Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

Chapters 4–6

Summary Chapters 4–6

Thus, we see that Bledsoe uses masks not only to dupe the white establishment but to dupe his own students. The narrator’s grandfather advised his family to use masks as a form of self-defense and resistance against racist white power, but Bledsoe uses masks as a weapon against members of his own race. Moreover, he uses deception to achieve an influential position within the white-dominated power structure rather than to dismantle that structure. One can argue that Bledsoe’s character shows the ultimate limitations of the grandfather’s philosophy: African Americans will not win true power for themselves as a people if they continue to lead double lives.

Yet, while Ellison may imply that active duplicity and illusion may not lead to freedom and dignity, he suggests that African Americans should nonetheless remain aware of their power, if only to be on guard against them. This message comes across in the episode of Barbee’s sermon. The sermon reinforces total allegiance to the college’s and Bledsoe’s (outward) philosophy. Barbee regards the Founder as a god of sorts, whose ideology should be trusted completely, like a religion. The sermon declares that the Founder’s ideology and life represent a universal example that should be followed blindly rather than skillfully manipulated, as Bledsoe does. This blind faith and blind allegiance becomes physically embodied in the character of Barbee—a blind man. Ellison implicitly compares Barbee, whose first name is Homer, to the legendary blind Greek poet Homer, who composed the Odyssey and the Iliad. Barbee’s sermon, an appreciative tribute to the Founder, attempts a project similar to that of Homer’s two epic poems, which celebrate the Greek heroes Odysseus and Achilles, respectively.

The story of the Founder’s physical impotence emphasizes the powerlessness that arises from a policy of blind faith. If the Founder himself—this figurehead of the college’s power and glory—is sterile, then the fertility of his vision and legacy comes into question. His legacy’s offspring include a blind preacher, the double-dealing Bledsoe, and a narcissistic Boston philanthropist who refuses to acknowledge what seems to be an incestuous attraction to his deceased daughter. The Founder’s name is lost to history, and he becomes an empty symbol manipulated by men like Bledsoe to preserve the blindness of others. The reverent sermon revives the narrator’s blind love and devotion to the college and to its program; however, this devotion prompts the narrator to trust blindly in the self-interested Bledsoe. While reprimanding the narrator for his carelessness with Norton, Bledsoe toys with an antique slave shackle, noting that it symbolizes African-American progress. By the end of these chapters, however, Bledsoe’s shackle becomes a symbol of continuing enslavement to multiple forms of blindness.