Skip over navigation

Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

Chapter 11

Chapter 10

Chapters 12–15

Summary

The narrator wakes in a hospital to see a man—a doctor—with what appears to be a bright third eye glowing in the center of his forehead. The narrator finds himself wearing a white pair of overalls. The doctor gives him something to swallow, and he loses consciousness again. Later, he wakes on a cot to see the third eye burning into his own eye. The doctor asks him for his name, but the narrator can only think about his pain. The “pink-faced” doctors begin using electrical shock treatment on him. The narrator cannot remember why he is in the hospital. He hears machines humming in the background and music that sounds like the cry of a woman in pain.

The doctors argue about how to proceed with the narrator: one wants to continue with the electrical shocks, while another believes that such means are rather primitive and argues that they wouldn’t use electrical shocks on someone with a Harvard or New England background. The first doctor declares that electric shock will have the effect of a lobotomy (a surgical procedure that involves severing nerve fibers in the brain to alleviate certain mental disorders) and adds that both the narrator and society will be the better for this procedure. Someone suggests castration, but the doctor in charge chooses to continue with the electric shocks. As the shocks hit the narrator, someone muses that he is dancing, noting that “they [black people] really do have rhythm.”

The doctors ask the narrator a question, but he cannot understand the words. They write their question down on a card: what is your name? The narrator realizes that he cannot remember his name. The doctors barrage him with other written questions relating to his identity, but the narrator can respond with only a mute stare. Asked his mother’s name, he can think only that a mother is “one who screams when you suffer,” and again he hears the screams of the hospital machines.

The doctors then write: who was buckeye the rabbit? The narrator thinks in confused, angry amusement that he is Buckeye the Rabbit, and he becomes annoyed to think that the doctor has hit upon his old identity. The doctors ask: boy, who was brer rabbit? The narrator thinks sarcastically, “He was your mother’s backdoor man.” He adds that Brer and Buckeye are “one and the same: ‘Buckeye’ when you were very young and . . . innocent . . . ‘Brer,’ when you were older.”

The narrator learns that he is in the factory hospital. The doctors tell him that he is cured and should dress and sign some papers in order to receive his compensation check. The director of the hospital urges him to find a quieter, easier job, since he is not ready for the difficulties of factory work. The narrator asks whether the director knows Mr. Norton or Dr. Bledsoe, joking that they are old friends of his.

The narrator leaves the hospital feeling as though an “alien personality” has taken hold of him. Roaming around in a trancelike stupor, he realizes that he has overcome his fear of important men like the trustees and Bledsoe. He wanders into the subway and sees a platinum blonde woman biting a red apple as the train heads for Harlem.

Analysis

The narrator’s experiences in the hospital mark an important transition in Invisible Man, as the narrator experiences a figurative rebirth. Ellison fills this chapter with imagery equating the narrator with a newborn child—he wakes with no memory, an inability to understand speech, and a wholly unformed identity. The background music and noise made by the machines combine to sound like a woman moaning in pain, evoking the cries of a woman in labor. This rebirth, however, involves no parents: the narrator faces the doctors alone. The conspicuous lack of mother or father recalls the veteran’s advice that the narrator should be his own father—that is, create his own identity rather than accept an identity imposed on him from the outside. This rebirth scene signals the transformation of the narrator’s character as he moves into a different phase of his life. Having lost his job at the plant—his last remaining connection to the college—he can now remake his identity.

The narrator’s relationship with the hospital doctors dramatizes the consequences of invisibility and blindness as they are portrayed throughout the novel. Because the narrator has temporarily lost the ability to speak, his doctors are unable to learn anything about his identity, and because he has amnesia, he himself knows very little about who he is. As the scene progresses and the white doctors continue to fail to ascertain any information about their black patient, they increasingly fall back on racial stereotypes, collapsing him into a caricature, a kind of dancing Sambo doll like the ones that Tod Clifton sells in Chapter 20. As the narrator suffers the spasms of electric shock therapy, the doctors note caustically that black people have excellent rhythm. This stereotyping comment also revives the marionette metaphor: the doctors attach the narrator to various strings (wires) through which the electric current passes, and he “danc[es]” on cue when they send an electric current through his body. This electrical shock treatment recalls the electrified rug in the Chapter 1, on which the narrator writhes and contorts to the amusement of white onlookers spouting racist beliefs. Similarly, in that episode the narrator recalls seeing one of the other black boys “literally danc[ing] upon his back” and coming out of the spasm with an ashen face.

The references to Southern folk culture in this chapter hearken back to earlier references of the same type, though they now have a different effect on the narrator. In Chapter 9, when the narrator meets the jive-talking Peter Wheatstraw and recalls Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear (two characters from folktales introduced to America by African slaves), the encounter makes him smile “despite himself” as he feels a flash of mixed pride and disgust. Now, however, the doctors’ inquiries about the folklore characters help the narrator to recover some of his memory. The narrator is reborn, but his heritage follows him into his new life. Yet, while he remains unable to shed his culture as he transforms his identity, he also proves unable to free himself from the burden of racism. For while Southern black folklore constitutes a rich part of who he is, it also differentiates him from white people, and the racist doctors use this difference as an excuse to violate the narrator and deny his humanity. Perhaps the most sinister manifestation of the doctors’ racism lies in the suggestion of castrating the narrator. Symbolically, to castrate someone is to strip him of his power, to strip him of his ability to leave a genetic legacy; a systematic castration of all black males would be tantamount to genocide.

The idea of castration echoes the accidental sterilization of the Founder, another nameless black man who has been transformed into a stereotype. It also underscores white America’s hidden obsession with black sexuality, which we see in Mr. Norton’s bizarre curiosity about Jim Trueblood’s incest. As evidenced in Chapter 1, the lurid interest of white men in black sexuality tends to revolve around the idea of black men lusting after white women, a stereotype that Ellison subtly references when he portrays the narrator watching the blonde woman nibble at the apple on the subway. The allusion to this stereotype foreshadows the narrator’s eventual sexual encounters with white women. Moreover, the apple in this episode figures significantly. According to the Bible, God instructed Adam and Eve not to eat any fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, but Eve disobeys and then persuades Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit as well. Similarly, in this episode, society strictly forbids any sexual desire that the narrator might feel for the blonde woman.

At the end of this chapter, the narrator’s invisibility has made him freer, even if it has not fully liberated him. As he sets out in New York, the narrator employs the veteran’s advice to hide himself by being in the open, to achieve a greater measure of freedom, to define his own identity, to become his own father, so to speak. The narrator’s ability to speak irreverently of men like Bledsoe and Norton demonstrates that he has overcome his blind devotion to the college and the ideology that rules it. Like the veteran, he no longer feels compelled to treat this slavish ideology with respect. Consequently, as he leaves the hospital, the narrator feels stronger, no longer afraid.

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