Skip over navigation

Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

Chapters 22–23

Chapters 20–21

Chapters 24–Epilogue

Summary: Chapter 22

The narrator returns to his office to find Brother Jack and the other committee members waiting for him. They are angry that he has associated the Brotherhood with the protest of Tod Clifton’s death without the committee’s approval. Jack informs the narrator that he was hired not to think but to talk—and to say only what the Brotherhood tells him to say. The Brotherhood officially regards Clifton as a traitor to the organization’s ideals—Jack cites the group’s alleged objection to Clifton’s “anti-Negro” dolls—and would never have endorsed the eulogy that the narrator gave.

The narrator replies that the black community has accused the Brotherhood itself of betrayal. Jack says that the Brotherhood tells the community what to think. The narrator accuses Jack of trying to be the “great white father.” Just then, one of Jack’s eyes—a false one—pops out of his head into a drinking glass on the narrator’s desk. He informs the narrator that he lost the eye while doing his duty, stating that his personal sacrifice proves his loyalty to the Brotherhood and its ideals. The argument winds down, and the committee takes its leave of the narrator. Jack instructs him to see Brother Hambro (a white member of the organization) to learn the Brotherhood’s new program.

Summary: Chapter 23

The Harlem community’s outrage over Clifton’s death continues to build. The narrator passes Ras (once known as “Ras the Exhorter,” he now calls himself “Ras the Destroyer”) giving a speech. Ras denounces the Brotherhood for not following through with the momentum that the funeral sparked. Two of Ras’s followers briefly scuffle with the narrator, but the narrator escapes. In an attempt to disguise himself and protect himself from further physical attack, the narrator purchases a pair of sunglasses with dark green lenses. After he puts them on, a woman walks up to him and addresses him as “Rinehart.” The narrator replies that he is not Rinehart, and she tells him to get away from her before he gets her into trouble.

The narrator augments his disguise with a large hat. As he makes his way back to Ras’s meeting, several people address him as “Rinehart” again. A woman on the street thinks that he is Rinehart, her bookie; a prostitute thinks that he is Rinehart, her pimp; he passes a gathering of people waiting for “Reverend Rinehart,” the “spiritual technologist,” to hold a revival. The narrator is astounded at his ignorance of Rinehart’s identity, with which apparently everyone else in the community is familiar.

The narrator finally reaches Brother Hambro’s apartment. Hambro informs him that the Brotherhood intends to sacrifice its influence in the Harlem community to pursue other, wider political goals. The narrator leaves Hambro’s apartment in a fury and decides to follow his grandfather’s advice: he will “yes, agree, and grin the Brotherhood to death.” He plans to assure the Brotherhood’s members that the community stands in full agreement with their new policy and to fill out false membership cards to inflate the Brotherhood’s Harlem membership. He also plans to discover the committee’s real goals by cultivating a relationship with a woman close to one of the Brotherhood’s important leaders. He thinks that perhaps he should try Emma, Jack’s mistress.

Analysis: Chapters 22–23

At this point in the novel, the narrator finally loses the illusion that he can remain a free individual within the Brotherhood. He learns that the condition for membership in the Brotherhood is blind obedience to its ideology. Just as his college hired him to show Mr. Norton only what the college wanted Mr. Norton to see, the Brotherhood has hired him to say only what it wants people to hear, to be like the dancing Sambo doll, playing a role defined by the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood’s anger over the narrator’s eulogy for Clifton reveals the committee members’ own crippling blindness. If we interpret the white members’ motivation for distancing themselves from Clifton as his connection to the racist dolls, then it becomes clear that they attach more political importance to a few offensive dolls than to the murder of Clifton. Ultimately, then, their way of rejecting racism only reproduces it: they end up condoning a racially motivated murder in an overzealous attempt to protect the Brotherhood’s image as an antiracist organization. Their alleged idealism trivializes the concrete reality of racism, as they value the condemnation of abstract racist stereotypes over the condemnation of a racist murder. If, on the other hand, we interpret the offensiveness of Clifton’s dolls as a mere pretense that Jack and the others use in order to break more cleanly from Harlem’s interests, then it becomes clear that they are wholly blind to the undeniable need for the advancement of black political concerns.

The committee’s blindness receives symbolic representation in the form of Jack’s glass eye. Significantly, the eye falls out precisely as Jack describes the Brotherhood’s ideological position. Thus, it symbolizes both the blindness of the group’s ideology and the group’s attempt to hide this blindness. Also significant is Jack’s declaration that the loss of his eye proves his loyalty to the Brotherhood. The statement reveals Jack’s conviction that blindness constitutes both the prerequisite and the price for full membership in the organization, for total adherence to its anti-individualist ideology. Moreover, this scene demonstrates that this blindness applies not only to the group’s followers—such as the narrator—but also to its leaders.

Rinehart proves one of the strangest and most ambiguous figures in Invisible Man; though he never appears in the flesh, he serves as a powerful symbol of the idea of a protean or shape-shifting sense of identity, against which the narrator’s own fragile sense of identity can be compared. Rinehart is all things to all people, and those individuals whom the narrator encounters while he wears his sunglasses impose a variety of identities upon him. This fluidity of character plays a major role in the narrator’s crucial realization that he is invisible—that he has never had a self because he has always adopted a self given to him by others. Glimpsing Rinehart’s endlessly malleable self, the narrator realizes for the first time that he does have his own self. He vows that, though he may remain invisible to others, he will from that moment forward be visible to himself. This breakthrough prepares him to endure not only his disillusioning confrontation with Hambro but also the hellish night of the Harlem riots and his confrontation with Ras the Destroyer in Chapter 25.

The narrator’s conversation with Hambro shatters his remaining illusions about the Brotherhood. Hambro’s description of the Brotherhood’s plans, which prioritize the Brotherhood’s larger goals over the will of the people, is veiled in the same vague, abstract language as all of the Brotherhood’s ideology. Rather than view the Harlem community as a collection of individuals, the Brotherhood treats Harlem as a collective mass, an object to be manipulated for its own ends. Angry that he and his people have been exploited as instruments to others’ ends, the narrator plots, ironically, to manipulate someone associated with the Brotherhood—namely Emma—for his own ends.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us