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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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Chapter 8, a brief chapter, was largely devoted to forwarding the action. Chapter 9 is more central to the themes of the novel. In it you are introduced to two important figures: Peter Wheatstraw and young Mr. Emerson. As the narrator leaves Men's House, he sees a black man pushing a cart and singing the famous "Boogie Woogie Blues" by Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing. His name is Peter Wheatstraw, and he does something significant: He makes the narrator think of his southern folk roots. He recognizes the narrator as a fellow black from "down home," and he asks him a series of questions, using language common among less educated southern blacks. He does so deliberately to remind the narrator that he is part of that folk tradition. The narrator rejects him. He's too proud, too educated to acknowledge an illiterate southern black like Peter Wheatstraw. "Why you trying to deny me?" Wheatstraw asks. The question is important. The narrator has been trying since the opening chapter to deny his heritage, to act like an educated white man. He is ashamed of himself and his heritage. He can see no value in it. Peter Wheatstraw, the blues singer, ballad maker, fast-talking "seventhsonofaseventhsonbawnwithacauloverbotheyes," is there to remind the narrator that rejecting the blues and folk tradition means rejecting his humanity.

But the narrator isn't ready yet to get the message. He has a momentary flash of admiration for Peter, and the blues strike a chord of recognition. But it passes, and he goes into a restaurant and orders orange juice, toast, and coffee instead of pork chops, grits, one egg, biscuits, and coffee because he doesn't want the people to think he is a southern country boy.

After breakfast he goes to Mr. Emerson's office, hopeful it will be his lucky day. What happens to him here is one of the major turning points in the novel. Young Mr. Emerson, the son of the Emerson to whom the letter was addressed, is in the office. He takes the letter, then invites the invisible man into the inner office. There follows a remarkable conversation that lasts for eight or ten pages. Mr. Emerson tries to persuade the narrator to go to a different college, somewhere in the North, perhaps. But the narrator is not interested. He wants to earn the money to go back to his own college. Mr. Emerson grows increasingly disturbed. He asks more questions. Has the narrator opened the letters? How many letters were there? Does he believe that two strangers, one white and one black, can be friends? The narrator wonders what is going on, and you are as puzzled as he unless you have figured the truth out first. Perhaps you have. The truth is that the letters are frauds: the letters, rather than helping the narrator, carefully instruct their readers to do nothing for the narrator and to keep him in the dark about the truth. All this, the letters conclude, is in the best interests of the college. You now understand the significance of the narrator's dream at the end of Chapter 1, where he opens the envelope and reads the message: "To Whom It May Concern-Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." For that is exactly what Bledsoe's letters instruct the white trustees to do. And the narrator never suspected it. Again, the narrator has lost his identity. The letters were all he had, and he remembers the old folk song, "Well they picked poor Robin clean." It seems especially appropriate for him at this moment.

But young Mr. Emerson is not old Mr. Emerson. He is not content with reading the letter and dismissing the boy. As we have noted in The Characters section, he may represent the young, liberal white who wants to be "pals" with the black man. He thinks of himself as Huckleberry Finn and the narrator as "Nigger Jim." He wants to work off his own guilt by taking the narrator to nightclubs and listening to jazz. He wants to be cool and modern and go to the Club Calamus (see The Characters for an analysis of the name). At the end of the chapter he honestly believes that his revelation of the truth about the letters has genuinely helped the narrator. But has it?


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the most influential writer in America during the first half of the nineteenth century. His essays "Nature," "The American Scholar," and "Self Reliance" urged Americans, young Americans particularly, to think for themselves and base their ideas on personal intuition rather than convention. He was also an active supporter of the abolition of slavery and a believer in the equality of all men. As noted in The Author and His Times, Ellison was named for Emerson, and he appreciated the significance of the name. Why, then, you might ask, is the central figure in this chapter named Emerson? The issue has been discussed in the The Characters section, and you might find it useful to review that section now in the context of Chapter 9.

At the end of the chapter the narrator is furious. He leaves the office and returns to Men's House with "they picked poor Robin clean" on his brain. He swears revenge on Bledsoe. But before he can kill Bledsoe, he has to have a job. So he takes a job at the Liberty Paint Factory, the place Mr. Emerson has sent a number of young men before. The juxtaposition of the projected murder and the job is wonderfully ironic, and allows you to see, once more, the difference between the hero's real character and his perception of himself. Poor Robin!

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