I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine. . . . 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 experiences this moment of epiphany during his confrontation with Ras in Chapter 25. This scene represents a key moment in the narrator’s existential breakthrough, as he realizes that his own identity is the source of meaning in his life and that acting to fulfill the expectations of others can only prove destructive. Ras’s threatening to kill the narrator makes the narrator see the world as meaningless and absurd and the complexity of American life as equally absurd. (Ellison borrows the word “absurd” directly from the work of the French existentialists, who characterized the universe as such and claimed that the only meaning to be found in existence is that with which the individual invests his own life.) The only motivation to which the narrator can cling is an affirmation that his own absurdity is more important to him than Jack’s or Ras’s. The action of hurling Ras’s spear back at him demonstrates the narrator’s refusal to be subject any longer to others’ visions and demands—he finally commits himself fully to an attempt to assert his true identity.