Blindness—of both the literal and figurative varieties—figures heavily in
Like many white characters in the novel, Norton is blind to the realities of Black people’s lives. However, his form of prejudice is more covert than others, as he outwardly presents himself as a great supporter of black causes. Despite his generous financial donations to the college, Norton is unable—or unwilling—to see the abstract “Negroes” about whom he theorizes as real, individual human beings with specific thoughts and feelings. Tellingly, Norton never asks the narrator’s name as they drive around campus together, even as he maintains that the two of them share the same destiny. In all his years as a supporter of the school, he has never been off campus grounds. In order to sustain an idealized image of black people, Norton remains willfully ignorant of the real conditions of their lives, sacrificing the particular and the individual for the comforting illusion of false generalities. When Norton does come face to face with the reality of life outside campus grounds, through his exposure to Trueblood and the Golden Day tavern, he suffers a heart attack, an apparent sign of his inability to handle the truth.
If his figurative blindness prevents Norton from properly seeing his Black beneficiaries, it also prevents him from properly seeing himself. With his suave and genteel manner, Norton is to all appearances a benevolent trustee—and so he believes himself to be. Yet while he claims that his altruism empowers the students, in reality, the opposite is true. Norton takes pride in his work with the college not because of a selfless dedication to social causes, but because it gives him the power to direct and control the students’ lives. Norton states that the college students are “bound to a great dream and to a beautiful monument.” Ellison’s use of the word “bound” here draws a parallel—perhaps unconscious on Norton’s part—between the trustee-student relationship and the slaveholder-slave relationship. The fates of the students are “bound” to the wills of the trustees just as the lives of slaves were bound, physically and literally, to the whims of their master.
Ellison shows how people can be blind to the motives behind their ideals and their actions; in Norton’s interaction with Trueblood, he shows how people can be blind to their own desires, as well. Norton’s fascinated response to Trueblood’s tale of incest suggests that beneath his deceptively innocent face—“pink like St. Nicholas”—Norton shares Trueblood’s perverse instincts. Norton expresses fervid devotion for his own daughter, deliriously describing her beauty in poetic terms. He confesses to the narrator that he “could never believe her to be [his] own flesh and blood”—a seeming expression of humility, but also a hint that Norton might be able to deny his own fatherhood and therefore feel justified in expressing sexual feelings for his daughter. Norton expresses a bizarre empathy with Trueblood. Though repulsed by his actions, he also seems to somehow covet the man’s incestuous relationship with his daughter. He insists on having a personal audience with Trueblood to hear the intimate details of his story, and then voyeuristically hangs onto his every word. The novel suggests that Norton achieves a certain vicarious enjoyment from Trueblood’s tale, imaginatively participating in a forbidden act he also desires to commit. “You did and are unharmed!” he accuses him, with something like envy mixed in with his indignation. Norton’s encounter with Trueblood reveals that beneath the white skin and rosy cheeks of this powerful, wealthy man, his “true blood” runs the same color as that of the poor, uneducated black man.
The veteran at the Golden Day tavern removes both Norton’s and the narrator’s figurative blindfolds. He shows the two men the similarities between them, declaring that, just as Norton wishes to believe himself a morally respectable, influential humanitarian, the narrator wishes to sustain the illusion that the college offers him an ideal education and the freedom to determine his own fate and identity. By refusing to acknowledge his own naiveté, the narrator is just as responsible for his own enslavement as his captor is. The fog of false idealism causes both the narrator’s and Norton’s blindness. While idealism may be necessary to instigate any kind of social change,