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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 14

The narrator returns to Mary's and smells cabbage cooking. Since it's the third time this week Mary has cooked cabbage, the narrator assumes rightly that Mary must be short of money. He stops to think about Brother Jack's offer. Maybe he has made a mistake. How can he turn down a job when Mary needs the money and he is several months behind in his rent payments? Quickly he changes his mind and calls Brother Jack, who tells him to go to an address on Lenox Avenue. Here the narrator is picked up and whisked off through Central Park downtown to "an expensive-looking building in a strange part of the city." The building is called the Chthonian.

NOTE: CHTHONIAN

In Greek mythology this is the name for the realm of the underworld, the realm of the dead. Why has Ellison chosen this name for the building in which the Brotherhood has its meetings? Is the narrator, in some sense, descending into the underworld by joining the Brotherhood? There is an eerie feeling in the building, with its "lobby lighted by dim bulbs" and its elevator that moves in such a way that the narrator is "uncertain whether we had gone up or down." Ellison, as always, is having fun with his symbols.

Brother Jack leads the narrator into an apartment in which a party is going on. The hostess at the party is a woman named Emma, who looks at the narrator in a way quite different from women in the South, a way that makes him uncomfortable. He is taken into the library for a meeting. Point blank he is asked if he would like to be the new Booker T. Washington.


NOTE: BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

Booker T. Washington's name is mentioned several times in this chapter. In an earlier note during the discussion of Chapter 5, the parallels between Booker T. Washington and the Founder were discussed. In this chapter, Ellison seems to contradict himself by having the narrator contrast the Founder with Booker T. Washington, treating them as two totally distinct people. You may find this confusing. The author appears to be using Booker T. Washington here for a different purpose than he did in Chapter 5. If you remember that Washington was the white man's idea of the perfect black leader, then the question "Would you like to be the new Booker T. Washington?" becomes highly ironic. It might suggest, "Would you like to be our man in Harlem?" Clearly, Ellison, if not the narrator, has a very ambivalent attitude toward Booker T. Washington.

The narrator accepts the job with the Brotherhood and is immediately given money to pay off his debts, buy new clothes, and change living places. He is to have a totally new identity with no connections whatsoever to the past. He is to leave Mary's, break contact with his parents, and learn his new name, which is handed to him in an envelope by Brother Jack-just as his other identities had been handed to him in envelopes by various people. He is to think of himself as being the new person.

The business over, the new brother is escorted back to the party and introduced to the others. A drunk white man at the piano asks the narrator to sing. After all, all black men sing black folk songs! The moment is extremely embarrassing. Brother Jack is furious and has the drunk brother removed from the room. The narrator, who might have taken offense, treats the matter lightly and the rest of the guests, obviously relieved, apologize for the attitude of their "backward" brother.

Throughout the party scene Ellison reminds you how limited and hypocritical most whites are in understanding and treatment of blacks. The drunk man, like many whites, assumes that the narrator can sing and entertain just because he's black. On the other hand, the more "advanced" whites assume that the narrator understands history, sociology, economics, and politics, without stopping to realize that white America has "done everything they can think of to prevent you from knowing" these things. The chapter closes with the narrator only partially aware of the darker side of the Brotherhood. He needs the money and the job, and he wants to speak. So he is willing to put up with their strange behavior, at least for a time. Later in the novel he will begin to see their real intent.

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