Summary: Chapter 2
Recalling his time at the college, the narrator remembers with particular fascination the college’s bronze statue of its Founder, a black man. He describes the statue as cold and paternal, its eyes empty. At the end of his junior year, the narrator takes a job driving Mr. Norton, one of the college’s white millionaire founders, around the campus. In an attempt to show the old gentleman the countryside near the campus, the narrator unwittingly drives Norton to an area of ramshackle cabins. The cabins, which once served as slave quarters, now house poor black sharecroppers. Though Norton finds the cabins intriguing, the narrator immediately regrets having driven him to this area, as he knows that Jim Trueblood lives here. The college regards Trueblood with hatred and distrust because he has impregnated his own daughter. Norton reacts with horror when the narrator reveals this information, but he insists on speaking with Trueblood.
Trueblood explains that he had a strange dream and woke to find himself having sex with his daughter. Norton listens with a morbid, voyeuristic fascination. Trueblood expresses wonder at the fact that white people have showered him with more money and help than before he committed the unspeakable taboo of incest. Norton, shocked at the story, hands Trueblood a one-hundred-dollar bill to buy toys for his children. He gets back into the car in a daze and requests some whiskey to calm his nerves.
Summary: Chapter 3
The narrator, fearing that Norton might die from shock, drives to the nearest tavern, the Golden Day, which serves black people and also happens to be a brothel. As he approaches the Golden Day, the narrator encounters a group of mentally disturbed black war veterans who are being allowed an afternoon outside their home. Their attendant is nowhere to be seen. The narrator intends to dash in and out of the tavern, as the establishment has a bad reputation, but the proprietor refuses to sell take-out whiskey. Some of the veterans help carry Norton inside, since he has fallen unconscious. As they soon as they pour some whiskey down his throat, he begins to regain consciousness. The brutish attendant in charge of the veterans now appears, shouting down from the area of the building devoted to the brothel. Clad only in shorts, he asks why the veterans are yelling. A brawl ensues. Norton falls unconscious again, and the narrator and one of the veterans carry him upstairs to where the prostitutes stay.
This particular veteran claims to be a doctor and a graduate of the college. After Norton wakes, the veteran mocks Norton’s interest in the narrator and the college. He says that Norton views the narrator as a mark on his scorecard of achievement rather than as a man and that the narrator thinks of Norton not as a man but as a god. He calls the narrator an automaton stricken with a blindness that makes him do Norton’s bidding and claims that this blindness is the narrator’s chief asset. Norton becomes angry and demands that the narrator take him back to the college. During the ride back, Norton remains completely silent.
Analysis: Chapters 2–3
With Ellison’s first detailed image of Chapter 2, he extends his critique of the ideas upheld by Booker T. Washington and his followers. The statue honoring the Founder seems to depict an abstract father symbol rather than an actual individual. Though the Founder has allegedly made a great mark on history, we never even learn his name. His individuality and humanity seem lost in the statue’s cold bronze and stiff expression. The Founder’s anonymity echoes the absence of Booker T. Washington’s name in the narrator’s graduation speech after the “battle royal” in Chapter 1, an absence made conspicuous by the narrator’s verbatim quotes from Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address. Ellison uses the Founder as a double for Washington. Both men seemingly set out to design a program for the advancement of black Americans (Washington founded the school now called Tuskegee University), and both, hailed as great visionaries, enjoy fervent worship on the part of their followers. Sadly, within the text both have become invisible men: not even a record of their names exists in the novel. By omitting their names, Ellison attempts to signify such figures’ metaphoric invisibility within the real world—the futility of their actions, their failure to exert any real force on society. The novel also suggests that both men suffer blindness: with the statue’s “empty” eyes, Ellison implies that Washington’s philosophy is illusionary.
Part of Ellison’s derision of Washington lies in his belief that Washington underestimated the power of prejudice among white Americans. Yet, in this chapter, Ellison also explores prejudice from a new angle, examining the social prejudice that emerges from economic and educational inequalities and that can exist between educated and uneducated blacks. Just as the monetary rewards of the battle royal incite the narrator and his classmates to turn on one another in Chapter 1, the rewards of social advancement offered by the college incite the students and faculty to turn their backs on one of the least-empowered groups of American blacks: the poor sharecroppers. In an attempt to conform to the role of the model black citizen expected of them by white trustees, these higher-status blacks disown the dishonorable Jim Trueblood. This attempt to break from the lower-status blacks in order to gain greater favor with the white community seems to illustrate the narrator’s grandfather’s statement in Chapter One that blind conformity to the good slave role constitutes an act of treachery.
With the character of Mr. Norton, the novel introduces another instance of white condescension and self-aggrandizement masquerading as generosity and philanthropy. Norton’s interest in the college stems more from self-interest than more a genuine desire to improve the difficulties of black Americans. Explaining to the narrator why he became involved in the college, he says, in the Golden Day, “I felt . . . that your people were somehow closely connected with my destiny” (Chapter 3). Earlier, in the car, he tells the narrator, “You are my fate” (Chapter 2). Norton never concedes to the narrator the right to claim his fate as his own; instead, their fates become one, with Norton claiming ownership over both. This seemingly benevolent white man actually possesses a latent racism, and he takes pride in his work with the college because it has allowed him to direct and control human life. Although he states that the students constitute his fate and that it is his destiny to improve their lives, Norton has, in reality, put himself in the position of determining their common fate.
Norton’s influence over the lives of the black students remains an insidious one; he exerts power over them while appearing to empower them. This element of deception and illusion reintroduces Ellison’s motif of invisibility and blindness. Norton exerts his power invisibly, without appearing to be a controlling force; indeed, his power allows him to become intimately involved in the lives of thousands of students who have never even seen him. There is a chilling undertone to his remark to the narrator that “[y]ou are bound to a great dream and to a beautiful monument” (Chapter
Norton’s act of generosity to Trueblood contains the same tensions between kindness and self-interest. He takes a distinct voyeuristic delight in Trueblood’s story, seeming to derive from it both entertainment and the thrill of forbidden pleasure. Indeed, Norton’s detailed descriptions of his own daughter suggest that Trueblood’s story may provide him with an imaginative outlet in which he vicariously can live out his own incestuous desires. Norton, who continually mentions his daughter’s beauty and purity, at one point remarks, “I could never believe her to be my own flesh and blood.” The one hundred dollars that Norton gives Trueblood, then, seems a payment for describing the very sin that Norton himself seems to have wanted to commit. Although he claims that he intends the money for Trueblood’s children, the gift seems tainted, like Norton’s gifts to the college, by illegitimate motives, and serves to degrade rather than to help the recipient.
When the doctor-veteran at the Golden Day tavern calls the narrator an “automaton,” the comment revives the problematic relationship between white benefactor and black beneficiary. The veteran explicitly identifies Norton’s narcissism by stating that Norton sees the narrator as a mark on the scorecard of his achievement. “Poor stumblers,” he says, “neither of you can see the other. . . .” But neither Norton nor the narrator takes kindly to having his figurative blindfold removed: just as Norton wishes to believe himself an influential humanitarian, so does the narrator wish to continue under the illusion that the college offers him the freedom to determine his own fate and identity. Ellison imbues this scene with an extremely ironic social critique: though the veteran emerges as the only character to recognize and speak the truth, society labels him insane for daring to see beneath the surface and for telling the tale of what he has seen.