Summary: Chapter 17

While waiting in line at the relief station, Richard notes the impoverished, hungry mass of people sharing their experiences of privation and suffering. He remarks that they no longer appear to be individuals, but rather a community that could organize to throw off the oppressive forces ruling over them. Richard no longer feels that he suffers alone, realizing that millions of others are in the same lot of poverty and desperation.

Richard’s cynicism vanishes. He begins to muse about revolutions and other acts of social change. He senses that the members of society most dangerous to the ruling class are not those who try to defend their rights, but rather those who have no interest in the prizes their society offers. Richard believes that black Americans fit into this inactive category of people. When whites react with violence and terror whenever blacks try to make something of their lives, they unknowingly encourage blacks to abandon any interest in social progress. Richard considers that the oppressive whites could be in great danger if blacks begin to form their own way of life as a community, as he watches them do at the relief station.

Through a federal relief program, Richard obtains a job as an orderly at a medical research institute in a wealthy hospital. He immediately notices the segregation of labor: the health professionals are all white, while the menial workers are mostly black. Richard becomes interested in the research that takes place at the hospital, but the white doctors rudely rebuff his questions.

Richard works in the hospital basement with three other black men. One, Bill, is about Richard’s age, and a drunk. He terrifies Richard with his brutal ideas, at one point advocating a solution to the race problem that entails guns, bullets, and the phrase “Let us all start over again.” The other two workers, Brand and Cooke, are older and passionately hate each other. Richard muses that their ignorant, narrow lives force them to invent a reason to hate each other so that they can indulge in passionate emotions.

The lab uses dogs, among other animals, for research purposes. To minimize noise in the hospital, the doctors cut the dogs’ vocal cords, using a drug called Nembutal to sedate them. Upon regaining consciousness, the dogs howl silently, and Richard sees the dogs as symbols of silent suffering. He is intrigued by Nembutal and one day decides to smell a vial of it. When he does so, Brand panics, frantically yelling that Nembutal is poisonous and that they must find Richard a doctor immediately. Brand soon reveals that he is joking, but Richard is not amused.

Later, Richard’s boss sends a Jewish boy to time him while he cleans, making him feel more like a slave than he ever has before. Richard grows more irritated when he is cleaning the steps and not one white employee shows him the courtesy of not stepping on the steps that he is cleaning. Dirty water gets tracked everywhere, forcing Richard to repeatedly start anew.