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THE STORY - CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Chapter 19 is a transitional chapter, like Chapters 7 and 12. Invisible Man seems to be constructed in four major movements, each centering around a crisis. The crisis that begins the final movement comes in Chapter 20, when the narrator returns to Harlem to try to find Tod Clifton, who has disappeared. But before he returns to Harlem, he spends an evening with a white woman. That is the main action of Chapter 19.
As you read this chapter, ask yourself what Ellison is up to. Some readers
think the chapter reads like something out of a torrid romance. Handsome
black man speaks to a bunch of unsatisfied women about the "Woman
Question," and what the women are really interested in is biology,
not ideology. As the narrator tells the story of his seduction by the
unnamed woman in red, whose husband appears to come home while she is
in bed with him, you must wonder how seriously you are supposed to take
The narrator is very naive. When the woman goes off to change into something more comfortable and reappears in a red hostess gown, the narrator does not seem to get the message. He has come to her apartment for "coffee" and discussion after his lecture on the Woman Question, and she asks him, "Perhaps you'd prefer wine or milk instead of coffee?" The idea of milk turns him off, but he misses the oddness of the question.
Her change of clothes, her apartment with its life-size painting of a pink Renoir nude, her talk, her movement, her excitement over the "primitive" quality of the narrator, all mark the woman as one of Ellison's objects of satire. When one critic asked him if his depiction of the narrator's relationship with white women wasn't a weakness in the novel, Ellison chided the critic for taking both this scene and Chapter 24 too seriously. Perhaps you ought to be guided by Ellison's own judgment here and accept this sequence as a piece of tongue-in-cheek satire, based on the traditional myth that white women desire black men. Do you enjoy the humor of this chapter, or do you think that neither the narrator nor the scarlet woman is a very believable character in this scene?
Whether the scene is parody, satire, or serious writing, the appearance of the husband scares the narrator to death. He puts on his clothes, leaves, and vows to keep "the biological and ideological" apart in the future. He fears that the woman will tell the Brotherhood about what he's done, but no one ever says anything. So he goes on speaking on the Woman Question until one evening the phone rings and he's called to an emergency meeting. Tod Clifton has disappeared, and the narrator is needed to return to Harlem immediately.