressed to Mr. Emerson, and rather than taking the letter and risking rejection, he telephones, saying that he has an important message for Mr. Emerson from Dr. Bledsoe. Just as his money is about to run out, he receives a letter from Mr. Emerson inviting him to the office.

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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Book Notes

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