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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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When he reaches Morningside Heights, the riot is in full force. Four men are running toward him pushing a safe, and he is caught with them in police fire. He falls to the pavement, hit by a bullet, and feels blood on his face. It is only a superficial wound, though. A slug has creased his head.

He finds himself in a nightmare world, unable to take care of himself. Then, for no reason, a man named Scofield helps him, and the narrator finds himself following Scofield and Dupre, the leader of a group of local blacks. They are planning something. They go to a hardware store, get flashlights, and then buckets which they fill with coal oil. Dupre seems to have organized everything. They take the buckets to a tenement house and clear the house of women and children. Scofield tells the narrator, "This is the place where most of us live." Nothing in the narrator's experience has prepared him for this. He is amazed. These people need no Brotherhood. No leaders. They are taking their lives into their own hands. The narrator thinks, "They organized it and carried it through alone; the decision is their own and their own action."

The people spread the oil, light it, and the building goes up in flames. Suddenly in the street, someone recognizes the narrator and calls him by his Brotherhood name. He runs, afraid that Ras' men will find him, and ends up in another rain of pistol fire. Dupre and Scofield have guns and are fighting it out with the police. But, the narrator suddenly sees that this battle is pure suicide-a few pistols against the police arsenal. Is this what the Brotherhood wanted, to have blacks fighting one another and the police in a riot which will ultimately mean self-destruction?

The narrator runs again in the nightmare of the streets littered with broken glass. There are looters everywhere, taking what they can, and as the narrator runs he sees a white body hanging from a lamp post. Have they lynched a white woman? No, it is another macabre joke. It is a dummy, a store mannequin.

Again, the narrator runs, and this time straight into Ras the Destroyer. Ras, surrounded by his men and carrying a shield and spear, is riding toward him on a huge black horse. The narrator searches for his dark glasses, his Rinehart disguise, but they have broken in his briefcase. So he must face Ras. Ras flings his spear at him and misses, hitting one of the mannequins behind him. The narrator grabs the spear and speaks, trying to hold back the tide of destruction. "They want this to happen," he says, trying to explain that he now sees through the Brotherhood. And even as he speaks, he knows it is too late. Ras and his men want to hang the narrator as a symbol. They would like to lynch him as whites lynched blacks. But the narrator is not ready to die. "I knew that it was better to live out one's own absurdity," he says, "than to die for that of others, whether for Ras' or Jack's."


Invisible Man was published in 1952, at the height of the influence of French existentialist writing in the United States. The concept of absurdity, central to existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, certainly influenced Ellison strongly. In this passage, the narrator comes to what might be called an existential affirmation. He realizes that life is absurd, that the organizations to which he has given himself are meaningless, but that the individual can live, can affirm his own existence in the face of that absurdity. We can live and choose to be an authentic self whether the universe has meaning or not. You might wish to read some existentialist literature, such as Camus' The Stranger, Sartre's No Exit and Nausea, and explore its influence on this novel, especially on this chapter and the Prologue and Epilogue.

Spurred by the will to live, he throws the spear back at Ras and fights his way through the crowd, using his briefcase and Tarp's leg chain as weapons. He is through with everything. All he wants is to get away, to find his way back to Mary's and be taken care of. He wants to say, "...we're all black folks together," but it's too late and the violence has spread everywhere out of control. He runs until exhausted, then stops to rest behind a hedge, where he hears people talking about Ras and his final battle with the police: Ras charging the cops like some crazy knight of old, fighting with spear and shield.

He gets up to run again, to find Jack and Tobitt and Wrestrum, when he sees two young white men in civilian clothes. Cops, he thinks, until he sees one holding a baseball bat. They want his briefcase, and he takes off down the street running. Suddenly he falls through an open manhole into what seems to be a coal cellar. The whites can't see him because he's a black man lying in the dark on a black heap of coal. He is now literally invisible, and they clamp the manhole cover back on, leaving him there, where he stays in a kind of tomb, a kind of living death, to sleep until morning.

The novel has come full circle. This is the underground home that the narrator refers to in the Prologue. This is where he has remained and written his novel since the night of the riot, slowly converting his dark into light, not knowing for a long time whether it was night or day. That process of lighting his way out of both the literal and figurative darkness of the underground cave begins at the conclusion of this chapter with the narrator's first act after he wakes up. He has no light to see his way out, and so "I realized that to light my way out I would have to burn every paper in the brief case." Notice what he burns and in what order: first, the high school diploma, then Clifton's doll, then the anonymous letter written by Brother Jack, then the slip of paper on which Jack had written his Brotherhood name. These are his white identities, all of which must be burned away, destroyed, before he can "light his way" out of the darkness of the cave.


The briefcase is the only object the narrator takes into the cave from his former life. He burns all the papers, but still in the briefcase is Mary's broken bank and its coins along with Tarp's leg chain. These two objects are part of his black heritage, a part that will always be with him. Perhaps these cannot or should not be left behind. What do you think? What about the briefcase itself? What might it represent?

The chapter ends with an agonizing dream in which the narrator is castrated by Emerson, Jack, Bledsoe, Norton and Ras, who laugh at him as he realizes that this is the price of freedom. This is what it has cost him to see reality. Now he is free of illusion, but he cannot go back to the real world. He must stay in the cave. "Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or, if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning."

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