Crowds begin to form in Harlem at the slightest provocation; store windows are smashed and clashes erupt. Ras agitates the pointless violence further. The narrator sends out Brotherhood members to discourage the violence and denounces the press for exaggerating minor incidents. He reports at the Brotherhood headquarters that the Harlem branch has instituted a clean-up campaign to clear the neighborhood of trash and distract the people from Tod Clifton’s death; he lies to them that Harlem has begun to quiet down and hands them a false list of new members. The Brotherhood fails to detect the narrator’s deception.
The narrator decides against using Emma to discover the real goals of the Brotherhood. Instead, he decides to use Sybil, a neglected wife of one of the Brotherhood members, who had once indicated that she wanted to get to know him better. Inviting her to his apartment, he plans to act smooth and charming like Rinehart. He succeeds, however, only in getting himself and Sybil drunk. She has no interest in politics and only wants him to play a black savage in her rape fantasy.
The narrator suddenly receives a frantic call from the Brotherhood in Harlem, asking him to come as soon as possible. He hears the sound of breaking glass, and the line goes dead. He grabs his briefcase and puts Sybil in a cab headed downtown. He himself walks uptown toward Harlem. As he passes under a bridge, a flock of birds flies over him and covers him with droppings.
A riot erupts in Harlem. The narrator encounters a group of looters who give conflicting stories about what caused the initial outbreak. One mentions a young man “everyone is mad about,” obviously referring to Clifton. Others mention Ras, while still others talk of a white woman having started the first clash.
I . . . recognized the absurdity of the whole night . . . And I knew that it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others, whether for Ras’s or Jack’s.
The narrator learns that Ras is inciting the violent destruction, and he realizes that the Brotherhood had planned the race riots all along, deliberately ceding power to Ras and allowing Harlem to fall into mass chaos. He becomes caught up in one rioter’s plans to burn down a tenement building and runs from the burning building, only to realize he has left his briefcase inside. He risks the flames to retrieve it. He wants to put on his Rinehart costume, which is in his briefcase, but the sunglasses have broken. Continuing to run through the chaos, he comes to a looted building where bodies appear to hang lynched from the ceiling. In fact, the bodies are mannequins. He then encounters a spear-wielding Ras, dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain and riding a black horse. Ras calls for his followers to lynch the narrator as a traitor to the black people and to hang him among the mannequins. The narrator tries to explain that the black community, by turning against itself now, by burning and looting its own homes and stores, is only falling into the trap that the Brotherhood has set. But Ras yells for the narrator’s death, and the narrator runs away. He escapes only to encounter two police officers in the street, who ask to see the contents of his briefcase. He runs and falls through an open manhole into a coal cellar. The police mock him and put the manhole cover back in place, trapping him underground.
In order to provide himself with light, the narrator burns the items in his briefcase one by one. These include his high school diploma and Clifton’s doll. He finds the slip of paper on which Jack had written his new Brotherhood name and also comes across the anonymous threatening letter. As the papers burn to ashes, he realizes that the handwriting on both is identical. He sleeps and dreams of Jack, Emerson, Bledsoe, Norton, and Ras. The men mock him, castrate him, and declare that they have stripped him of his illusions. He wakes with their cries of anguish and fury ringing in his ears. He decides to stay underground and affirms, “The end was in the beginning.”
I have . . . been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. . . . I am an invisible man.
The narrator concludes his story, saying that he has told all of the important parts. “I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in, if you will—and I reluctantly accepted the fact.” He doesn’t know whether his decision to stay underground has placed him in the rear of social activism or in the avant-garde. He decides to leave that question to people such as Jack while attempting to study the lessons of his own life.
He realizes that he accrued the most hate to himself in the moments when he tried to speak and act with the most honesty. Similarly, he never received more love than at the moments when he worked to affirm the misguided beliefs of others. He has decided to escape this dilemma by becoming invisible. He has found a secret room in a closed-off section of a basement. His own mind agitates him, stirs him to thought. He keeps thinking of his grandfather’s advice to “agree ’em to death,” noting that his attempt to say “yes” to the Brotherhood ended only in a farce. The narrator then begins to reconsider the meaning of his grandfather’s words, wondering if his grandfather’s “yes” was meant as an affirmation of the principles on which the country was built rather than of the men who corrupted its name. Perhaps by saying “yes,” his grandfather meant to take responsibility for society’s evils and thus transcend them.
The narrator states that he doesn’t covet Jack’s power, Rinehart’s freedom, or even the freedom not to run. He has stayed in his hole in order to figure out exactly what he wants. Hiding underground, he has learned that he is invisible but not blind. He ponders the tendency of the outside world to make all people conform to a pattern. He decides that life is to be lived, not controlled, and that our human fate is to become “one, and yet many.”
The narrator then recounts an incident that occurred on the subway: an elderly white man was wandering around the platform, seeming lost but embarrassed to ask for directions. It was Mr. Norton. He finally approached the narrator and asked how to get to Centre Street. The narrator asked if Mr. Norton knew who he was, mentioning the Golden Day. Norton asked why he should recognize the narrator, and the narrator replied, “Because I’m your destiny . . . I made you.” He asked Norton if he wasn’t ashamed. Norton clearly believed that the narrator was mad, and the narrator laughed hysterically as Norton boarded the train.
The narrator wonders why he has bothered to write his story down, as he feels that the effort has failed. He has found that the writing process has not helped him to cast his anger out into the world, as he had hoped, but rather has served to diminish his bitterness. The narrator declares the end of his hibernation: he must shake off his old skin and come up for breath. Even the disembodied voice of an invisible man, he asserts, has social responsibility.
The episode with Sybil may serve to comment on the similar positions of white women and black men in society. As in Chapter 19, Ellison portrays a white woman as a neglected wife, not at all interested in politics. Like the woman in Chapter 19, Sybil relates to the narrator as an abstraction, an object to be used for one’s own purposes, and he relates to her in much the same manner. Perhaps Sybil, having been objectified and denied many potential outlets to define herself as an individual, faces some of the same frustrations that the narrator has faced; she may try to alleviate this frustration by treating another person as she has been treated. The narrator’s motives in this scene appear more directed—he specifically wants information on the Brotherhood—but perhaps he subconsciously feels the same need as the white woman to assert his power over someone.
Although the narrator has sensed that the Brotherhood kept secrets from him, he now recognizes that he has fallen victim to a hugely tragic deception. In following the white leaders of the Brotherhood and in remaining loyal despite his suspicions of the organization’s racism, the narrator has felt that he has betrayed his black heritage. Now, however, he realizes that his allegiance to the Brotherhood has rendered him a traitor twice: not only did he betray his heritage by working for a racist group, but he also played an active role in the group’s plan to destroy New York’s black community. The lynched mannequins function as a grotesque metaphor for the Brotherhood’s figurative lynching of the narrator; indeed, Ras’s threat to lynch and hang him amid these mannequins evidences how the Brotherhood has tried to destroy him.
The text emphasizes the narrator’s exploited status in the scene in which he becomes covered with bird droppings. Bird droppings appear earlier in the novel as well, covering the statue of the Founder of the narrator’s college. Much as people like Dr. Bledsoe manipulate the Founder as an abstract symbol and not as a person, the narrator has been used as an abstract symbol by the Brotherhood. He and the Founder have suffered the same fate: both have been used as a means to dupe others into blind allegiance to an ideology.
The narrator’s encounter with Ras in Chapter 25 testifies to the influence of the French existentialists on Invisible Man. Faced with the prospect of death, the narrator decides in a climactic moment that he would rather live out his own “absurdity” than die for someone else’s. The concept of absurdity plays a central role in the existentialist school of thought, which portrays the world as “absurd”—that is, full of labor and effort while lacking inherent value or meaning. The positive program of existentialism calls for the individual to affirm his or her own worth and sense of meaning despite the absurdity of the universe. The narrator’s realization of the world’s absurdity prepares him to write his memoirs and eventually cast off his invisibility at the end of the Epilogue. This realization may also allow him to see his grandfather’s deathbed advice in a new light, noting its aspects of affirmation. In the Epilogue, thus, the narrator ponders whether to “agree ’em to death” might mean not to engage in a farcical masquerade all of one’s life but rather to say “yes” to the world, to try to make it a better place, and, in so doing, to rise above those who would divide and destroy. If we consider Invisible Man as an existential bildungsroman, this moment with Ras constitutes the culmination of the narrator’s growth throughout the novel and the moment of existential breakthrough.
This section instances Ellison’s extraordinary gift for incorporating symbolism into the action of his story. The narrator’s briefcase figures as a rich metaphor during the riot. First given to him by the white men in the “battle royal” scene in Chapter 1, the briefcase and its contents have come to symbolize the manipulation that the narrator has suffered: the Sambo doll and its invisible strings, the remains of Mary’s coin bank, the piece of paper bearing his Brotherhood title, and the anonymous letter warning him not to assert himself too strongly. The briefcase and its contents represent moments from the novel in which others have tried to define his identity. Therefore, even as the narrator flees through the streets, he cannot find safety or freedom. He carries these items not only as literal but also as figurative baggage: as he runs, he drags along a burden of stereotypes and prejudices. He makes a metaphorical break with his past when he burns all of the items in the briefcase.
At the end of the novel, the narrator’s story has come full circle: the novel begins and ends with his underground life. The story’s cyclical nature, along with the narrator’s claim that his time of hibernation is over, implies that the narrator stands poised for a kind of rebirth. During his period of hibernation, the narrator has studied his experiences and has sought to define the meaning of experience for himself, to define his own identity without interference from others. He rejects the idea that a single ideology can constitute an entire way of being; a perfect society created according to a single ideology would necessary limit the complexity of each individual, for each individual constitutes a multitude of various strands, and a society of individuals must necessarily mirror this diversity. As the novel draws to a close, the narrator remains bewildered regarding his own identity but determined to honor his individual complexity and his obligations to society as an individual.