Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison
  • Study Guide

Chapters 18–19

Summary Chapters 18–19

Summary: Chapter 18

The narrator receives an anonymous, unstamped letter telling him not to “go too fast” and to remember that he is still a black man in a white world. He asks another black member of the Brotherhood, Brother Tarp, if anyone in the organization dislikes him. Tarp assures him that he is well liked and says that he doesn’t know who wrote the letter. Tarp asks the narrator if he comes from the South. Tarp then confides in him that he spent nineteen years in a black chain gang for having said “no” to a white man. He gives the narrator a leg iron to remind him of their real cause.

Another black member of the group, Brother Wrestrum, glimpses the leg iron on the narrator’s desk and suggests that he put it away because it “dramatizes” the racial differences in the Brotherhood. Wrestrum hints that some members of the Brotherhood hold racist attitudes, but the narrator disregards him. Wrestrum then suggests that every member of the Brotherhood wear a symbol so that the Brothers can recognize their own members: Tod Clifton once beat up a white Brother during a street brawl after mistaking him for one of the hoodlums trying to quash a Brotherhood rally.

A magazine editor calls the office to request an interview with the narrator. The narrator tries to persuade the editor to interview Clifton instead, but the editor cites the narrator’s favorable public image; he wants to give his readers a hero figure. The narrator explains that every Brother is a cog in the machine, each sacrificing personal ambitions for the benefit of the whole organization. Wrestrum silently encourages the narrator as he expresses these sentiments. However, the narrator yields and agrees to the interview, partly to spite the overbearing Wrestrum. Wrestrum leaves the office.

Two weeks later, Wrestrum accuses the narrator of using the Brotherhood to further his own personal ambitions. He points to the magazine interview as evidence. The narrator considers Wrestrum’s face a mask: behind the mask, he imagines, the real Wrestrum is laughing. The committee finds the narrator innocent in regard to the magazine article but decides to conduct a thorough investigation of his other work with the Brotherhood. They transfer him downtown, out of the Harlem District, and make him a women’s rights spokesperson for the duration of the investigation. Although disappointed, the narrator decides to dedicate himself fully to his new assignment. He packs his papers into his briefcase and leaves.

Summary: Chapter 19

After the narrator’s first lecture as a women’s rights activist, a white woman invites him into her home to discuss the Brotherhood’s ideology. She turns out to be a neglected wife who aims to seduce him. She and the narrator sleep together. Later in the night, the woman’s husband comes home. Since the husband and wife sleep in separate bedrooms, he simply pokes his head inside her darkened room, briefly asking her to wake him early in the morning. When the wife bids him a good night’s rest, he returns the sentiment, but with a short dry laugh. The narrator dresses and rushes from the building, unsure of whether he dreamed the husband, and incredulous that the husband seemed not to notice him. He vows never to get himself into such a situation again.

The Brotherhood summons the narrator to an emergency meeting. The members inform him that he will be transferred back to Harlem and that Clifton has disappeared. The Brotherhood has lost popularity in Harlem, while Ras has gained an ever larger following. Jack tells the narrator that he must attend a strategy meeting the next day.