On the bus to New York, the narrator encounters the veteran who mocked Mr. Norton and the college. Dr. Bledsoe has arranged to have the man transferred to a psychiatric facility in Washington, D.C. The narrator cannot believe that Bledsoe could have anything to do with the transfer, but the veteran winks and tells him to learn to see under the surface of things. He tells the narrator to hide himself from white people, from authority, from the invisible man who is pulling his strings. Crenshaw, the veteran’s attendant, tells him that he talks too much. The veteran replies that he verbalizes things that most men only feel. Before switching to another bus, the veteran advises the narrator to serve as his own father. The narrator arrives in New York and gazes with astonishment at a black officer directing white drivers in the street. He sees a gathering on a sidewalk in Harlem, in which a man with a West Indian accent (whom he later learns is Ras the Exhorter) gives a speech about “chasing them [the whites] out.” The narrator feels as though a riot might erupt at any minute. He quickly finds a place called the Men’s House and takes a room.
Over the next few days, the narrator delivers all of the letters of recommendation that Bledsoe gave him except for one, which is addressed to a Mr. Emerson. A week passes, but he receives no response. He tries to telephone the addressees, all trustees of the college, only to receive polite refusals from their secretaries. His money is running out, and he begins to entertain vague doubts about Bledsoe’s motives.
The narrator sets out to deliver his last letter and meets a man named Peter Wheatstraw, who speaks in a black dialectical banter and recognizes the narrator’s Southern roots. Wheatstraw describes Harlem as a bear’s den, which reminds the narrator of the folk stories of Jack the Rabbit and Jack the Bear. The narrator stops for breakfast at a deli. The waiter says he looks like he would enjoy the special: pork chops, grits, eggs, hot biscuits, and coffee. Insulted by the waiter’s stereotyping, the narrator orders orange juice, toast, and coffee.
The narrator arrives at Mr. Emerson’s office. He meets Emerson’s son, a nervous little man. The son takes the letter and goes off to read it, only to return with a vaguely disturbed expression, chattering about his analyst and about injustice. Finally, the son allows the narrator to read the letter: Bledsoe has told each of the addressees that the narrator has earned permanent expulsion and that Bledsoe had to send him away under false pretenses in order to protect the college; Bledsoe requests that the narrator be allowed to “continue undisturbed in [his] vain hopes [of returning to college] while remaining as far as possible from our midst.” Emerson says that his father is a strict, unforgiving man and that he will not help the narrator, but he offers to secure the narrator a job at the Liberty Paints plant. The narrator leaves the office full of anger and a desire for revenge. He imagines Bledsoe requesting that Emerson “hope the bearer of this letter to death and keep him running.” He calls the plant and is told to report to work the next morning.
During the time in which the novel is set, Booker T. Washington’s philosophy that blacks should put their energy toward achieving economic success rather than agitate for social equality reigned in the South as the predominant ideology for the advancement of black Americans. Both white and black Southerners embraced this approach at the time. At the Golden Day in Chapter 3, the veteran succinctly points out the blindness and enslavement that this philosophy entails, and Bledsoe expels him from the South just as he expels the narrator. Unlike the narrator, however, the veteran has desired such a relocation for years. He has used free speech to defy the masquerade and, accordingly, has won the freedom that he desired. The veteran’s success, however, is merely a Pyrrhic victory—his trip north leads only to further confinement in another asylum.
In his attempt to clarify the American power system for the narrator, the veteran revisits the doll or marionette motif with the image of important men pulling strings. Those controlling the narrator’s life remain invisible, hidden behind masks; pulling his strings, they treat him like an object rather than an individual human being. In his belief that these puppet masters are white, however, the veteran fails to recognize the manner in which black men like Bledsoe wield the same sort of control over other blacks. But while Bledsoe manipulates the self-understanding of his students, he himself seems blind to his own role as a tool of the white hierarchy. He believes that he achieves power for himself as a black man; rather than dismantle the white-dominated power structure, however, he only reinforces and reproduces it.
The narrator, on the other hand, seeks to escape this power structure. He begins an archetypal journey—the great migration north in search of freedom. New York immediately presents itself as a world vastly different from that of the South: the narrator marvels, for example, at Ras the Exhorter, whose inflammatory call for the black Harlem residents to drive out the whites would surely get him lynched in the South. Ras’s ideology of black nationalism and of complete distrust of white people is wholly new to the naïve narrator.
Despite the greater scope of black freedom that he witnesses, the narrator cannot shed his experience of prejudice as quickly as he would like. He encounters reminders of his southern heritage in the figure of Peter Wheatstraw and in the deli, when the waiter rather prejudicially suggests that he would like a stereotypically Southern meal. These reminders in themselves, however, may not prove the most serious encroachment on the narrator’s freedom; rather, his continued enslavement may stem from his disavowal of what these reminders represent. To disown his Southern origins is to disown a part of himself, to repress a part of his identity.
Bledsoe’s betrayal of the narrator seems initially to put Ras’s philosophy of complete distrust for whites into question, as it overlooks the fact that blacks can betray blacks. But Bledsoe’s outlook subtly strengthens Ras’s case, for he ultimately remains loyal to the white-dominated power structure, as his selfishness leads him to betray the narrator. One can view his treachery, then, as a triumph by the white hierarchy—in encouraging conformism among blacks, Bledsoe himself serves merely as a pawn. Emerson’s son suggests to the narrator that he see this betrayal as an opportunity. By expelling the narrator and ensuring his banishment from the white trustees’ circles of influence in New York, Bledsoe may have inadvertently done the narrator a favor: this banishment could mean a new freedom. Free of men like Emerson’s father, the narrator may be able to redefine himself properly.