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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 20

When asked about the style of Invisible Man (see the section Style for details), Ellison commented that the style moved from realism to expressionism to surrealism. As you read the last six chapters, beginning with Chapter 20, think about what surrealism is and why the style might be described as surrealistic. Something changes in the narrator during Chapter 20, and he begins to move inward, seeing the world outside from a new perspective. What happens in Chapter 20 shakes him profoundly and makes him feel that the world outside is unreal and that he is just awakening from a deep sleep to see the world as it truly is for the first time.

The whole chapter has an air of nightmare about it. The narrator returns to Harlem in search of Tod Clifton, but everything has changed. He goes to a bar called Barrelhouse's Jolly Dollar, where he used to meet one of his favorite contacts, Brother Maceo. When he gets there, not only is Maceo gone but the men there resent being called "brother." It's as if the whole movement has vanished since he was sent downtown. He goes to his old office in search of Brother Tarp, but Tarp has disappeared, and the portrait of Frederick Douglass has been taken down. "Returning to the district was like returning to a city of the dead."

The next morning he finds a number of the members and asks them about Tod Clifton, but no one knows anything about Tod's disappearance. He goes back downtown to attend a committee meeting and discovers that it not only has started without him but that he hasn't been invited. The entire Harlem program has fallen apart and he has been sent to do a job with no help, no instructions, and no official program. Why? Unable to figure out what to do, he wanders over to Fifth Avenue and buys a new pair of summer shoes. Then he walks down Forty-third Street toward Sixth Avenue where he encounters a strange and remarkable sight.


A crowd is gathered in front of a piece of cardboard on which "a grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming its head and feet" is dancing. Something behind the cardboard is making the doll dance, and that "something" is saying:

Shake it up!
Shake it up!
He's Sambo, the dancing doll, ladies and gentlemen....
He'll keep you entertained.
He'll make you weep sweet Tears from laughing.

Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him....

NOTE: SAMBO THE DANCING DOLL

Both the name and the movements of the doll are important. Like the grinning bank that the narrator finds in his room at Mary Rambo's, the Sambo doll is one of the central symbols of the novel. "Sambo," like "Uncle Tom," is a term used by blacks to describe other blacks who allow themselves to be used and manipulated by whites. If an "Uncle Tom" is a black man who lets himself be used as a servant by whites, a "Sambo" is a black man who plays the role of comedian or mindless entertainer. He is a black who grins and laughs and pretends that he doesn't mind what is being done to him. He is the professional funny man, the song-and-dance man, who entertains whites and seems not to mind the hurt and pain that blacks must suffer, in part because of his own failure to do anything. Thus the grinning Sambo bank at Mary's and the dancing Sambo doll symbolize the very type of black man that both the Brotherhood and Ras the Exhorter seem to be fighting against.

The sight of the dancing doll and the comic spiel of the manipulator of the doll attract the narrator's attention, but what stuns him is his discovery of who the street merchant is. It is Tod Clifton. The narrator cannot believe his eyes. Why? Why would Tod give up the Brotherhood and "plunge outside history" (to use Tod's own phrase) to become a cheap entertainer, a seller of Sambo dolls?

The narrator comes to no answer. Remember that this is a first-person narration and that the narrator was not present in Harlem when Tod made his decision. Like the narrator, you can never know-you can only guess. One guess is that Tod felt betrayed by the Brotherhood when he discovered that it had changed its emphasis from local programs such as that in Harlem to more international issues. This is precisely what the Communist party did around 1940 and 1941, thus disillusioning American blacks who were working with it. Perhaps Tod simply despaired of achieving anything and gave up. Or perhaps he gave up because he thought the narrator had betrayed the cause and he was disillusioned by the narrator's disappearance. Which is the most likely explanation as far as you are concerned?

Whatever the reason, the narrator can't look at him or bring himself to talk to him. Then Tod's lookout warns him to move: The police are coming, and Tod has no license to sell these dolls. Tod and the crowd vanish around the corner, leaving the narrator to think about what has happened. The narrator picks up a doll that has been left on the sidewalk and puts it in his pocket with Brother Tarp's chain link (an interesting combination). Then he goes off after Tod. He sees him again on Forty-second Street, being led away by a cop. The cop pushes him along, and suddenly Tod whirls and uppercuts the policeman. The policeman goes down, draws his gun, and shoots Ted. The narrator, across the street, is frozen in horror.

The narrator tries to reach Tod but is stopped by another policeman, who insults him, calling him "Junior." "I'm his friend," the narrator says, but it is no use. They will not let him through. In a few moments Tod is dead. He has become what the name "Tod" means in German. The narrator answers the policeman's questions about Tod and then wanders toward the subway after the body is taken away in a police wagon.

He is in a state of shock. Nothing makes sense. Why should Tod deliberately court his own death like that? Tod knew better. He was street-wise and knew what white policemen did to any black who resisted. Did he want to die? Again, these questions are not answered. They are only food for your thought and the thought of the narrator, who tries to puzzle out what has happened as he waits for a train to take him back to Harlem.

A change comes over him. He starts to notice details that had escaped him before. He sees three boys dressed up in summer suits and felt hats, and he realizes that he has never seen boys like this before. He has never thought of these boys or of women like Mary Rambo or younger women who walked the streets in "dark exotic-colored stockings." He has been so busy with historical issues he has not really noticed people as individuals. Who speaks for such people, and who will speak for Tod? These are the questions he asks himself as the chapter ends. He realizes that he is finally waking up to reality. "I'd been asleep, dreaming," he thinks. But he is making a start. The death of Tod Clifton has stirred him to see people as people for the first time. The last major movement of the novel has begun.

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