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Slavery (1700s to 1865) Times of Trial

The Africans that were brought to the United States of America as slaves were faced first with
the ordeal of surviving the middle passage the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and then
surviving within the institution of slavery. As slaves, they were denied the right to retain their
languages and religions. Instead, they were forced to learn a new language, nglish, and a
new form of religion, !hristianity. The fact that there is any evidence of African"American
literature written before #$%&, when the !ivil 'ar ended, is remar(able. In many areas it was
against the law to educate a slave. Thus, the ma)ority of slaves were illiterate. Some slaves
tric(ed their owners* children into teaching them to read and write. A few slaves were luc(y+
their owners believed in educating slaves. 'e should not confuse illiteracy, however, with a
lac( of literature or culture. The African literary tradition that the slaves carried with them
was an oral tradition. The customs, values, traditions, and history of a people were embodied
in their oral literature. The earliest survivors of the African oral tradition were the wor( songs
and field hollers that slaves called to each other as they wor(ed in the fields. Another literary
survivor was the fol(tale. arly African Americans shared fol( tales that e,plained the
une,plainable, e,pressed values, and identified acceptable and unacceptable behavior. They
provided the slaves with hope and entertainment.
In the late #-..s, a limited amount of African American literature had been written or
published. arly African American poetry, such as that of /hyllis 'heatley and 0upiter
, reflects the strong religious influences of the time. 2evolutionary 'ar"era writers
li(e 3en)amin 3anne(er, mathematician and astronomer, and Olaudah 4uiano 56ustavus
7assa8 spo(e out for the e4uality of all people, especially African Americans.
The earliest published blac( American writer, 0upiter 1ammon wrote his most popular piece, An Address to
the Negroes in the State of New York, at age seventy"si,, after being freed by the family he served for three
generations. In the Address, 1ammon preaches that slave are capable of accepting !hrist, and that those who do
not are morally enslaved by their master. 3y accepting !hrist, slave guarantee themselves freedom after death,
the only freedom 1ammon believed was imminently possible. 9rawing heavily on biblical theology, 1ammon
encouraged blac( to have high moral standards precisely because their enslavement on earth had already secured
their place in heaven, where the color veil would be lifted. 1e also advocated a plan of gradual emancipation as a
compromise to ending slavery immediately, and thought a pension should be established by slave owners for
slave emancipated after they were no longer able to wor(. 1owever, 1ammon was critici:ed for his insistence
that older slaves should be cared for by their masters if they were incapable of caring for themselves. 1ammon;s
essay was published by the <ew =or( >ua(ers twice during his lifetime, and once after his death by members of
the /ennsylvania Society for /romoting the Abolition of Slavery.
3y the early #$..s, African American literature appeared in a number of forms. 'hite
abolitionists encouraged the writing and publication of slave narratives, such as Incidents in
the Life of a Slave Girl by 1arriet A. 0acobs. Often, illiterate African American slaves were
encouraged to tell their life stories to white writers who wrote them down. African American
abolitionists produced nonfiction, such as <at Turner*s pamphlet The Confessions of Nat
Turner 5#$?#8, and drama, such as 'illiam 'ells 3rown*s The Escape, or a Leap for
reedo! 5#$&$8, the first African American play. In #$&@, 1arriet . 'ilson published "ur
Nig# or, Sketches fro! the Life of a ree $lack, the first novel published in the United States
by an African American. /oets such as Arances 'at(ins 1arper captured the horror of the
institution of slavery. Other blac( writers, such as Arederic( 9ouglass and 9avid 'al(er,
used the podium and essays to promote the right of African Americans to freedom and
e4uality. ducated African Americans (ept )ournals of their daily activities.
Arom its beginning to the !ivil 'ar, the African American literary tradition was built and
focused on a 4uest for freedom and e4uality. This 4uest has continued to serve as a foundation
for much of the African American literary effort to this day.
The %eligious and &olitical 'ission of African A!erican Literature
The engendering impulse of African American literature is resistance to human tyranny. The
sustaining spirit of African American literature is dedication to human dignity. As resistance
to human tyranny and dedication to human dignity became increasingly synonymous with the
idea of America itself in the latter half of the eighteenth century, early African American
writers identified themselves as Americans with a special mission. They would articulate the
political and spiritual ideals of America to inspire and )ustify the struggle of blac(s for their
birthright as American citi:ens. They would also demand fidelity to those same ideals from
whites whose moral complacency and racial pre)udices had blinded them to the obligations of
their own heritage.
Although the ideals of e4uality and liberty celebrated by the founders of the United States
drew their legitimacy from intertwined religious and political traditions, the racial chauvinism
of most white Americans in the early republic forced a separation of their religious and
political responsibilities to blac(s. In the realm of the spirit, most whites were content with
African American claims to an e4ual right to 6od*s grace, as long as African American
salvation did not entail a radical redemption of the white"dominated social order. In the
political sphere, however, whites presumed themselves alone to be the arbiters of rights and
2ecogni:ing this contradiction in white America*s attitude toward blac( advancement, the
first African American writers in the United States appealed to the traditional !hristian gospel
of the universal brotherhood of humanity as a way of initiating a discussion with whites that
did not directly confront their pre)udices and an,ieties. 2eaders of /hyllis 'heatley*s &oe!s
of (arious Su)*ects, %eligious and 'oral 5#--?8, which won international attention as the
first African American wor( of literature, found much more evidence of the 3oston slave
poet*s piety than her politics.
Arom the outset, African American literature challenged the dominant culture*s attempt to
segregate the religious from the political, the spirit from the flesh, insofar as racial affairs
were concerned. 'ithin two years of the publication of her landmar( boo( of poems,
'heatley was articulating without e4uivocation the holistic view of spiritual and political
issues on which later generations of African American writing would be founded. In #--C she
commented that she could discern Dmore and more clearly, the glorious 9ispensation of civil
and religious Eiberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is little or no n)oyment of
one without the other.F 3y the early nineteenth century, civil rights agitators li(e Garia '.
Stewart felt no compunction in affirming 6od*s investment in both the eternal and the earthy
redemption of blac( people. choing, perhaps even alluding to, 'heatley*s famous 4uatrain
in "n )eing )rought fro! Africa to A!erica, Stewart announced to African Americans in
#$?#+ DGany thin(, because your s(ins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior
race of beingsH but 6od does not consider you as such.F 3y invo(ing divine sanction for
African American social strivings, writers li(e Stewart brought to fruition the earliest blac(
writers* efforts to dignify blac( e,perience with spiritual significance and divinely ordained
In the eyes of the standard"bearers of early African"American literature, all of 6od*s laws
were indivisible because all of 6od*s people were one. 0esus, the suffering servant, bore
ITwas mercy brought me from my &agan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there*s a 6od, that there*s a Savior tooH
Once I redemption neither sought or (new.
So!e view our sa)le race with scornful e+e,
,There color is a dia)olic die-.
%e!e!)er, Christians, Negroes, )lack as Cain,
'a+ )e refin/d, and *oin th/ angelic train-
powerful witness to 6od*s love of mercyH Goses, the deliverer of the Israelites from bondage
in gypt, testified )ust as compelling to 6od*s devotion to )ustice. Spurred by a conviction of
their own special calling to witness against America*s spiritual and political degeneration,
early blac( writers such as Olaudah 4uiano, 9avid 'al(er, Garia Stewart, and ultimately
Arederic( 9ouglass e,horted their white readers li(e preachers imploring a bac(sliding
congregation to live up to the standards of their reputed religion and their professed political
2epresenting themselves as faithful adherents to the humanitarian ideals of !hristianity and
the American 2evolution, early African American writers e,plore through various forms of
irony the chasm between white America*s words and its deeds, between its propaganda about
freedom and its widespread practice of slavery. The grotes4ue inconsistency between the
United States championing of Dlife, liberty, and the pursuit of happinessF in its own
9eclaration of Independence, and its sanctioning of the crime of chattel slavery furnished
early African American literature with its most enduring theme. Initially, African American
writers li(e 3en)amin 3enne(er used the egalitarian language of the 9eclaration of
Independence to try to shame white America into abolishing slavery. 3ut as early as the
e,patriate 7ictor SJ)our*s pioneering short story The 'ulatto 5#$?-8, and with increasing
vehemence in the speeches of mid"century elo4uent platform orators, such as 1enry 1ighland
6arnet and Arederic( 9ouglass, the right of African Americans to armed resistance to slavery
was proclaimed. The Aounding Aathers* )ustification of revolution gave ample precedent for
violent action in the name of freedom. 2egardless of the means of rhetorical attac(, African"
American literature throughout the pre"!ivil 'ar era maintained as its central priorities the
abolition of slavery and the promotion of the blac( man and woman to a status in the civil and
cultural order e4ual to that of whites.
Slaver+ in the A!ericas
To prosecute their war of words against slavery, early blac( advocates of freedom became
students of the long and sordid history of human bondage, which dated bac( to ancient gypt,
6reece, and 2ome. One such self"educated historian, 9avid 'al(er, ac(nowledged that
slavery had long been practiced in Africa, but he charged white !hristian slaveholders with
greater crimes against humanity and greater hypocrisy in )ustifying those crimes than any
prior slave system had been guilty of. Twentieth century scholarship has lent much support to
the contentions of 'al(er*s and others in the African American antislavery vanguard that
slavery as perpetrated by the uropean coloni:ers of Africa and the Americas brought man*s
inhumanity to man to a level of technological efficiency unimagined by previous generations.
'hen /ortuguese mariners began trading gold, ivory, and spices with the chieftains of the
coast of 'est Africa in the mid"fifteenth century, they discovered that African prisoners of
war and their children could be readily supplied for sale as slaves. The slave trade among
<orth and 'est Africans was an established institution, though the status of slave in these
parts of Africa did not carry with it the stigma with which uropean and American slave
traders and slaveholders branded the African. After the discovery of the so"called <ew 'orld,
its Spanish con4uerors instituted particularly brutal forms of slavery as soon as enough power
could be consolidated to turn the native population into a compulsory wor( force. Ironically,
the horrific effects of the Spanish enslavement of the indigenous peoples of !entral America
triggered the first importation of African slaves into the 'estern 1emisphere. In #&#-,
3artolomJ de las !asas, a Spanish missionary to the !aribbean island of 1ispaniola,
recommended to his political superiors that Africans be imported to the Spanish colonies to
relieve the appalling mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of <ew Spain. 3efore the slave
trade to the Americas was abolished in the late nineteenth century, at least ten million human
beings had been brought to <orth and South America against their will, to be sub)ected to one
of the most inhuman systems of social and economic oppression the world has ever seen.
The first blac( people who came to <orth America were not slaves, however, but e,plorers.
Among the most famous were stevanico 5d. #&?@8, who opened up what is now <ew Ge,ico
and Ari:ona for Spanish settlement, and 0ean 3aptiste /oint du Sable 5#-C&K #$#$8, who
founded a trading post on the southern shore of Ea(e Gichigan from which the city of
!hicago grew. The first Africans in 3ritish <orth America were brought to wor( as laborers.
They arrived at 0amestown, 7irginia, in #%#@ aboard a 9utch slave ship. Only twenty in
number, including at least three women, these people had survived the desperate Giddle
/assage from their homeland to America, a voyage so harsh that it is estimated that one in
eight Africans died in transit without ever reaching the slave mar(ets of the <ew 'orld.
Initially, the blac( people brought to the 7irginia colony were not considered slaves. They
were classed as indentured servants who could become free if they wor(ed satisfactorily for
their masters for a stipulated number of years. 3ut by #-.., the growing plantation economy
of 7irginia demanded a wor( force that was cheaper than free labor and more easily
controlled. 3y establishing the institution of chattel slavery, in which a blac( person became
not )ust a temporary servant but the lifetime property of his or her white master, the tobacco,
cotton and rice planters of 3ritish <orth America ensured their rise to economic and political
preeminence over the southern half of what would become the United States.
Under chattel slavery, the African imported to <orth America was divested as much as
possible of his or her culture. The newly minted slave was relegated to a condition that the
historian Orlando /atterson has termed Dsocial death.F Although some evidence demonstrates
that some African religious beliefs, cultural practices, and linguistic forms survived the
Giddle /assage, the system of chattel slavery was designed to prevent Africans and their
descendants from building a new identity e,cept in accordance with the dictates of their
oppressors. Instead of an individual, slavery devised what /atterson calls Da social
nonperson,F a being that by legal definition could have no family, no personal honor, no
community, no past, and no future. The intention of slavery was to create in the slave a sense
of complete alienation from all human ties e,cept those that bound him or her in absolute
dependence to the master*s will. Self"reliance, a cardinal tenet of the popular American
doctrine of rugged individualism, was forbidden the slave, since the very notion of selfhood
had no meaning or application to those who could not even possess themselves.
Slaver+ and A!erican %acis!
'hat gave American chattel slavery its uni4uely oppressive character and power was its
insistence that enslavement was the natural and proper condition for particular races of
people. 2einforced b theories of racial difference promoted by such prestigious philosophers
as Ariedrich 1egel, Immanuel Lant, and 9avid 1ume, most uropeans and Americans
assumed that differences in e,ternals comple,ion, hair, and other physical features
between blac(s and whites signified differences in the inherent character intelligence,
morality, and spirituality of the two groups. 'hen Thomas 0efferson reviewed what he
considered to be the ma)or differences between whites and blac(s, he concluded that these
differences were so deep and ineradicable that only complete separation of the races, with
whites in control until such time as blac(s could be removed from the country, could avert
race war in the United States.
0efferson*s Notes on the State of (irginia 5#-$-8 contained a powerful condemnation of
slavery, but the boo( also became an influential statement of early American racism because
of 0efferson*s persistent association of blac(ness with absence. After celebrating Dthe fine
mi,tures of red and whiteF that endow the comple,ions of whites with their Dsuperior
beauty,F 0efferson contemplated with an almost palpable shudder Dthat eternal monotony,
which reigns in the countenances Mof blac( peopleN, that immoveable veil of blac( which
covers all the emotions of the other race.F Thus dar(ness of s(in symboli:ed for 0efferson an
absence of light within the African American, a void that made blac(ness the sign not merely
of s(in difference but also of an un(nown alien, a threatening other. /roviding intellectual and
moral cover for slavery*s na(ed politics of e,ploitation, a si:able school of racist writers in
the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States followed 0efferson in arguing that
the African American*s physical and cultural difference amounted to an intellectual, spiritual,
and moral otherness that only slavery could manage and turn to some productive account.
%esistance to Slaver+ and %acis!
In the aftermath of the Turner revolt and the South*s iron"fisted response to it, a new
generation of reformers in the <orth proclaimed their absolute and uncompromising
opposition to slavery. Eed by the crusading white )ournalist 'illiam Eloyd 6arrison, these
abolitionists demanded the immediate end of slavery throughout the United States. Aree
blac(s in the <orth lent their support to 6arrison*s American Anti"Slavery Society, editing
newspapers, holding conventions, circulating petitions, and investing their money and their
energies in protest actions. Searching for a means of galvani:ing public concern for the slave
as Da man and a brother,F this generation of blac( and white radical abolitionists sponsored a
new departure in African American literature, the fugitive slave narrative. Arom #$?. to the
end of the slavery era, the fugitive slave narrative dominated the literary landscape of
antebellum blac( America, far outnumbering the autobiographies of free people of color, not
to mention the handful of novels published by African Americans. Gost of the ma)or authors
of African American literature before #$%&, including Olaudah 4uiano, Arederic( 9ouglass,
'illiam 'ells 3rown, and 1arriet 0acobs, launched their writing careers via narratives of
their e,periences as slaves.
Typically the antebellum slave narrative carried a blac( message inside a white envelope.
/refatory 5and sometimes appended8 matter by whites attested to the reliability and good
character of the narrator and called attention to what the narrative would reveal about the
moral abominations of slavery. The former slave*s contribution to the te,t centered on his or
her rite of passage from slavery in the South to freedom in the <orth. Usually the antebellum
slave narrator portrayed slavery as a condition of e,treme physical, intellectual, emotional,
and spiritual deprivation, a (ind of hell on earth. /recipitating the narrator*s decision to
escape was some sort of personal crisis, such as the sale of a loved one or a dar( night of the
soul in which hope contends with despair for the spirit of the slave. Impelled by faith in 6od
and a commitment to liberty and human dignity comparable 5the slave narrative often
stressed8 to that of America*s Aounding Aathers, the slave undertoo( an arduous 4uest for
freedom that clima,ed in his or her arrival in the <orth. In many antebellum narratives, the
attainment of freedom was signaled not simply by reaching the free states but by renaming
oneself and dedicating one*s future to antislavery activism.
Advertised in the abolitionist press and sold at antislavery meetings throughout the nglish"
spea(ing world, a significant number of antebellum slave narratives went through multiple
editions and sold in tens of thousands. The popularity was not solely attributable to the
publicity the narratives received from the antislavery movement. 2eaders could see that, as
one reviewer put it, Dthe slave who endeavors to recover his freedom is associating with
himself no small part of the romance of the time.F To the noted transcendentalist clergyman
Theodore /ar(er, slave narrative 4ualified as America*s only indigenous literary form, for Dall
the original romance of Americans is in them, not in the white man*s novel.F The most widely
read and hotly debated American novel of the nineteenth century, 1arriet 3eecher Stowe*s
0ncle To!/s Ca)in 5#$&B8, was profoundly influenced by its author*s reading of a number of
slave narratives, to which she owed many graphic incidents and the models for some of her
most memorable characters.
In #$C& the slave narrative reached its epitome with the publication of the Narrative of the
Life of rederick 1ouglass, an A!erican Slave, 2ritten )+ 3i!self- A fugitive from
Garyland slavery, 9ouglass spent four years honing his s(ills as an abolitionist lecturer
before setting about the tas( of writing his autobiography. In deciding to author his own story
rather than enlist a white editor to transcribe his oral testimony and fashion that into a boo(,
9ouglass made a crucial brea( with established procedure in the publishing of slave
narratives. At the ris( of public censure for egotism and incompetence 5he had never had a
day*s schooling in his life8, 9ouglass resolved to write his own story in his own way. 1e was
determined to bear witness to the self"awareness, intellectual independence, and literary
authority of the slave. After 9ouglass*s immensely successful Narrative, the presence of the
subtitle, 2ritten )+ 3i!self, on a slave narrative bore increasing significance as an indicator
of a narrator*s political and literary self"reliance. In the late #$C.s well"(nown fugitive slaves
such as 'illiam 'ells 3rown, 1enry 3ibb, and '. !. /ennington reinforced the rhetorical
self"consciousness of the slave narrative by incorporating into their stories tric(ster motifs
from African American fol( culture, e,tensive literary and biblical allusion, and a picares4ue
perspective on the meaning of the slave*s flight from bondage to freedom.
As social and political conflict in the United States at mid"century centered more and more on
the presence and fate of African Americans, the slave narrative too( on an unprecedented
urgency and candor, unmas(ing as never before the moral and social comple,ities of the
American caste and class system in the <orth as well as the South. '+ $ondage and '+
reedo! 5#$&&8, 9ouglass*s second autobiography, conducted a fresh in4uiry into the
meaning of slavery and freedom, adopting the standpoint of one who had spent enough time
in the so"called free states to understand how pervasive racism and paternalism was, even
among the most liberal whites, the 6arrisonians themselves. 1arriet 0acobs, the earliest
(nown African American female slave to author her own narrative, also challenged
conventional ideas about slavery and freedom in her stri(ingly original Incidents in the Life of
a Slave Girl 5#$%#8. 0acobs*s autobiography shows how se,ual e,ploitation made slavery
especially oppressive for blac( women. 3ut in demonstrating how she fought bac( and
ultimately gained both her own freedom and that of her two children, 0acobs proved the
inade4uacy of the image of victim that had been pervasively applied to female slaves in the
male"authored slave narrative. The writing of 0acobsH the feminist oratory of the DEibyan
sybil,F So)ourner TruthH and the renowned e,ample of 1arriet Tubman, the fearless conductor
of runaways on the Underground 2ailroad enriched African American literature with new
models of female self"e,pression and heroism.
The irst African A!erican Literar+ %enaissance
These developments in the slave narrative, along with the publication of several pioneering
e,periments in fiction, )ustify calling the #$&.s and early #$%.s the first renaissance in
African American letters. In these years blac( writers began to e,pand their hori:ons, both in
terms of the forms they developed and the themes they adopted. In #$&? Arederic( 9ouglass
published a historical novella, The 3eroic Slave, in his own newspaper, rederick 1ouglass/
&aper- The protagonist of 9ouglass*s story, Gadison 'ashington, who actually led a
successful slave mutiny in #$C#, gave American readers a model of blac( manhood that
carefully balanced the violent desire for )ustice that <at Turner and the !hristian pacifism of
Stowe*s Uncle Tom. Soon after The 3eroic Slave the first full"length African American novel
was published in ngland under the title Clotel# or, The &resident/s 1aughter- Authored by
'illiam 'ells 3rown, who had already distinguished himself as the writer of an
internationally celebrated slave narrative as well as the first travel boo( by an African
American, Clotel blurred the line between fact and fiction by recounting the tragic career of a
beautiful and idealistic light"s(inned woman reputed to be the daughter of Thomas 0efferson
and his slave mistress. Clotel helped populari:e the sentimental image of the Dtragic mulattaF
in American fiction and drama. 3ut the ultimate outcome of her story, in which !lotel
transforms herself into a combative tric(ster figure to rescue her daughter from slavery, shows
3rown testing the limits of gender conventions in fiction. Aive years later, 3rown contributed
again to the outpouring of literary creativity among blac(s at mid"century by fashioning the
first African American play, The Escape# or, A Leap for reedo!, based on scenes and
themes familiar to readers of fugitive slave narratives.
In #$&@ Gartin 2. 9elany, a blac( )ournalist and physician who would later serve as a ma)or
in the Aederal Army during the !ivil 'ar, produced $lake# or, The 3uts of A!erica, a novel
whose hero plots a slave revolt in the South. 9elany*s 3la(e represents the first blac(
nationalist culture hero in African American literature. In the same year the first African
American women*s fiction also appeared+ The Two "ffers, a short story by Arances llen
'at(ins 1arper, and "ur Nig# or, Sketches fro! the Life of a ree $lack, an autobiographical
novel by 1arriet . 'ilson. Among the poetic voices of blac( America 1arper*s was
preeminent at mid"century. The African American reading community embraced her as a
writer who spo(e to the needs and aspirations of slaves and free people ali(e in verse that was
direct, impassioned, and morally inspiring. In contrast, the literary wor( of 1arriet 'ilson
received little or no notice, despite 5or perhaps because of8 her unprecedented, tough"minded
investigation of the socioeconomic realities of life for a blac( wor(ing"class woman in the
olk Traditions
3ehind the achievements of African American writers during the anti"slavery period lies the
communal consciousness of millions of slaves, whose oral tradition in song and story has
given form and substance to literature by blac( people since they first began writing in
nglish. In his Narrative, Arederic( 9ouglass recalled having received his first glimmering
sense of the awful evil of slavery by listening to the wor( songs of his fellow slaves in
Garyland. Eater in his life he revealed that the familiar plantation spiritual D2un to 0esusF had
first suggested to him the thought of ma(ing his escape from slavery. The genius of the
spirituals rested in their double meaning, their blending of the spiritual and the political.
'hen slaves sang DI than( 6od I*m free at las*F only they (new whether they were referring
to freedom from sin or from slavery. ven in those spirituals that e,press a poignant yearning
for deliverance in heaven from earthly burdens, one can hear a powerful complaint against the
institutions that forced blac( people to believe that only in the ne,t world would they find
A second great fund of southern blac( fol(lore, the animal tales, testified to the slaves*
commonsense understanding of human psychology and everyday )ustice in this world.
Although many of these tales e,plained in comic fashion how the world came to be as it is,
many more concentrated on the e,ploits of tric(ster figures, notably 3rer 2abbit, who used
their wits to overcome stronger animal antagonists. Tales that celebrate the tric(ster, whether
in animal or human form, are universal in human fol(lore. Still the popularity of 3rer 2abbit
in the fol(lore of the slaves attests to the enduring faith of blac( Americans in the power of
mind over matter. The spirit of 3rer 2abbit lived in every slave who deceived his master with
a smile of loyalty while stealing from his storehouse and ma(ing plans for escape.
The Civil 2ar and E!ancipation
In #$%. the first avowedly antislavery candidate for president, Abraham Eincoln of the
2epublican /arty, was elected in one of the bitterest campaigns ever waged in the United
States. Southern e,tremists began to beat the drum for secession. Eincoln promised the South
that he would not demand the abolition of slavery, but he warned the secessionists that he
would not allow them to split the Union apart. 'hen South !arolina bombarded federal
troops at Aort Sumter in !harleston on April #B, #$%#, Eincoln issued a call for seventy"five
thousand volunteers to help put down what northern politicians called the southern rebellion.
9uring the ne,t four years, while the American !ivil 'ar raged on, African Americans
played an increasingly important role in the Union cause. Initially forbidden to serve in the
Union army, blac( men waited until the summer of #$%B, when Eincoln finally heeded the
council of advisers li(e Arederic( 9ouglass and permitted free blac(s in liberated portions of
Eouisiana and South !arolina to form regiments. 'hen two South !arolina regiments,
combining both free blac(s and former slaves, captured and occupied 0ac(sonville, Alorida, in
Garch #$%?, Eincoln decided to engage in the full"scale recruitment of blac( soldiers for the
army. 3y the war*s end, more than #$%,... blac(s had served in the artillery, cavalry,
engineers, and infantry as well as in the U. S. <avy. 3lac( troops left a notable record of valor
in ma)or battles throughout the South in the last two years of the war even though they were
routinely paid less than the wages white soldiers received. Gore than ?$,... African
Americans gave their lives for the Union cause.
Although northern whites )oined the Union army for many reasons, blac(s fought for one
overriding purpose to bring an end to slavery. Aor more than two years after the outbrea( of
hostilities, African Americans waited for their president to lin( the Union cause with the
e,tinction of slavery. 'hen Eincoln issued the mancipation /roclamation in the summer of
#$%B, which declared all slaves in the rebellious states to be free as of 0anuary #, #$%?, blac(s
in the <orth felt that, at long last, their country had committed itself to an ideal worth dying
for. Aew African Americans critici:ed Eincoln for failing to declare freedom for the slaves in
the border states, such as Lentuc(y and Garyland, that had not )oined the southern
confederacy. !harlotte Aorten, daughter of an influential /hiladelphia civil rights activist and
author of the most widely read African American diary of the nineteenth century, probably
spo(e for most in the blac( American leadership class when she entered in her diary on
0anuary #, #$%?+ DAh, what a grand, glorious day this has been. The dawn of freedom which it
heralds may not brea( upon us at onceH but it will surely come, and sooner, I believe, than we
have ever dared hope before.F 'hen the final surrender came at Appomato,, 7irginia, on
April @, #$%&, African Americans pressed for the enactment of laws ensuring a new era of
freedom and opportunity for every blac( American. On 9ecember %, #$%&, the Thirteenth
Amendment of the U. S. !onstitution, which abolished Dslavery and involuntary servitudeF
throughout the country, was ratified by the newly united states of America, including eight
from the former !onfederacy. 3ut the long"anticipated era of freedom, e4uality, and
opportunity for all would prove much more difficult to bring into reality.
II. Standing Ground T!e "arlem #enaissan$e (1%1%&1%'0)
To stand ground means to have a belief that you refuse to give up. <o matter what conditions
you are faced with, if you stand ground you will hold on to your convictions. Standing ground
can be as simple as ma(ing a choice and holding firm to it or as complicated as believing in
something when there is no evidence to prove it.
Arom the time that Africans were brought to America as slaves to the present, African
Americans have had to stand ground. 9uring slavery those who believed their servitude
would end one day stood their ground when they held on to their dignity in the face of the
horrors of the institution. Since slavery, African Americans have stood ground to earn the
right to vote, to obtain an education, to live in decent housing, and to wor( in )obs where they
were paid an e4ual salary.
African American writers stand ground when they create stories and poems that celebrate the
spirit of resistance. Their wor( records the ability of African Americans to stand ground by
ta(ing pride in their culture and celebrating their African heritage. It records their ability to
stand ground by affirming that they are entitled to the same rights as other American citi:ens.
Ainally, it records their ability to stand ground by refusing to give in when conditions are
terrible. African American writers illustrate how African Americans ta(e strength from within
themselves and choose actions over which they have control.
A Cultural lowering
Although the very e,istence of the 1arlem 2enaissance has been disputed, with some
choosing to emphasi:e the national scope of the cultural phenomenon and thus downplaying
its identification with one district in <ew =or( !ity, the term 3arle! %enaissance has
remained popular. It has remained so because most scholars and students agree that the #@B.s
was a decade of e,traordinary creativity in the arts for blac( Americans and that much of that
creativity found its focus in the activities of African Americans living in <ew =or( !ity,
particularly in the district of 1arlem.
Un4uestionably, at least where the arts 5including music and dance8 are concerned, these
years mar(ed an especially brilliant moment in the history of blac(s in America. In particular,
the second half of the decade witnessed an outpouring of publications by African Americans
that was unprecedented in its variety and scope, so that it clearly 4ualifies as a moment of
renaissance, as such moments of unusually fertile cultural activity are often called. In poetry,
fiction, drama, and the essay, as in music, dance, painting and sculpture, African Americans
wor(ed not only with a new sense of confidence and purpose but also with a sense of
achievement never before e,perienced by so many blac( artists in the long, troubled history
of the peoples of African descent in <orth America.
Although the term 3arle! %enaissance is convenient and defensible, it is important to
remember that what too( place in <ew =or( !ity was in many respects a heightened version
of the unusual cultural productivity ta(ing place elsewhere in the United States, especially in
the ma)or cities of the <orth. In addition, it is also important not to draw artificial lines
between DseriousF and DpopularF art, although many of the renaissance creators certainly did
so. ,pressed in various ways, the creativity of blac( Americans undoubtedly came from a
common source the irresistible impulse of blac(s to create boldly e,pressive art of a high
4uality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and
humanity in the face of poverty and racism. 'hat happened in the United States should also
be lin(ed to certain trends abroad. 3y the late #@B.s, African and !aribbean students in /aris
and progressive young intellectuals and artists in the 'est Indies were reading the wor( of
blac( Americans as well as their own thin(ers and creators and were ta(ing the first tentative
steps toward, in one instance, the <egritude movement, and in another, the flowering of
literature in the 3ritish 'est Indies, perhaps best e,emplified later in the century by the
poetry and plays of 9ere( 'alcott. <egritude was a movement, mainly among Arench"
spea(ing blac( writers, that emphasi:ed a distinctly African aesthetic.
<onetheless, 1arlem and <ew =or( were crucial to the movement in the United States. The
history of the publication of boo(s of poetry and novels, as well as the production of plays,
attests to the fact that something new and significant was ta(ing place.

Migration North
The cause or causes of a cultural renaissance are almost always difficult to trace precisely.
1owever, <ew =or( !ity had become a magnet, perhaps the most powerful, for the
thousands of blac(s fleeing the South in the aftermath of the entrenchment of segregation
Aor e,ample, when 1arper O 3rothers brought out !ountee !ullen*s first boo( of verse, Color, in #@B& in <ew
=or( !ity, it was apparently the first boo( of poetry written by an African American to be published by a ma)or
American house since 9odd, Gead offered /aul Eaurence 9unbar*s boo(s at the turn of the century 5in #@BB,
1arcourt, 3race had published !laude GcLay*s 3arle! Shadows, but GcLay was born in 0amaica8. In the same
way, 0ean Toomer*s Cane was apparently the first boo( of fiction 5sometimes called a novel, the wor( also
contains poems and drama8 by an American of African descent to appear from a <ew =or( publisher since
9oubleday, /age announced the appearance of !harles !hesnutt*s The Colonel/s 1rea! in #@.&. !ertainly a
new day had arrived for the blac( American writer in the #@B.s in <ew =or( !ity.
following the end of the 2econstruction era, which itself followed the !ivil 'ar and the
segregationist rulings of the U. S. Supreme !ourt, notably the landmar( case &less+ vs-
erguson in #$@%, which endorsed separation in transportation. As legal segregation made
living conditions for blac(s in the South more and more intolerable, the widespread lynching
of blac(s bitterly underscored the e,tent to which they were powerless before the law and less
than human in the eyes of many whites. Gigration to the <orth increasingly seemed an
absolute necessity for blac(s see(ing a better life for themselves and their children. In
addition, swift industrial e,pansion in the <orth created a demand for labor that made many
employers eager to recruit and hire blac( wor(ers. This demand intensified when the United
States entered 'orld 'ar I 5#@#C"#$8 in #@#- and )obs previously held by white males,
themselves now serving in the armed forces, became available to newcomers from the South.
'hile blac(s settled in several northern cities, including !hicago, /hiladelphia, and
!leveland, <ew =or( !ity was the destination of choice. /erhaps some migrants were
enthralled by living in the largest, most cosmopolitan, and most renowned of American cities.
Gore substantially, the district of 1arlem had an additional attraction. 3uilt originally to
house middle"class and upper"middle"class whites, 1arlem became available to blac(s when
it seemed clear that the area was seriously overbuiltH facing economic hardship, real estate
interests among both races in effect conspired to brea( the e,clusionary practices that had
hitherto (ept blac(s out. <ewcomers found grand avenues, broad sidewal(s, and finely
constructed houses that afforded blac(s the chance to live in housing stoc( far superior in
4uality to anything available to them elsewhere in the United States. 1arlem became home to
all classes of blac(s, including the leading writers and artists. As the national interest in
African American culture grew, encouraged by a variety of factors, such as the growing
popularity of )a::, blues, and dance, 1arlem seemed well on its way to becoming, as the
prominent writer and civil rights leader 0ames 'eldon 0ones put it, Dthe <egro capital of the
1arlem and <ew =or( 4uic(ly became the head4uarters of many of the most important
African American cultural and political national organi:ations, including the <ational
Association for the Advancement of !olored /eople 5<AA!/8, the <ational Urban Eeague,
and Garcus 6arvey*s Universal <egro Improvement Association. Also important was the
effort of socialist groups to recruit blac(s. !ertain maga:ines and newspapers, based in
1arlem, wor(ed hard to stimulate a cultural wa(ening or renaissance. Of these, the most
important was almost certainly the Crisis, edited by the brilliant scholar and propagandist '.
. 3. 9u 3ois for the <AA!/H "pportunit+, edited by the urbane and cultural entrepreneur
!harles S. 0ohnson for the <ational Urban EeagueH the 'essenger, edited by the socialist A.
/hilip 2andolph and !handler OwenH and Garcus 6arvey*s Negro 2orld. Although the
'essenger was proud of its radical leftist goals, there was little difference between the (inds
of literature published in these )ournals. ach was dedicated to social and political progress
and uplift for blac( Americans and to the development of literary and artistic traditions of
which the typical readers might be proud. 9u 3ois and the Crisis too( the lead in calling for a
cultural renaissance among blac(s that would prove the genius of blac( America to the greater
world, and especially to white Americans, who presumably would be moved to treat blac(s
with greater )ustice and compassion. Indeed, between #@#@ and #@B% the Crisis employed a
literary editor, 0essie Aauset, a graduate of !ornell University who not only published four
novels stating with There Is Confusion 5#@BC8 but also discovered and nurtured several
younger writers.
The New 2riters
The first glimmering of the new day in literature probably came not with the wor( of a blac(
writer but with that of a white Three &la+s for a Negro Theatre, by 2idgely Torrence. 0ames
'eldon 0ohnson called the premiere of these plays in #@#- Dthe most important single event
in the entire history of the <egro in the American theatre.F Overturning the tradition of
depicting blac(s in stereotypical minstrel forms, Torrence*s plays featured blac( actors
representing comple, human emotions and yearningsH in this sense they anticipated not only
plays of the #@B.s about blac(s such as The E!peror 4ones 5#@B.8 and All God/s Chillun Got
2ings 5#@B&8 by the celebrated dramatist ugene O*<eill but also the wor( of African
American playwrights, poets, and fiction writers brea(ing with traditions that diminished and
often insulted blac( humanity. Another landmar( came in #@#@, a year mar(ed by several
anti"blac( riots nationally, with the publication of the 0amaican"born poet !laude GcLay*s
militant poem If 2e 'ust 1ie-
Although the poem never alludes to race, to blac( readers it
If we must die, let it not be li(e hogs
1unted and penned in an inglorious spot,
'hile round us bar( the mad and hungry dogs,
Ga(ing their moc( at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vainH then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though deadP
O (insmenP 'e must meet the common foeP
Though far out numbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblowP
'hat though before us lies the open graveK
sounded a note of defiance against racism and racist violence unheard in blac( literature in
many years. Then, in #@B#, the musical review Shuffling Along, written and performed by
blac(s, brought to the stage novel styles of song, dance, and comedy that captivated blac(s
and whites ali(e and underscored the emergence of a new generation of blac( artistry.
In #@BB, 0ames 'eldon 0ohnson*s anthology of verse, $ook of A!erican Negro &oetr+,
emphasi:ed the youthful promise of the new writers and established some of the terms of the
emerging movement. In his preface, 0ohnson attac(ed dialect verse, which had dominated
blac( poetry until recently, and wrote of the need for the new blac( writers to find Da form of
e,pressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor
and pathosF of African Americans that could nevertheless also give voice to Dthe deepest and
highest emotions and aspirationsF and the widest range of sub)ects and the widest scope of
D'hat the colored poet of the United States needs to do,F 0ohnson wrote, Dis something li(e
what Synge did for the Irish.F Thus 0ohnson sought to lin( what was happening among blac(s
in the United States to the Irish 2enaissance that had produced such internationally renowned
figures as the poet 'illiam 3utler =eats and the playwright 0ohn Gillington Synge. In
alluding to Dthe racial spiritF he was identifying a counterpart to the so"called !eltic or Irish
muse that was seen as 4uite distinct from the nglish literary imagination. In calling for a
form Dfreer and larger than dialect,F he challenged blac( writers to disentangle themselves
from the stereotypes that had reached their highest forms of art in the poetry of the African
American writer /aul Eaurence 9unbar, who had died in #@.%. Above all, 0ohnson set the
manipulation of language and other patterns of signification, not the overt assertion of
political ideals, as the heart of the African American poetic enterprise. And he did so while
reminding the young blac( writers, through his anthology, that they were also heirs to their
own tradition the tradition of African American literature from /hillis 'heatley in the
eighteenth century down to his own wor( on which they could draw with a measure of
confidence as they moved into the future.
In 0ohnson*s anthology and in 2obert Lerlin*s Negro &oets and Their &oe!s 5#@B?8 appeared
the early wor( of many of the writers who would dominate the movement, including !ountee
!ullen and Eangston 1ughes. 'ith very few e,ceptions, none of the younger writes of the
movement saw himself or herself as part of the radical modernist strain of literature set in
Ei(e men we*ll face the murderous, cowardly pac(,
/ressed to the wall, dying, but fighting bac(P
motion in America mainly through the efforts of poets such as :ra /ound, T. S. liot, 1. 9.,
and 'allace Stevens or by the Irish writer 0ames 0oyce, whose novel 0l+sses appeared in
#@B?. Such crucial te,ts of radical modernism as a learned allusiveness and a necessary
comple,ity of e,pression that demands an e,clusive literary audience attracted few African
American writers. Ei(e most white poets of the age, most blac( poets were enthralled by
traditional forms of verse as established by the ma)or 3ritish and American 2omantic poets
and their admirers. Godernist verse that resembles the wor( of /ound, for e,ample, would not
appear until much later, and then on a highly restricted scale. Among ma)or American
2omantic poets after 'hitman, only . A. 2obinson and !arl Sandburg would e,ert any
particular degree of influence on the 1arlem 2enaissance. In part, this distance was owing, no
doubt, to some inattentiveness on the part of the younger writersH in part, however, these
writers were after a different business altogether. Gost could not be completely ta(en, for
e,ample, by T. S. liot*s epochal figuring of the entire modern world as a D'aste Eand.F Aor
many of them, the #@B.s was a decade of unrivaled optimism, and all through the generations
of slavery and neo"slavery, blac( American culture had of necessity emphasi:ed the power of
endurance and survival, of love and laughter, as the only efficacious response to the painful
circumstances surrounding their lives.
ven more important than 0ohnson*s anthology as a te,t helping to define the emerging spirit
of the movement was another anthology, albeit one of a far more varied sort+ The New Negro
5#@B&8, edited by the 1oward University professor Alain Eoc(e. Eoc(e*s anthology combined
essays, stories, poems, and artwor( by older as well as younger writers, white as well as
blac(, into a boo( that defined with incomparable clarity and flair the spirit of the 1arlem
2enaissance. Gerging racial awareness with a desire for literary and artistic e,cellence, the
te,t e,uded a sense of confidence in the blac( world emerging from generations of repression
in the United States, and in the spirit of 0ohnson*s challenge, it conceived of blac( America as
lin(ed not only to other African"based cultural movements around the world but also to other
movements, such as the Irish or !:ech, that fused ethnic pride or nationalism with a desire for
a fresh achievement and independence in art, culture, and politics.
3etween the appearance of 0ohnson*s anthology and Eoc(e*s, the publication of 0ean
Toomer*s Cane independently illustrated several of the peculiar challenges and opportunities
of the nascent movement. Opening with brief but hauntingly evocative portraits of the blac(
South, then moving to a powerful rendition of blac(s in northern cities, before returning to the
South with a shrouded drama about a blac( northerner of troubled, fatalistic consciousness
terrori:ed by the threat of violence at the hands of whites, Cane is a te,t that few of the young
writers could resist. Technically, the wor( embraced certain principles of modernism and
even the avant"garde and yet is saturated with African American racial feeling offered now
nostalgically, now militantly, but always in highly affecting language. >uite apart from the
fiction in the boo(, the poems included almost casually in the volume were of a 4uality to
challenge the best of the young 1arlem writers, who read !ane and saw Toomer as an
authentic star.
!ertainly the first important young writers birthed by the movement accepted Toomer and his
implicit challenge to them as an artist in this fashion. These writers were !ullen, who had
grown up in the city, and 1ughes, who had spent most of his youth in Lansas but had come to
!olumbia University as a student in #@B#, ostensibly to be a student there but really, he later
insisted, to be in 1arlem. !ullen*s Color 5#@B&8 revealed an often da::ling lyrical facility that
admitted racial feeling while preserving its author*s commitment to conservative poetic forms
born of his passion for nglish 2omantic writers such as Leats and Shelley. 1ughes, starting
with his collection The 2ear+ $lues 5#@B%8, sometimes matched !ullen*s lyrical intensity but
opened up a new front by advertising his worship of the blues and )a::, musical forms seldom
seen as compatible with formal poetry but that 1ughes accepted as perhaps the most authentic
and moving e,pression in art of African American cultural feeling. The #@B.s, it should be
remembered, saw the rise of surpassingly accomplished musicians such as 3essie Smith,
Eouis Armstrong, and 9u(e llington, whose artistry had a greater influence on the nation as
a whole than the wor( of any of the renaissance writers.
In addition to the timely and definitive appearance of Eoc(e*s The New Negro, a series of
literary contests and dinners sponsored notably by "pportunit+ maga:ine but also by the
Crisis and deliberately including some of the leading white writers, editors, and publishers
of the day helped to set the stage for the high phase of the movement in the second half of
the decade. 3y the end of #@B&, many of the ma)or young artists identified their careers with
the fate of the movement. The poet and novelist Arna 3ontemps arrived from Eos Angeles, as
did the editor, novelist and critic 'allace ThurmanH from 'ashington, 9.!., came the
Alorida"born Qora <eale 1urston, whose novel Their E+es 2ere 2atching God 5#@?-8,
although published after the end of the movement, should nevertheless be seen among its
greatest achievementsH the fiction writer 2udolph Aischer, by training a physician, also saw
himself as a serious writerH the artist and poet 6wendolyn 3ennett came from Te,as, drawn
by the palpable sense of e,citement in 1arlem. A little later, from <ew ngland, came the
poet 1elene 0ohnson and her cousin 9orothy 'est, notable as a writer of fiction and as an
editor. These were only some of the young artists drawn to 1arlem by the renaissance there.
&atrons and riends
The deliberate courting and inclusion of leading whites in the 1arlem 2enaissance have led to
4uestions, at times acrimonious, about the role of patronage that is, white patronage in the
movement and even about the authenticity of the movement as an e,pression of African
American culture if the renaissance depended so heavily on goodwill of whites. The truth
probably is that such involvement was important and even necessary to the movement, so
deep was the historic chasm in the United States between the races because of segregation and
racist beliefsH if boo(s by blac(s were to be published, something more than simple merit
would have to be involved. In particular, !harles S. 0ohnson of "pportunit+ and the <ational
Urban Eeague, seeing nothing but benefits in an association between blac(s and whites,
wor(ed assiduously and ingeniously to stimulate such contacts.
/erhaps the two leading white figures associated with the 1arlem 2enaissance were !arl 7an
7echten and !harlotte Osgood Gason. 7an 7echten*s interracial parties bro(e new ground
on the <ew =or( social scene, but he also used his influence as a fashionable novelist and
critic to help launch certain careers, notably that of Eangston 1ughes. 5!ountee !ullen and a
few other writers, however, were decidedly wary of 7an 7echten*s help.8 7an 7echten*s
novel of 1arlem life, Nigger 3eaven 5#@B%8, became a best"seller, although many blac(s were
utterly alienated by the title. Through the dispensing of sums of money, Gason, an elderly
woman of volatile temperament and sometimes arresting ideas, supported a number of blac(
artists in this period, including 1urston, 1ughes, and Eoc(eH unli(e 7an 7echten, however,
she did not hesitate to sub)ect her beneficiaries to her powerful notions concerning
parapsychology, the matchless force of fol( culture, and the dangers of Dcivili:ation.F In
addition to 7an 7echten and mason, publishers and editors at houses such as LnopfH
GacmillanH 1arcourt, 3raceH GacaulayH and 1arper played a 4uieter but no less effective role
in lowering the barriers between blac( writers and the ma)or means of publication in the
United States. The blac( writers eagerly sei:ed these opportunities.
E!erging Conflicts
Among the blac( writers themselves certain significant tensions became more serious as the
movement grew. One such tension was occupational, in the sense that the writers and artists
lived with the uneasy (nowledge that their world was in crucial ways distinct from that of the
masses of blac(s, almost all of whom, as Eangston 1ughes once wryly observed, did not
(now that the 1arlem renaissance was going on. Another tension was generational the
growing antagonism between many of the older writers and editors and the younger set.
0ames 'eldon 0ohnson, among others of the old guard, had little difficulty with the new
writersH his collection of prose pieces based on the blac( sermon, God/s Tro!)ones 5#@B-8
showed that he was still capable of innovative flights of creativity. 1owever, the most
powerful voice of the old guard, that of '. . 3. 9u 3ois, was less conciliatory. Increasingly
disturbed by the apparent DimmoralityF of some of the new wor(s, as well as by their lac( of
political seriousness, 9u 3ois organi:ed in the Crisis a symposium, The Negro in Art, which
appeared over several issues in #@B%. vidently dissatisfied with many of the responses, he
openly critici:ed several of the new wor(s. 1e was especially hard on !laude GcLay*s #@B$
novel 3o!e to 3arle!, which 9u 3ois lin(ed caustically with van 7echten*s Nigger 3eaven,
previously dismissed in the Crisis as Dan affront to the hospitality of blac( fol( and to the
intelligence of white.F
To most of the younger artists, including Thurman, 1ughes, 1urston, and even the relatively
conservative !ullen, the essence of the renaissance was freedom freedom for them to create
as they saw fit, without regard to politics. 'hat freedom meant practically was another
matter. 1ughes e,pressed his freedom by insisting on racial commitment on the part of the
blac( artistH !ullen e,pressed his own by ab)uring )a:: and blues verse in favor of
conservative forms. In his landmar( #@B% essay The Negro Artist and the %acial 'ountain,
1ughes insisted that the blac( artist must recogni:e that his or her lin( to Africa was a
precious resourceH !ullen preferred to suggest instead, as in his long poem 3eritage 5#@B&8,
that Africa was a source of confusion and ambivalence. 3oth, however, sought freedom from
the political constraints that an older generation considered an essential part of the duty of the
blac( artist. In #@B%, many of the younger artists banded together to produce a new maga:ine,
ire55, which promised Dto burn up a lot of old, dead conventional <egro"white ideas of the
past.F Unfortunately, the maga:ine, wea(ly supported by the public and, indeed, by the artists
themselves, lasted only one number.
1ra!a, &oetr+, iction
Gany of the younger writers were interested in the theater, but few made it a priority during
the most important years of the 1arlem 2enaissance. The success of Shuffle Along in #@B# led
to a vogue of such reviews and to many imitations of this compendium of song, dance, and
humor. 1owever, blac( involvement in more orthodo, drama as part of the renaissance was
far more restricted, and less attended by even provisional successes. Throughout the #@B.s,
the best"(nown dramas of blac( life were undoubtedly written by white artists such as ugene
O*<eill and /aul 6reen of <orth !arolina. The outstanding blac( talent was probably 'illis
2ichardson, whose best"(nown play was The Chip 2o!an/s ortune 5#@B?8, the first serious
play by an African American to be staged on 3roadway. 2ichardson was, however, a resident
of 'ashington, 9.!., where he had been moved to write plays after seeing, in #@#%, Angelina
'eld 6rim(J*s highly controversial %achel, about racial persecution and its psychological
effects. This controversy, about propaganda versus art, stimulated the theatre in 'ashington
but produced few new plays of 4uality.
In #@B%, responding to this dearth of serious drama in <ew =or( involving blac(s, 9u 3ois
established the Lrigwa Eittle Theatre movement. 1e asserted four basic principles+ DThe plays
of a real <egro theatre must be+ #. A)out us. That is, they must have plots which reveal <egro
life as it is. B. $+ us. That is, they must be written by <egro authors who understand from
birth and continuous association )ust what it means to be a <egro today.F The other principles
called for the theater to be Dor usF catering mainly to blac( audiences, and DNear usF
that is, in a blac( neighborhood Dnear the masses of ordinary <egro people.F The first two
Lrigwa productions, Co!pro!ise and The $roken $an*o, were by 'illis 2ichardson, and
Lrigwa failed to inspire any important young <ew =or( playwrights. In the #@?.s, Eangston
1ughes would emphasi:e drama with some success in his career, and his play about the South
and miscegenation, 'ulatto 5#@?&8, would have the longest run of any play by an African
American on 3roadway until Eorraine 1ansberry*s A %aisin in the Sun in the #@%.s.
<evertheless, drama was almost certainly one of the wea(est areas of achievement in the
1arlem 2enaissance.
Around #@B$, the emphasis among the writers of the renaissance seemed to shift decisively
away from poetry toward fiction. /oets such as !ullen, 1ughes, 3ontemps and others
continued to publish in maga:ines, but far fewer boo(s of verse appearedH perhaps the only
notable event of this sort was the appearance of Sterling 3rown*s fol("inflected Southern
%oad in #@?B. In #@B$ came 9u 3ois*s novel 1ark &rincess, which was in large part his
attempt to e,emplify the idealistic, politically engaged fiction he preferred. Gore authentic
that year to the mood of the age, however, were 2udolph Aisher*s 2alls of 4erichoH <ella
Earsen*s 6uicksand, about one woman*s chronic unhappiness with life and her descent into a
self"imposed, tawdry marriageH and !laude GcLay*s epochal 3o!e to 3arle!, which
celebrated the pleasures as well as the comple,ities of blac( urban life.
Still later in the renaissance came additional novels by GcLay, 0essie Aauset, and Thurman,
including the latter*s The $lacker the $err+ 5#@B@8, about s(in"color fi,ation within the blac(
community, a sub)ect also of interest to <ella Earsen, as in her &assing 5#@B@8. In #@?. came
Eangston 1ughes*s Not 2ithout Laughter, about a young boy growing up in the Gidwest.
Arna 3ontemps turned from poetry to write his first novel, God Sends Sunda+ 5#@?#8, based
on the life of a beloved, fun"loving uncle whose approach to living contrasted with the
strictness of 3ontemps*s Seventh 9ay Adventist 2eligion. Also in #@?#, the satirist 6eorge
Schuyler, whose essay in the Nation in #@B%, The Negro Art 3oku!, ridiculing African
American race consciousness, had provo(ed 1ughes*s Negro Artist and the %acial 'ountain
there, published the satirical novel $lack No 'ore- Satire was prominent again in 'allace
Thurman*s novel Infants of the Spring 5#@?B8, in which several of the ma)or figures of the
renaissance are easily recogni:able under their thin disguises, as Thurman lampooned many
of the e,cesses and posturings of the 1arlem 2enaissance.
The Great 1epression and the 1ecline of the 3arle! %enaissance
Although it is convenient and even accurate to include 1urston*s lyrical #@?- novel about one
woman*s growth into mature self"confidence and self"fulfillment, Their E+es 2ere 2atching
God, within the boundaries of the movement, it is also clear that by that year the movement
was absolutely finished, although the talent of many of its writers was hardly e,hausted. The
1arlem 2enaissance had been dependent in large part on a special prosperity in the publishing
industry, the theater, and the art world. The crash of 'all Street in #@B@ was the beginning of
the end for the movement, which swiftly declined as the country lurched toward the 6reat
9epression in the early #@?.s. !onditions for blac(s in <ew =or( !ity, and especially for
blac(s in 1arlem, ma(e a moc(ery of the heady enthusiasms that had led to the
characteri:ation of the #@B.s as the 0a:: Age, an era of rec(less fun. Unemployment and the
rise of crime 5although the latter was mild compared with conditions a half"century later8
damaged the image and the reality of 1arlem as an artistic and cultural paradise. A civic
e,plosion, often called the 1arlem 2iot of #@?&, underscored the radically altered nature of
the district and the lives of the people there.
The renaissance was over, to be revived in significantly different forms at later points in
African American history. 'hat did it achieveK Some critics, s(eptical of the role of
patronage and insistent on more militant and radical political approaches, have suggested that
the cultural movement achieved little. Such a view may be short sighted, however. The art of
the 1arlem 2enaissance in poetry, fiction, drama, music, painting, and sculpture
represents a prodigious achievement for a people hardly more than a half"century removed
from slavery and enmeshed in the chains of a dehumani:ing segregation. In this movement,
blac( American artists too( stoc( of the lives and destinies of their people against the
bac(drop not only of the United States but also of the world. A sense of the modern
overhangs the period, although the African American approach to the modern insofar as one
can spea( of a single, collective African American approach would be in many ways 4uite
distinct from the pessimism and even despair of uropean attitudes to the same 4uestion.
In this period, blac( American artists laid the foundations for the representation of their
people in the modern world, with a comple,ity and a self"(nowledge that have proven durable
even as the African American condition changed considerably with the unfolding of the
twentieth century. The term renaissance is entirely appropriate, for in that decade or so a loose
but united gathering of blac( artists, located most significantly in 1arlem, rediscovered the
ancient confidence and sense of destiny of their African ancestors and created a body of art on
which future writers and musicians and artists might build and in which the masses of blac(s
could see their own faces and features accurately and lovingly reflected.
I( )n *eing a +an #i$!ard ,rig!t- #al.! /llison- and 0ames *ald1in
Arom the moment he first stepped ashore off the first slave ship, the African American male
has sought to demonstrate both his manhood and his individual identity. It was not easy then,
or is it today, for an African American male to be a DmanF in his country of birth. This is
especially true if he is poor as well as blac(. <evertheless, African American men have never
given up on the ideal that, if given the opportunity, they can ma(e a valuable contribution to
the social and economic well being of America. In their writing, African American male
writers e,press their )oy, sorrow, pain, love, and hate. 9r. Gartin Euther Ling, 0r., e,pressed
the essence of being a man when he said+ DA man who won*t die for something is not fit to
live.F Throughout history, men Ling among them have died for their beliefs. 'hat
follows is an introduction to the wor( of three outstanding African American novelists+
2ichard 'right, 2alph llison, and 0ames 3aldwin, whose approaches to the comple,ities of
being a blac( male in white America only add to the unity in diversity that characteri:es
African American literature within the larger conte,t of American literature.
I(. 1 #I2"3#4 ,#IG"T (1%08&1%60)
In his essay DThe Eiterature of the <egro in the United States,F 2ichard 'right ma(es a
comment that clearly e,emplifies his own life and illuminates the progression of his physical
movements as well as the development of his intellect+ DAor the development of <egro
e,pression as well as the whole of <egro life in America hovers always somewhere
between the rise of man from his ancient, rural way of life, to the comple,, industrial life of
our time.F 3orn on C September #@.$ in an impoverished rural environment in <atche:,
Gississippi, 'right developed from an uneducated, lonely southerner to become one of the
most cosmopolitan, !ontinental, well"read, and politically active writers in American literary
history. /oet, novelist, essayist, )ournalist, playwright, !ommunist, agnostic, and
e,istentialist, he is now well (nown as the father of African American literature.
This recognition comes in response to the diversity of his talents, but primarily because his
courage and honesty in challenging the literary stereotypes attributed to African American
letters changed the entire course of African American fiction. In 'right*s essay D3lueprint for
<egro 'riting,F originally published in New Challenge in #@?-, he outlines his criteria for the
role of African American literature and the responsibility of the blac( artist. 1e says that
blac( America failed to offer the blac( writer serious criticism because it was astonished that
a blac( person could write at all. Thus white America had no interest in the role African
American writing could play in shaping American culture. 1e adds, DAt best, <egro writing
has been something e,ternal to the lives of educated <egroes themselves. That the
productions of their M<egroN writers should have been something of a guide in their daily
living is a matter which seems never to have been raised seriously.F The publication of Native
Son on # Garch #@C. demanded that white America loo( at African American fiction more
seriously than it had previously done since the publication of the first blac( novel by 'illiam
'ells 3rown in #$&?. The fact that 1arper O 3rothers sold B..,... copies of Native Son in
thirty days was a sign of the indefatigable interest white America would have in 'right*s
wor(s in the years to come. On the surface, the central issue of 'right*s oeuvre is the
relationship between blac(s and whites. =et a deeper reading goes beyond this sensationali:ed
approach and e,plains why 'right*s wor(s have become essential representations of the
American literary canon.
7oluminous studies treat the influence of Gar,ist ideology and e,istential philosophy on
'right*s fiction and fail to detect those 4ualities in his art which ma(e it peculiarly American
and human. Arom his home environment to his e,periences in Gemphis, !hicago, <ew =or(,
and /aris, 'right*s position as an outsider instilled in him the ability and courage to analy:e
human behavior ob)ectively and perspicaciously. This is reflected in a scene that 'right
relates in A!erican 3unger 5#@--8, the second volume of his autobiography, concerning his
ultimate brea( with the !ommunist party. 'right was feared by the party insofar as he was
unable to submit emotionally and intellectually to its demands. A!erican 3unger ends with a
description of how the !ommunists forcibly e)ected 'right from their ran(s at a Gay 9ay
parade. This painful and humiliating incident forced him to survey his past and to accept that
the road to self"affirmation is lonely and arduous. The scene capsuli:es 'right*s
understanding of human nature and his motive for writing.
=es, the whites were as miserable as their blac( victims, I thought. If this country
can*t find its way to a human path, if it can*t inform conduct with a deep sense of life,
then all of us, blac( as well as white, are going down the same drainR
I pic(ed up a pencil and held it over a sheet of white paper, but my feeling stood in
the way of my words. 'ell, I would wait, day and night, until I (new what to say.
1umbly now, with no vaulting dream of achieving a vast unity, I wanted to try to build
a bridge of words between me and that world outside, that world which was so distant
and elusive that it seemed unreal.
I would hurl words into this dar(ness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded,
no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a
sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to (eep alive in our hearts a sense of
the ine,pressibly human.
'ith the publication of Native Son in #@C. 'right was suddenly famous. 3ecause it
addresses the psychological, political, and economic issues of racism so boldly, this powerful
novel has been both praised and critici:ed. At the same time that it is the best"(nown novel in
the African American canon, a fair number of critics have asserted that it is flawed because of
its heavy sociological emphasis. 3ut such a view is possible only if one fails to appreciate the
way in which 'right perfectly balances his creative vision and political commitment.
Native Son reflects the diversity of 'right*s reading in sociology, psychology, history, and
literature. It also serves as a model for the literary credo he had earlier outlined in D3lueprint
for <egro 'riting,F where he discussed the interrelationship between literature and politics.
Gost of 'right*s students and critics focus on the 3lac( <ationalist theme and his Gar,ist
ideology in D3lueprintF and ignore the important emphasis he gives to craft and form. 'hile
Native Son reflects the influence of 9ostoevs(y and Theodore 9reiser and e,plores the
destructive effect of racism on human consciousness 5both blac( and white8, its artistic beauty
attests to the value 'right placed on craftsmanship from the very beginning of his career.
'hile addressing social and political issues, 'right displays (een insight into the
interrelationship between art and reality.
The relationship between reality and the artistic image is not always direct and
simple. The imaginative conception of a historical period will not be a carbon copy of
reality. Image and emotion possess a logic of their own. A vulgari:ed simplicity
constitutes the greatest danger in tracing the reciprocal interplay between the writer
and his environment.
'riting has its professional autonomyH it should complement other professions, but
it should not supplant them or be swamped by them. 5p. C$8
'right understood that powerful art was something more than a sociological, historical
document. 1e intended Native Son and the rest of his creative wor(s to be something more
than carbon copies of the interaction between blac(s and whites. 'right saw the writer as a
man in the world, involved in the affairs of that world. Simultaneously, though, the writer
must maintain a commitment to his own aesthetic responses.
In the novel, the aspects of language characteri:ation, setting, structure, imagery, symbol,
and point of view all form an intricately woven net of linguistic threads that ma(e manifest
3igger Thomas*s consciousness. 9ivided into three parts, each charting the changes in
3igger*s mind, the novel begins with a description of his home environment. 1is family*s
one"room apartment with rat"infested (itchenette contrasts sharply with the well"manicured
lawn and plush environment of the 9altons, the rich white family for whom 3igger wor(s as
chauffeur. Gr. And Grs. 9alton are philanthropistsH their daughter, Gary, rebels against their
upper"middle"class standards by dating 0an, a !ommunist. Totally unaware how racism has
shaped their consciousness and 3igger*s, 0an and Gary invite him to eat with them in a South
Side restaurant, where they purchase rum. After 3igger drops 0an off to catch the train, Gary
continues to drin( and is far too drun( to wal( when 3igger gets her home. Afraid of losing
the most comfortable )ob he has ever had and thin(ing 4uite irrationally, 3igger carries Gary
upstairs to her bedroom. 1e is overcome with fren:y and fear when Gary*s blind mother
enters the room. To prevent Gary from ma(ing a sound, he presses a pillow over her face,
suffocating her.
3ecause he (nows that the white world will say that he raped her and will never accept that
her death was an accident, he decapitates Gary so that he can get her body into the furnace
and burn it. 'hen he goes home to sleep, rest, and thin( about his actions, he begins to see his
family from a new perspective. 1e reali:es that they have left life defeat them and are blind to
the role they play in the defeat. 'hen he goes bac( to the 9alton home, the family*s 4uestions
show that the whites are also blind. So he responds to their 4uestions, giving them answers
that will convince them Gary too( the train to 9etroit. Aeeling in control of his life for the
first time, he decides to challenge the 9altons, and thus white society, by writing a ransom
note. This decision is significant in 'right*s characteri:ation of his hero, for 3igger at this
point is not (nown to be implicated in Gary*s death and could have escaped. 3ut this is not
the novel 'right chose to write. 3igger does not as( for money because he wants to get rich
or to use it to get awayH he does so to test his power.
2eali:ing that the 9altons are blind to his humanity, 3igger is able to use their wea(ness to
manipulate their thoughts. 1is fear of whites, however, which was responsible for Gary*s
death, also accounts for the mista(es he ma(es that precipitates the discovery of Gary*s bones
and his identification as the (iller. 3ecause he is afraid to clean the furnace in the presence of
the white reporters who lur( about the basement, he permits the ashes to bac( up and the
house to get cool. /eggy, the house(eeper, then tells him to clean the furnace, and he has no
choice but to obey the command given by a white woman. <ot to do so would draw attention
to the rebelliousness that he has masterfully managed to conceal. 1e is so afraid to remove the
ashes in the presence of the white reporters that he performs the )ob 4uite badly, causing such
a mess that smo(e fills the basement. A reporter ta(es the shovel from 3igger. 'hen the
reporters find an earring in the ashes, they e,amine them more carefully and discover pieces
of Gary*s bones. 3igger )umps out a window and runs until he is captured.
1aving spent his entire life up to this point hiding behind a wall of sullenness, 3igger is
forced now to fight in an emotional arena. The 4uestions that Ga,, the lawyer the !ommunist
party appoints to defend him, as(s 3igger about himself, coupled with the long ordeal of the
trial, incite in him the need to reach out to ma(e a connection between himself and another
human being for the first time in his life. 1e had reali:ed soon after Gary*s death that the
whites and the blac(s around him are blind, but at first he is unable to ac(nowledge his own
blindness. Thin(ing initially that the lawyer will understand him, 3igger attempts to e,plain
to Ga, the meaning of his life and his revelation. 9espite Ga,*s elo4uent speech, in which he
asserts that 3igger*s causing Gary*s death was an act of creation, Ga, is unable to accept the
reality of 3igger*s life when 3igger says, DRwhat I (illed for, I a!P It must*ve been pretty
deep in me to ma(e me LillP I must have felt it awful hard to murder.F Ei(e numerous critics
of the novel, Ga, is unable to identify with 3igger*s acceptance of violence. The sullen,
fearful, and violent 3igger is transformed from innocence to e,perience, and from ignorance
to (nowledge. 1e comes to reali:e that blac(s li(e himself must ta(e control of their own
lives, regardless of the price. /erhaps the most important passage in the novel is the one in
which 3igger demonstrates his spiritual growth by e,plaining his connection to the rest of
Gr. Ga,, I sort of saw myself after that night. And I sort of saw other people, tooR
'ell, it*s sort of funny, Gr. Ga,. I ain*t trying to dodge what*s coming to meR. I
(now I*m going to get it. I*m going to die. 'ell, that*s all right now. 3ut really I never
wanted to hurt nobody. That*s the truthR. I hurt fol(s Icause I felt I had toH that*s all.
They were crowding me to closeH they wouldn*t give me no room. Eots of times I tried
to forget Iem, but I couldn*t. They wouldn*t let meR. Gr. Ga,, I didn*t mean to do
what I did. I was trying to do something else. 3ut it seems li(e I never could. I was
always wanting something and I was feeling that nobody would let me have it. So I
fought Iem. I thought they was hard and I acted hardR. 3ut I ain*t hard, Gr. Ga,. I
ain*t hard even a little bitR. 3ut I I won*t be crying none when they ta(e me to that
chair. 3ut I*ll b"b"be feeling inside of me li(e I was cryingR. I*ll be feeling and
thin(ing that they didn*t see me and I didn*t see them.
5paperbac( ed., p. ?$$8
1is spiritual growth complete, 3igger now sees that he has been as blind as the whites. 1e
understands that despite the entrapments of racism, blac(s and whites have a shared human
consciousness, and it is the blac( individual*s responsibility not to succumb to the
psychological pitfalls of racial oppression. 3y focusing on 3igger*s consciousness, 'right
encourages the reader to empathi:e with his character, an empathy that challenges the
denunciations of both blac(s and whites.
Ga,*s characteri:ation suggests that by the time of the publication of Native Son in #@C. the
seeds of 'right*s disillusionment with the !ommunist party had begun to sprout. The reader,
li(e 3igger, initially e,pects that Ga, is capable of understanding his client. 'hen he fails to
do so, we gradually come to understand that his impressive speech was totally aimed at saving
the image of the !ommunist party, which 3igger had implicated in Gary*s alleged
(idnapping. In A!erican 3unger, 'right ma(es a comment about his !ommunist comrades
that perfectly describes Ga, and his speech. 'hen 'right*s mother failed to grasp the
symbolism of a Dlurid Gay 9ayF cartoon in New 'asses, 'right became sharply aware of the
!ommunists* inability to reach the masses of blac( people. 1e thin(s of the role he could play
in rectifying this problem.
1ere, then, was something I could do, reveal say. The !ommunists, I felt, had
oversimplified the e,perience of those whom they sought to lead. In their efforts to
recruit masses, they missed the meaning of the lives of the masses, had conceived of
people in too abstract a mannerR. I would tell !ommunists how common people felt,
and I would tell common people of the self"sacrifice of !ommunists who strove for
unity among them.
5paperbac( ed., pp. %&"%%8
'right soon reali:ed that the !ommunists were not interested in how blac( people felt. 1e
was disli(ed by the party because he could not be intimidated and was determined to live his
life the way he thought it should be lived.
Three of the four essays in his final nonfiction wor(, 2hite 'an, Listen5, a collection of
lectures given in urope between #@&. and #@&%, capsuli:es what 'right had already said in
$lack &ower 5#@&C8 and The Color Curtain 5#@&%8. The new essay in this collection, DThe
Eiterature of the <egro in the United States,F written before his travels to Asia and Africa, is
important reading for any student or teacher of African American literary history. /resenting a
historical overview of African American literature from its beginning to the #@C.s, he
illustrates that literature is culture bound. 1e e,plains that writers such as Ale,ander /ush(in,
a blac( 2ussian, and Ale,ander 9umas, a blac( Arenchman, did not write about race because
they were integrated into the mainstreams of their culturesH they were at one with their
cultures. 3ecause she did not live a life characteristic of a slave, /hillis 'heatley did not
focus essentially on aspects of race. 1aving received the (ind of education given to white
girls, she felt integrated into the culture around her. In the nineteenth century, when the
harshness of slavery had begun to escalate, blac( writers such as 6eorge Goses 1orton and
0ames 'hitfield wrote out of a sense of the psychological distance between them and the land
in which they lived.
Tracing this tendency of blac(s to depict themselves at odds with the environment in which
they lived to writers such as /aul Eaurence 9unbar, !laude GcLay, Gelvin 3. Tolson, and
Gargaret 'al(er, he concludes that De,pression springs out of environment, and events
modify what is written by molding consciousness.F Thus blac( literature will change, he adds,
when the political and sociological conditions for the blac( change.
The dominant characteristic of 'right*s wor(s his poetry, short stories, novels, travel
boo(s, sociopolitical treatises, and autobiographies is the power that forbids neutrality on
the part of any reader. 1is desire Dto (eep alive in our hearts a sense of the ine,pressibly
humanF demanded that he destroy the illusions and hypocrisy modern society has contrived to
conceal its debilitating moral corruption. 'hile still a young man in the #@?.s, 'right
reali:ed that the most prominent e,ample of modern society*s degradation lay in racial
oppression. The historical details he outlines in Twelve 'illion $lack (oices 5#@C#8 and his
characteri:ation of 3igger Thomas symbolically present the idea he states straightforwardly in
2hite 'an, Listen5 5#@&%8 appro,imately seventeen years later+ the concept that the history of
blac( people in America is the history of America. Through his e,periences in urope, Asia,
and Africa, he e,panded his vision to include the interconnections between the low 4uality of
life for people of color all over the world and the industrial, technological advancements of
the 'estern 1emisphere.
'right is the father of African American literature not only because his bold attac( on racism
gave the blac( writers who followed him the courage to e,press their visions truthfully, but
also because to date no one writer has surpassed him in the diversity of creative
accomplishments or in the ability to synthesi:e politics and art.
I(. 5 #367" /66IS)8 (1%1'&1%%')
One of the Denduring functions of the American novel,F 2alph llison wrote, Dis that of
defining the national type as it evolves in the turbulence of change, and of giving the
American e,perience, as it unfolds in its diverse parts and regions, imaginative integration
and moral continuity. Thus it is bound up with our problem of nationhood.F In Invisi)le 'an
5#@&B8, probably the most significant African American novel since 'orld 'ar II, llison
gives his readers a terrifying and yet vibrant national metaphor+ we are invisible.
In llison*s created world, as in American society, the 4uic( pace of change, the caprice, the
arrogance alongside the innocence, the newness and the general instability of institutions, and,
above all, the impulse to recoil from the awful demands of American democracy all (eep
Americans from seeing each other or even themselves. As llison notes, the comple,ity and
diversity of American life, along with the development of the novel as form, have brought
forth novels such as Invisi)le 'an7 D/icares4ue, many"leveledR swarming with characters
and with varied types and levels of e,perience.F Gore than a Dslice of life,F llison*s novel is
an attempt at no less than a new definition of the national character, a modern national epic.
Accordingly, the vision in llison*s Invisi)le 'an, and indeed throughout his fiction, is
ultimately affirmative. 7irtually all of his fiction ten stories before the novel, eleven after
features a blac( youngster stretching toward adulthood. 'e see in this wor( the evolution of a
central theme+ the more conscious one is of individual, cultural, and national history, the freer
he or she becomes. As a young writer, llison 4uic(ly became dissatisfied with the typical
naturalistic scenarios in which characters struggling to survive the merciless American
environment are eventually overcome by impersonal forces. To llison, this documentary
fiction was dull and failed to capture the richness and variety of American life as he (new it.
Influenced by a broad range of writers, including 9ostoevs(y, AndrJ Galrau,, and rnest
1emingway began to focus on the person who, by force of character and will, manages to
llison*s increasing maturity as a writer coincided with a gradual shift in his political
perspective. 9uring the late #@?.s he was an enthusiastic supporter of many !ommunist party
tenets, but by the mid"#@C.s he was publicly denouncing the party. 1e was first drawn to left"
wing politics by his mother*s involvement with the Socialist party in O(lahomaH by his own
e,perience of poverty, segregation, and hard timesH and by the impact of such events as the
Scottsboro and 1erndon cases and the civil war in Spain. AndrJ Galrau,*s political, critical,
and fiction writings also affected llison profoundly and further stirred in him the prospect of
participating in a concerted effort by revolutionary artists, intellectuals, and the people to
redeem a world torn by war and depression.
Arom #@?- to #@CC, llison wrote over twenty boo( reviews for such radical periodicals as
New Challenge, 1irection, and the Negro 6uarterl+H in #@C. the New 'asses printed at least
one piece by him every month. In the #@?.s, llison )oined the chorus of critics calling for
realism as the literary mode appropriate for the radical writer. Girroring the !ommunist party
position of the day, llison*s criticism often described blac( Americans as members of a state
or nation 5li(e a 2ussian soviet8 within the United States. The literature of blac( Americans
5the sub)ect of about half of his reviews of the #@?.s and #@C.s8 was, he believed, an
emerging national literature that should serve to heighten the revolutionary consciousness of
blac( people. The blac( writer should instill in his audience not merely Drace consciousnessF
but awareness of class. Ideally, the revolutionary blac( writer should inspire blac( wor(ing
people to unite with wor(ers of other DnationalitiesF against the bourgeoisie, white and blac(.
'hile the 6reat 9epression years brought tremendous difficulties, they were also, in llison*s
words, Dgreat times for literature,F times for Dthe conscious writerF to study his society*s laws
and to e,amine its* citi:ens* emotions Dstripped na(ed.F Aurthermore, the writer could
perceive the great American themes of tomorrow shining Dbeyond the present chaos.F The
blac( writer*s particular duty was to overcome the handicap of living in racist, capitalist
America and to teach his readers to do li(ewise. 1is greatest responsibility, said llison,
echoing 0ames 0oyce*s phrase, was Dto create the consciousness of his oppressed nation.F
Eater, in DAlying 1omeF 5#@CC8, DLing of the 3ingo 6ameF 5#@CC8, and Invisi)le 'an
5#@&B8, llison would present his own blac( protagonists threatened with li4uidation in
modern industrial society. 1is heroes* resiliency, memory, and luc(, however, help them to
DfuseF with Dnew elementsF in their environmentH they are reborn better able to deal with the
churning world of airplanes and factories. In #@C$, llison described the bemused protagonist
of Invisi)le 'an, which he was then writing, as Da character who possesses both the
elo4uence and the insight into the interconnections between his own personality and the world
about him to ma(e a )udgment about our culture.F llison*s early desire for conscious heroes
in American writing foreshadowed his eventual brea( with many of his literary and political
friends, including 'right.
3ut in his literary essays of the early #@C.s llison champions 'right as living testimony to
the shining possibilities within the blac( communities. Against all odds, 'right had made
himself into a highly conscious activist and writer. Aor llison, 'right*s early novellas,
published as 0ncle To!/s Children 5#@?$8, constituted his best fictionH their power came not
from overt Gar,ist or Lir(egaardian theori:ing but from the fol(lore"rich language itself.
And in the review D2ecent <egro AictionF 5#@C#8, llison held up Native Son as Dthe first
philosophical novel by an American <egro. This wor( possesses an artistry, penetration of
thought, and sheer emotional power that places it in the front ran( of American fiction.F
'right*s autobiography, $lack $o+ 5#@C&8 prompted llison to compare it with wor(s by
0oyce and 9ostoevs(y, and with the blues.
That llison was finding his own direction in writing is clear from his fiction of the #@C.s.
And in critical essays of the #@%.s he e,plains his early dissatisfaction with Native Son and
$lack $o+. 2ecogni:ing that 3igger Thomas in native Son represents blac( humanity
smoldering under the ashes of despair and white oppression, llison nevertheless cannot
accept 3igger as an ade4uate portrait of the African American. To him this character is little
more than an ideological formulation, a sociological mortar shell fired at the guilty conscience
of white America. 3lac(s themselves (new that life in the ghetto is not as dimensionless and
dull as 'right paints it. Native Son is too deterministic and anchored in Gar,ist ideology.
In Native Son 'right began with the ideological proposition that what whites thin( of
the <egro*s reality is more important than what <egroes themselves (now it to be.
1ence 3igger Thomas was presented as a near"subhuman indictment of white
oppression. 1e was designed to shoc( whites out of their apathy and end the
circumstances out of which 'right insisted 3igger emerged. 1ere environment is all
and interestingly enough, environment conceived solely in terms of the physical, the
non"conscious. 'ell, cut off my legs and call me ShortyP Lill my parents and throw
me on the mercy of the court as an orphanP 'right could imagine 3igger, but 3igger
could not possibly imagine 2ichard 'right. 'right saw to that.
5Shadow and Act, p. ##C8
In #@CC, when llison*s disagreement with radical American leftists was already strong, the
war policies of the American !ommunist party impelled llison and many other blac(s to
leave the organi:ed left entirely. 'hen the party lent what llison called its Dshamefaced
supportF to segregation in the armed forces, many blac(s became bitterly disillusioned with
the radicals* vaunted goodwill toward minorities.
In Invisi)le 'an, the protagonist*s decision to renounce his wholehearted support for the
3rotherhood is based on his discovery that the radical group is cynically self"serving and,
ultimately, racist. The 3rotherhood sacrifices 1arlem*s interests for the sa(e of
DinternationalF goals and tries to mold the Invisible Gan into their conception of the 6ood
<egro+ one passively willing to use his energy and his art 5which is his oratory8 e,actly as the
party commands. In the novel the 3rotherhood stands, to a large e,tent, for the American
!ommunist party. 3ut llison also wanted the 3rotherhood to be seen in a larger conte,t+ the
party was not the only group of white American political activists to betray their blac(
countrymen for narrow political ends.
'ith the publication of Invisi)le 'an, llison moved suddenly into the front ran(s of
American writers. 1is novel evo(es visions and tensions peculiar to American life as African
Americans (now it+ llison*s brown"s(inned, nameless see(er suffers and scoots, forth and
bac(, through a thic(et of briars well (nown to American blac(s. =et Invisi)le 'an is a
modern masterpiece that, as 'right Gorris has written, Dbelongs on the shelf with the
classical efforts man has made to chart the river Eethe from its mouth to its sources.F 2ichly
e,pressing the meaning of life in 1arlem 5and the Southern bac(ground of that life8, llison
manages to describe what he says he finds in the wor( of the painter 2omare 3earden+ DThe
harmlessness of the human condition.F Invisi)le 'an is a deeply comic novel, with moments
of terror and tragedyH it is a 3ildungsroman in which a young man awa(ens to consciousness
by piecing together fragments and symbols from history, myth, fol(lore, and literature, as
well as his own painful e,perience.
Set in the appro,imate period #@?."#@&., Invisi)le 'an is the story of the development of an
ambitious young blac( man from the provinces of the South, who goes to college and then to
<ew =or( in search of advancement. This greenhorn at first wants no more than to wal( in
the footsteps of 3oo(er T. 'ashington, whose words he 4uotes at his high school graduation
and at a smo(er for the town*s leading white citi:ens. At the smo(er he is given a new
briefcase and a scholarship emblems of his e,pected ascent up the social hierarchy. 3ut first
he is re4uired to fight blindfolded in a battle royal with other blac( youths. Significantly, he
and the rest are turned blindly against one another for the amusement of their blac(
This battle royal scene shows the protagonist to be not )ust blind but invisible. Obviously, the
white town bosses see him not as an individual of promise but as a buffoonish entertainer, a
worthless butt of their practical )o(es, or, at best, a good colored boy who seems to (now his
place. In this sense the ritual purports to initiate him as their agent on guard for the status 4uo
wherein he and his people will remain powerless. The youngster*s invisibility also consists of
his trust in the myth of advancement, American style. This confidence that he will rise to
success 5reminiscent of 1oratio Alger and 3oo(er T. 'ashington8 renders him willing and
eager to suppress his own will and words his own identity to be whatever they say he must
be to get ahead.
That night he dreams that his grandfather tells him to open the briefcase, which contains a
document reading+ DTo 'hom It Gay !oncern, Leep This <igger"3oy 2unning.F 3ut the
youngster remains naSve. 1e goes off to college but is e,pelled when he ma(es the fatal
mista(e of ta(ing a visiting white trustee to a section of the local blac( community 5and,
metaphorically, to a level of blac( reality8 never included in the college"town tour. 3ledsoe,
the college president, sends the hero pac(ing to <ew =or(, first giving him a set of private
letters of introduction that, he finally discovers, also courteously re4uest that he be (ept
running and )obless.
ventually he does find wor( in <ew =or(, first in a paint factory, where he is discharged
after being seriously hurt in an e,plosion one that ultimately )ars him into a new self"
awareness and courage. 1e gives a moving speech at the eviction of an elderly 1arlem couple
and is hired by a predominantly white radical political organi:ation called the 3rotherhood.
The group seems to confirm his childhood wish by telling him he will be made the Dnew
3oo(er T. 'ashington . . . even greater than he.F 3ut the 3rotherhood also sets him running.
9espite his success in 1arlem, the downtown DbrothersF withdraw support for his program.
'hy do they sell the hero outK Airst of all, because he has proven so successful with his uses
of such vernacular forms as marching bands and stump speeches that the DscientificF
3rotherhood fears that he, and the blac( community at large, have become dangerously
independent in their power. The second, even more cynical, motive here involves Invisible
Gan*s having performed his mission of stirring up 1arlemH now, withdrawn from the
community, he can perform the 3rotherhood*s other tas( of discouraging his followers so that
they turn against not only him but also each other. 1e and the other 1arlem leaders are set up
to reenact the action of the blindfolded fighters of the novel*s first chapter+ to self"destruct
while the white bosses, this time wearing the colors of the radical Eeft, protect their power
from a safe distance.
A race riot erupts, and, still carrying his briefcase, which now contains, besides his diploma,
several other mementos of his adventures, he falls down a manhole into an abandoned,
bric(ed"up cellar. There he closely e,amines the papers in his briefcase and reali:es how fully
he has been betrayed by those who had professed to help him. And yet he discovers, too, that
not only Dcould you travel upward toward success but you could travel downwards as well.F
1e will remain down there, bathed in stolen light from the power company and in blues"idiom
musicH he will compose his memoirs in his hole at the edge of 1arlem, in hibernation.
D/lease, a definition+ A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.F If others
cannot or will not see him, he at least will see himself. 1is narrative, full of irony, insight, and
fury, shows that he has attained self"awareness even a certain wisdom and that he has
been able to act, to write this stunning boo(.
The shape and style of Invisi)le 'an bespea( its determination to step toward the universal
through Dthe narrow door of the particular.F The novel resounds with blac( fol(lore, in which,
says llison,
'e tell what <egro e,perience really is. 'e bac( away from the chaos of e,perience
and from ourselves, and we depict the humor as well as the horror of our living. 'e
pro)ect <egro life in a metaphysical perspective, and we have seen it with a
comple,ity of vision that seldom gets into our writing.
5Going to the Territor+, p. B$?8
3lues, spirituals, sermons, tales, boasts, and other blac( American fol( forms influence the
characters, plot, and figurative language in this teeming novel. The striving young man is
drawn toward the freedom of consciousness and conscience by the magic horns and voices of
the fol(. <onetheless, he himself is never so much a blues hero or 3r*er 2abbit as he is li(e
3r*er 3ear, outmaneuvered until the end by 3r*ers Ao, and 9og in his case 3ledsoeH
3roc(way, the factory supervisorH and One"yed 0ac(, who recruits him for the 3rotherhood.
Ei(e the befuddled butt of many a fol(tale, this young man seems determined to be
somebody*s greenhorn, somebody*s fool.
The novel is built not only upon the foundation of blac( lore but also of blac( literature. It is a
benchmar( blac( novel that seems aware of the entire tradition of African American letters. In
it one overhears the blac( and white tric(sters 5slaves and slaveholders8 of slave narrative
loc(ed in combat. One senses again the slaves* desperate yearning for education, mobility,
and individual and communal freedom. There are particularly strong echoes of wor(s by
Arederic( 9ouglass, '. . 3. 9u 3ois, 0ames 'eldon 0ohnson, Qora <eale 1urston, and
2ichard 'right, all of whom wrote prose portraits of tragicomic characters, Darticulate
heroesF in search of broader freedom.
3ut the power of Invisi)le 'an is more than that of a repository of blac( influences. As if in
defiance of the single"minded critic, llison adapted symbolism and rhetorical strategy from
any and every source he felt would enrich the te,ture and meaning of his wor(+ Sophocles,
1omer, 9ostoevs(y, Galrau,, 0oyce, and Areud all figure in Invisi)le 'an. Some allusions
and symbol clusters fade out li(e wistful )a:: riffsH others recur and provide the novel with
structure. 3ut no single critical DmethodF can e,plain this capacious novel, which owes as
much to the symbolist tradition of Gelville and 1awthorne as it does to the vernacular
tradition of Gar( Twain and 1emingway. This is not a DrealisticF novel or an understated
Dhard"boiledF novel, or a symbolist romance 5it is not, in any case, to be onl+ so categori:ed8H
instead, it is an epic novel of many voices, an e,perimental narrative constructed upon the
author*s mastery of American languageH as he describes it, a
rich 3abel . . . a language full of imagery and gesture and rhetorical canniness . . . an
alive language swirling with over three hundred years of American living, a mi,ture of
the fol(, the biblical, the scientific, and the political. Slangy in one instance, academic
in another, loaded poetically with imagery at one moment, mathematically bare of
imagery in the ne,t.
5Shadow and Act, pp. #.?"#.C8
The Invisible Gan embodies this confluence of traditions. 1e is a modern Odysseus, a latter"
day !andide, a Dblac( boyF comparable to 'right, a blac( and obscure 0ude, a =an(ee yo(el,
a minstrel endman. Of the several secondary characters who also embody a rich mi,ture of
allusions, two stand out+ Trueblood and 2inehart. 3oth are significant influences on the
protagonist*s growing awareness.
It is Trueblood, the sharecropper, whom the hero encounters when giving Gr. <orton, the
white trustee, a tour of the college environs. D1alf"consciouslyF the student drives over a hill
into a section of the blac( community built during slavery and, at <orton*s De,cited
command,F stops in front of Trueblood*s shac(. Trueblood had, in earlier days, been invited
to entertain white guests of the school, but no more+ he has brought disgrace to the blac(
community by impregnating his own daughter. D=ou have loo(ed upon chaos and are not
destroyedPF says <orton. D<o suhP I feels all right,F says Trueblood. <ot )ust willingly but
Dwith a (ind of satisfaction and no trace of hesitation or shame,F Trueblood recites the
e,uberant tale of his forbidden actH it is a private performance for the student and <orton,
whose face, at story*s end, Dhad drained of color.F Sha(ing, the white man gives the farmer a
hundred"dollar ban(note+ D/lease ta(e this and buy the children some toys for me,F the
northern philantropist says.
2inehart enters the narrative late in the novel. To escape two followers of 2as, a blac(
nationalist whose organi:ation rivals the 3rotherhood, the Invisible Gan puts on glasses with
lenses so dar( that they appear blac(H he is immediately mista(en for 2inehart. D3ut . . .
where*s your new hat I bought youKF a young woman as(s. To complete his disguise he buys
the widest white hat in stoc( at a local store and is mista(en for 2inehart all evening+ 3liss
2inehart, gambler and pimpH 2ine the lover and cool Ddaddy"oFH 2ine the briber and
Dconfidencing sonofabitchFH 2ine the numbers runnerH 2everend 3. /. 2inehart, DSpiritual
Technologist . . . <o /roblem Too 1ard Aor 6od.F The Invisible Gan is stunned by 2inehart+
D!ould he himself be both rind and deerK 'hat is real anywayK . . . The world in which we
lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and 2ine the rascal was
at home.F
Trueblood and 2inehart ma(e their homes in 4uite different worlds. Trueblood has remained
in the South, in a log"cabin homestead dusty with slave history. 3y contrast, while 2inehart
may once have preached in 7irginia, he has become a master manipulator of a chaos that is
distinctively northern in scope. Indeed, what these blac( men have most in common is that
both have stood before teeming chaos and have survived. 2inehart has embraced chaos.
Trueblood has faced his crime of incest the sin associated with confusion, degeneracy, and
death, from Sophocles*s "edipus %e8 to Areud*s Tote! and Ta)oo-
3oth characters bring to mind the African American musical form, the blues. Trueblood has
done wrong 5but he didn*t mean to8 and is bashed in the head by his wife, who leaves him for
a time and spreads the tale of his wrongdoing until even the preacher calls him Dthe most
wic(ed manF he has ever seen. =et Trueblood tells his story until it achieves a certain
cadence, and it ends with song.
Ainally, one night, way early in the mornin*, I loo(s up and sees the stars and I starts
singin*. I don*t mean to, I didn*t thin( Ibout it, )ust start singin*. I don*t (now what it
was, some (inds church song, I guess. All I (now is I ends up singin* the blues. I sings
me some blues that might ain*t never been sang before, and while I*m singin* them
blues I ma(es up my mind that I ain*t nobody but myself and ain*t nothin* I can do but
let whatever is gonna happen, happen. I made up my mind that I was goinF bac(
home. 5p. %%8

Trueblood is what Albert Gurray has called a Dblues heroF+ a resilient improviser who
confronts the low"down dirtiness of life, the DchangesF and the Dbrea(s,F and who manages
with style and grace to (eep on (eeping on.
2inehart is no blues man in this broadly heroic sense. D2inehart, 2inehart,F thin(s the
Invisible Gan, Dwhat (ind of man is 2inehartKF 1is name is a name from a blues song often
sung by llison*s old friend from O(lahoma, blues singer 0immy 2ushing+ D2inehart,
2inehart, T =ou*re a most indifferent guy.F 3ut instead of evo(ing terror or pity, instead of
putting confusion into perspective, as does Trueblood, 2inehart personifies confusion. 1e is
the no"good Dsweet"bac(,F the evil mistreater that the blues bemoan. Trueblood sings the
blues as a cathartic statement to assuage a tragic predicament, but 2inehart dispenses the
blues to others+ he distributes travail and thrives off it.
Trueblood*s classical ancestors include Oedipus the Ling, but 2inehart*s forebears are shape"
changing tric(sters. 1is middle name, llison has written, is /roteus. =et both characters
capture the note and tric( of African American life, and both function in 4uite specific ways.
Trueblood*s tale is a lesson and a graphic warning, from which the Invisible Gan learns that
Dthere*s always an element of crime in freedom.F Trueblood*s brea(ing of the incest taboo
5even if, as he insists, he was asleep while doing so8 suggests that the Invisible Gan can also
brea( the law and so e,tend the definition of what it means to be blac( and what it means to
be human. 2inehart*s lesson is that the world is much more ambiguous and, again, full of
possibility than any narrow"minded, strict, schematic thin(ers li(e those in the 3rotherhood
can (now. DUndergroundF in 1arlem there are operators undreamed of by One"yed 0ac( and
his Dbrothers.F Some, li(e the unscrupulous 2inehart, prosper in the dar( ma:e. Others, li(e
the DhipF young man the narrator sees in the subway station, have also been ignored by the
Gen out of time, who would soon be gone and forgotten. . . . 3ut who (new but that
they were the saviors, the true leaders, the bearers of something preciousK . . . 'hat if
history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory e,periment, and the boys his
ace in the holeK 5p. CC#8
2inehart the tric(ster is a figure of escape and of possibility whose presence suggests that
beneath the surface of the American commonplace there burns a bright and raging world.
Invisi)le 'an is a comple, and richly comic novel in which the hero discovers a great deal
about American history and culture. In the end he sees that he has been a fool, that, li(e
Trueblood and 2inehart, he must confront chaos with strength and resiliency and mother wit
or it will engulf him. 'hen he plunges underground, he vows to stop running the course
that 3ledsoe and others had set for him and can say with Trueblood+ DI ain*t nobody but
myself . . . I made up my mind that I was goin* bac( home.F
I(. 9 03+/S *364,I8 (1%5'&1%87)
DGr. llison,F 3aldwin wrote in #@&&, in Notes of a Native Son, D. . . is the first <egro
novelist I have ever read to utili:e in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and
irony of <egro life.F 5p.$8. In capturing the poetic and dramatic power of the blac( church in
prose, however, 3aldwin surpasses llison. 3orn on August B, #@BC, during the early days of
the 1arlem 2enaissance and the )a:: age, 0ames 3aldwin, unli(e 'right and llison, was a
poor <orthern boy from the cultural capital of blac( America. A manchild in the /romised
Eand, he grew up in the bosom of 1arlem and the church. 1e spent his formative years in the
/entecostal church under the stern eye of his stepfather, 9avid, Da dour clergyman who
indicted the entire white world for oppressing the blac(.F 9riven by the fury of 9avid
3aldwin*s Old Testament e,ample, young 0ames steeped himself in the lore pf the blac(
evangelical church and was called to preach at fourteen. Although he was a successful child
preacher, neither his stepfather nor the church was his first love. In fact, he grew to hate the
tyranny of both, leaving the church at seventeen and his stepfather*s house the following year.
In #@C$ he fled from the tyranny of American racism and /uritanism to /aris.
The only real communication 3aldwin recalls, in Notes of a Native Son, having with his
stepfather is when he told his that he preferred the pen over the pulpit. DAor me,F 3aldwin
says, Dwriting was an act of love. It was an attempt not to get the world*s attention it was
an attempt to be loved. It seemed a way to save myself and to save my family. It came out of
despair. And it seemed the only way to another world.F 1e had been at it since he was ten,
writing songs and plays in elementary school, publishing his first story in a church newspaper
when he was twelve, and serving as editor of both his )unior and senior high school
maga:ines. It was during this period that he was influenced by !ountee !ullen, a ma)or poet
of the 1arlem 2enaissance, who at Arederic( 9ouglass 0unior 1igh School taught him Arench
and was adviser to the literary club in which 3aldwin was a prominent member. arlier, when
he was around nine or ten, Da young midwestern substituteF drama teacher gave him boo(s
and too( him to see his first play, thereby introducing him to a world beyond 1arlem and his
stepfather*s religiosity. Alattered by his teachers and both admired and bullied by his
classmates, he began commuting to the library three or four times a wee(, reading everything
he could and translating his feelings of hatred, fear, and loneliness into plays, poetry, and
short stories. The first boo( he read, according to his mother, was 0ncle To!/s Ca)in- 1e was
about eight and D)ust read it over and over again.F Eater in his school, he discovered 2ichard
'right and made him his idol and literary father+ DIn 0ncle To!/s Children, in Native Son,
and above all, in $lack $o+, I found e,pressed, for the first time in my life, the sorrow, the
rage, and the murderous bitterness which was eating up my life and the lives of those around
me,F 3aldwin confessed after 'right*s death. D1is wor( was an immense liberation and
revelation for me. 1e became my ally and my witness, and alasP my father.F
Ei(e his literary father, 3aldwin is certainly no blac( revolutionary or romantic celebrator of
African American culture. 3ut whereas 'right coldly and categorically re)ected the blac(
American*s African past and urban present as unnecessary cultural baggage for modern man,
3aldwin agoni:es over his dual heritage as an African American. In DAutobiographical
<otes,F he says+
I (now . . . that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced
to recogni:e that I was a (ind of bastard of the 'estH when I followed the line of my
past and I did not find myself in urope but in Africa. And this meant that in some
subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Sha(espeare, 3ach, 2embrandt, to
the stones of /aris, to the cathedral of !hartres, and to the mpire State 3uilding, a
special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my historyH I
might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloperH
this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could
possibly hope to use I had certainly been unfitted for the )ungle or the tribe. I would
have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to ma(e them mine I would
have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme otherwise I
would have no place in an+ scheme. 'hat was the most difficult was the fact that I
was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American
<egro has to hide from himself as the price of his public progressH that I hated and
feared white people. This did not mean that I loved blac( peopleH on the contrary, I
despised them, possibly because they failed to produce 2embrandt. In effect, I hated
and feared the world.
These mi,ed emotions about himself and others, about men and events, are the result of
seeing himself through the eyes of a world that sees him as the barbarous antithesis of
civili:ed man. In DStranger in the 7illageF 3aldwin describes in theological terms the special
attitude 9u 3ois called it double"consciousness and 1ers(ovits called it sociali:ed
ambivalence he brings to the cathedral of !hartres+
I was terrified by the slippery bottomless well to be found in the crypt, down which
heretics were hurled to death, and by the obscene, inescapable gargoyles )utting out of
the stone and seeming to say that 6od and the devil can never be divorced. I doubt that
the villagers thin( of the devil when they face the cathedral because they have never
been identified with the devil. 3ut I must accept the status which myth, if nothing else,
gives me in the 'est before I can hope to change the myth.
3aldwin seems perilously close here in socio"psychological terms to 3igger Thomas in
resolving his sense of double consciousness and sociali:ed ambivalence. Although, unli(e
3igger, he may not have internali:ed the white myth of the 3ad <igger, his assumption that
he must accept the myth before he can possibly change it has the same warping effect on his
personality+ shame, fear, and self"hatred.
3efore he could be free as a writer, 3aldwin felt compelled to rebel against his literary father.
'right had given him encouragement in the early stages of Go Tell It on the 'ountain,
helped him to win a ugene A. Sa,ton Aellowship, and tolerated him as an admirer if not as a
protJgJ. 3ut as in his relationship to his stepfather, 3aldwin was awed by 'right*s
personality and saw his wor( as a roadbloc( to his own independence as an artist. In
Dverybody*s /rotest <ovelF he therefore relegates <ative Son to the same class of protest
novels as Uncle Tom*s !abin and concludes that Dthe failure of the protest novel lies in its
re)ection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that
it is his categori:ation alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.F In DGany
Thousands 6oneF he delivers what seems to be the cruelest cut of all. Actually, the ma)or
thrust of this essay is a valid criticism of 'right for filtering the entire novel e,clusively
through 3igger Thomas. D'hat this means for the novel,F 3aldwin rightly observes, Dis that a
necessary dimension has been cut awayH this dimension being the relationship that <egroes
bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspo(en recognition of shared e,perience
which creates a way of life.F 'ith the ostensibly 3rutus thrust of these essays, 3aldwin not
only (illed the relationship between 'right and himself but also implied that his own novels
would provide a more faithful, comprehensive portrayal of the richness and vitality of the
African American character and culture.
In truth, the way of life reconstructed in most of 3aldwin*s novels is informed by a biblical
imagination that is almost as blea( as that in Native Son- In Go Tell It on the 'ountain 5#@&?8
the 6rimes family has only a tenuous grip on reality due to the religiosity of the storefront
/entecostal church. In Giovanni/s %oo! 5#@&%8 the sub)ect of blac( culture is displaced by
the moral and social problems of white homose,uals in urope. In Another Countr+ 5#@%B8 a
tortuous series of racial and se,ual encounters white vs. blac(, homose,ual vs. heterose,ual,
<orth vs. South, uropean vs. American drives )a:: musician 2ufus Scott to suicide but
becomes the rite of passage to self"understanding for his )a::"singing sister Ida and the social
rebels of modern America who affirm bise,uality as the highest form of love. In Tell 'e 3ow
Long the Train/s $een Gone 5#@%$8 Eeo /roudhammer contends with his private and public
demons heart condition, white mistress, blac( militant lover, racism, and the stultifying
influence of his family as he claws his way to salvation as a blac( actor. In If $eale Street
Could Talk 5#@-C8 Tish and Aonny, the blues protagonists, are able to endure and transcend
the agony of harassment in the ghetto and prison through love 5personal and familial8 and art
5blac( music and sculpture8. And in 4ust A)ove '+ 3ead, 1all Gontana, the first person
narrator"witness and older brother of the gospel"singing protagonist, testifies about the
agoni:ing realities of human suffering and the ecstatic possibilities of love in the lives of
those touched by his brother*s )ourney on the gospel road.
As fascinating and ambitious as these novels are, only Go Tell It on the 'ountain, If $eale
Street Could Talk, and 4ust A)ove '+ 3ead illuminate the matri, of shared e,perience of
blac( Americans. 3ut li(e 'right, 3aldwin focuses sharply on a single dimension of blac(
culture. 1is emphasis, however, is not political but spiritual and se,ual, not the terrifying
possibilities of hatred, but the terrifying possibilities of love. In contrast to 'right*s
unrelenting narrative drive, 3aldwin*s short stories and novels are memorable for the soul"
stirring elo4uence and resonance of their pulpit oratory and blac( music as they plumb the
depths of our suffering and the possibilities of our salvation. 1is use of the rhetoric, lore, and
music of the blac( church show to their best advantage in his four collections of essays and in
Go Tell It on the 'ountain. 3ut they are also organically significant in If $eale Street Could
Talk and 4ust A)ove '+ 3ead-
,ploring the theme of salvation for poor urban blac(s, Go Tell It on the 'ountain reveals
how the dogmas and rituals of the storefront /entecostal church e,ploit the blac( Southern
migrant*s sense of sin, shame, and sorrow in the Dpromised landF the <orthern ghetto and
force him to choose between salvation and damnation. Although the ma)or focus of the novel
is on 0ohn 6rimes*s initiation into manhood, 3aldwin uses a third"person omniscient narrator
and a series of flashbac(s to e,plore the lives of the other members of the 6rimes family and
to reveal the historical and cultural ties that bind them to one another. In this sense, the novel
is a more socio"psychologically balanced reconstruction of life in the ghetto than Native Son-
The novel is divided into three ma)or sections. /art One, DThe Seventh 9ay,F centers on the
provincial world of fourteen"year"old 0ohn 6rimes. 0ohn is a manchild in the /romised land+ a
product of the ghetto, Dwhere the houses did not rise, piercing as it seemed, the unchanging
clouds, but huddled, flat, ignoble, close to the filthy ground, where the streets and the
hallways and the rooms were dar(, and where the uncon4uerable odor was of dust, and sweat,
and urine, and homemade gin.F !ut off from the bustling white world of 3roadway and
bombarded with sermons on the !alvinist doctrine of original sin, 0ohn is an intelligent but
highly insecure youngster. The time and place of the central action is a Saturday, Garch #@?&,
in 1arlem+ 0ohn*s birthday and day of salvation. 'hen the novel opens, 0ohn is troubled by
the thought that nobody remembers his birthday and that he has committed a dreadful sin by
masturbating. 1e also struggles with a sense of guilt that his hatred for 6abriel, his step"father
and 6od*s minister, has caused him to harden his heart against 6od. Eater, after helping his
brother 2oy clean the house, 0ohn ta(es the change his mother gives him for a birthday gift
and goes to a 3roadway movie. 'hen he returns home, he finds his family in a heated
argument over 2oy, who has been stabbed by a white boy. That evening 0ohn and lisha, a
boy preacher from 6eorgia, open the Temple of the Aire 3apti:ed, a storefront /entecostal
church and prepare it for the DtarryF 5prayer8 service.
3y the end of the first section, the reader reali:es that 3aldwin is not only e,ploring the
personal dilemma of his protagonist but also e,posing the moral foundations of the
institutional pillars of the blac( community. As ma)or institutions in the blac( community, the
family and the church are both at the center of 3aldwin*s vision of 1arlem. And because the
6rimes family worships at the temple of the Aire 3apti:ed, the role that its dogma and rituals
play in their lives is held up to scrutiny. /opular among many first"generation migrants from
the rural South, the blac( storefront church generally portrays itself as an oasis in the desert of
perdition. The ritual of Old Testament sermons accompanied by the ecstatic singing and
clapping of the Saints 5the sanctified women members8 serve to convince young members li(e
0ohn 6rimes that though their church may not be the biggest in 1arlem it was surely Dthe
holiest and best.F Stoc( sermons on the wages of sin and the wic(edness of the world also
serve to distort the values of church members, encouraging them to be otherworldly and
fearful of normal relationships with others. The Sunday before 0ohn*s birthday, for instance,
lisha is singled out by the minister and preached at for Dwal(ing disorderlyF with lla Gae,
a young girl. Taught with neo"!alvinist :eal that they are the carnal children of Adam, the
young members of the Temple of the Aire 3apti:ed become frustrated in their struggle for
healthy social and se,ual freedom, for full personal and social development, for wholeness.
As a result of this !hristian fundamentalism, the legacy of evangelical eighteenth"century
<ew ngland /uritanism and nineteenth"century Southern Gethodism, the mere act of
growing up becomes terrifying. Gore disturbing to 0ohn than the thought that nobody
remembers his birthday is the burden of guilt and fear he suffers over masturbation. 1e cannot
even loo( at a photograph of himself as a na(ed infant without feeling shame and anger.
3aldwin uses conventional color symbolism which correlates dar(ness with damnation and
light with salvation to reinforce 0ohn*s obsession with sin and uncleanness. The family name
of 6rimes signifies the ambivalent feelings of many blac( Americans about the color of their
s(in. Is it a stigma of s(in or a badge of gloryK Should it inspire self"hatred or self"
glorificationK Aor 0ohn there is no compromise Dbetween the way that led to life ever"lasting
and the way that ended in the pit. . . . 1e could not claim, as African savages might be able to
claim, that no one had brought him to gospel.F !onse4uently, he loo(s with Dshame and
horrorF on the dirt that permeates his (itchen and ma(es him feel uncleanH and while
sweeping the living room carpet, he dreads the sight of dust all around him and the feeling
that he cannot get rid of the dirt or, symbolically, wash himself clean of sin. 3y ma(ing se,
and sin synonymous, the blac( storefront church, li(e its evangelical !alvinist antecedents,
terrifies its members into turning to it as a refuge from the wic(edness of the world.
/art B, DThe /rayers of the Saints,F is a series of flashbac(s and indirect interior monologues
probing into the thoughts and feelings of 0ohn*s Aunt Alorence, his father, 6abriel, and his
mother, li:abeth. DAlorence*s /rayerF retraces the path that has led her to the Temple of the
Aire 3apti:ed. She is dying of cancer and fearful of meeting her 6od without being saved.
Alorence*s thoughts therefore focus on the people from whom she see(s forgiveness+ the
mother she had left down home on her deathbed, the brother and sister"in"law she had scorned
and moc(ed, and the husband she loved but had lost because of her middle"class obsessions.
D6abriel*s /rayerF reveals how he was driven to the ministry by his desire for power and his
fear of 1ell. 3uried in his past is an unfruitful marriage to 9eborah, whose barrenness
resulted from an assault by white rapistsH an adulterous relationship with sther, the
unac(nowledged mother of his illegitimate sonH and a loveless marriage to li:abeth, whose
son 0ohn was born out of wedloc(. Dli:abeth*s /rayerF recalls her tortured path to salvation.
She trembles with fear of 6od at the trials she must yet endure for the hatred she bore for her
aunt, the illicit love she shared with 2ichard, the illegitimate child she brought into the world,
and the security she craved in her marriage to 6abriel. The unreliability of each narrator is
corrected by the prayerful narration of the other and further corrected by the undramati:ed
omniscient narrator whose norms, as suggested by structure, symbol, ritual, and language, are
close to those of the implied author.
/art Three, DThe Threshing Aloor,F is a detailed account of 0ohn*s spiritual rebirth and its
immediate impact on his family. On the floor in front of the church altar, 0ohn, with whom the
narrator closely identifies, is possessed by an overpowering force that cleanses his heart and
soul of the dar(ness of sin and despair. As they watch 0ohn on the threshing floor, li:abeth is
tearfully proud and 6abriel piously reserved. Alorence, on the other hand, is happy that 0ohn
gets religion, but scornful of 6abriel*s false piety. In the end, 0ohn is over)oyed that the Eord
has touched himH he is fearful however of the many faces of the 9evil his hatred for 6abriel
and love for lisha and as(s lisha to pray for him and remember to go tell it on the
mountain that no matter what happens to him he had been saved. Gore than anything else, the
implied author ma(es clear through the point of view and characteri:ation, it is their religion
and desperate faith in the power of prayer that binds the 6rimes family together.
0ohn*s initiation rite is characteri:ed by an intense struggle with the doctrines of the
/entecostal church that blac( is the color of damnation and that se, and sin are identical. To
attain sanctification, he must pray to 6od and follow 0esus Dup the steep side of the
mountain,F as lisha reminds him. To achieve his identity 0ohn must accept the legacy of his
people the people that wal( in dar(nessH he must go down into the valley of the shadow of
death and discover the inner light and strength that comes only through suffering. 1e must
ma(e his peace with the reality of sociali:ed ambivalence in white America of being
simultaneously a native son and a stranger in his father*s house and his own land and be
neither enslaved nor dehumani:ed by it. 2ather, he must be strengthened by the grace of 6od
to go tell it on the mountain.
arly in the novel, when it is e,pected that he would wal( in 6abriel*s footsteps, 0ohn
believes that his salvation will resolve the estrangement between him and his father. DThen he
would no longer be the son of his father,F he thin(s, Dbut the son of his 1eavenly Aather, the
Ling. Then he need no longer fear his father, for he could ta(e, as it were, their 4uarrel over
his father*s head to 1eaven to the Aather who loved him. . . . Then he and his father would
be e4uals, in the sight, and the sound, and the love of 6odF 5p. #@C8. 3ut while praying on the
threshing floor he is torn by the sin of his Dyearning tenderness for holy lishaF and of having
loo(ed on his father*s na(edness and moc(ed and cursed him in his heart.F 0ohn must define
himself against the antithetical forces of love and hate implicit in <oah*s curse on his
youngest son, !anaan. 1e must ad)ust to the lore of !hristianity, for it is both his cross and
his curse. 'ithout the hope found in the ritual of prayer, life would be unbearable for 0ohn.
Aeeling himself in the company of Dthe despised and re)ected, the wretched and the spat upon,
the earth*s offscouring,F 0ohn cries out for help and hears lisha*s voice not 6abriel*s
telling him to call on 0esus. It is lisha*s prayers that strengthen him in the struggle with the
armies of dar(nessH lisha*s voice that fills him with sweetnessH and lisha*s hand that
stretches out to lift him up from the floor. Ainally, it is to lisha that 0ohn turns for a Dholy
(iss,F which further reinforces the homose,ual leitmotif of the novel.
It is symbolically as well as thematically significant that lisha, not his family, is the
intercessor in 0ohn*s salvation. li:abeth, Alorence, and 6abriel have been drained of moral
energy and hope. They are doomed to a life of wretchedness and despair. 3ut as the symbol of
youthful passion sacrificing itself for the church, however repressing its dogma, lisha offers
0ohn a ray of hope for the future. In this sense, he is a !hrist"figure. 3y turning to lisha,
0ohn also reconciles himself, however precariously, to the pain of his warring passion for life,
for wholeness, and the bitterness of his heritage as a blac( American. At the end of the novel,
the beginning of a new life is symboli:ed by the rising sun that Dfell over lisha li(e a golden
robe, and struc( 0ohn*s forehead, where lisha had (issed him, li(e a seal ineffaceable
foreverF 5p. ?.B8. The sensuality of this tableau suggests the need for love and communion in
the blac( /entecostal church, where, according to the implied author, the guiding principles
are 3lindness, Eoneliness, and Terror rather than Aaith, 1ope, and !harity.
3aldwin*s ma)or achievement in Go Tell It on the 'ountain is his lyrical treatment of the
doctrines and rituals of the inner"city blac( /entecostal church and the witness he bears to the
high price many blac(s, collectively and individually, have paid for their moral victory over
social oppression. In a deftly controlled series of flashbac(s, shifting points of view, interior
monologues, pulpit oratory, and biblical symbols, 3aldwin stri(es a delicate balance between
private anguish and public tragedy in his vision of a <orthern blac( teenager*s initiation into
manhood and the life of the urban storefront church. Go Tell It on the 'ountain thus
heightens the messianic tone of the African American novel, introduces a more compassionate
treatment of homose,uality, and establishes 3aldwin*s chief thematic concerns as the
American perversion of !hristian principles, especially the redemptive power of love, and the
reconciliation of personal se,ual freedom with traditional blac( moral values.
In retrospect, then, the most significant development in the tradition of the African"American
novel of the mid"twentieth century was the e,ploration of the condition of the blac( male in
white America by 2ichard 'right, and the rediscovery of myth, legend, and ritual by 2alph
llison and 0ames 3aldwin. Although 2ichard 'right moves beyond naturalism in
e,ploration of new themes, forms, or styles, it is llison*s Invisi)le !an and 3aldwin*s Go
Tell It on the 'ountain that most dramatically remind us of the continuity of traditional
narrative forms in appropriately blac( conte,ts. llison and 3aldwin were both influenced by
the achievement in naturalism of 2ichard 'right, but each chose a different and distinctive
approach to the novel. ach became aware of the literary possibilities of his fol( tradition as a
result of his own personal e,periences and his own study of literature. As in the blac(
American novels of the nineteenth century, however, history and myth, illustrative and
representational character types, traditional and personal sign systems are )u,taposed or
integrated with each other as llison and 3aldwin see( the appropriate interplay of realism
and modernism for their aesthetic and social purpose. Shaped by the 9epression, the 1arlem
2enaissance, his college bac(ground, and his writing apprenticeship, llison reveals a more
modern sensibility in the literary and fol(loristic patterns of Invisi)le 'an than 3aldwin,
whose sensibility is poignantly more unconventional, does it in Go Tell It on the 'ountain-
As products of institutional racism and the integrationist movements of the #@C.s, however,
both novelists reveal their sociali:ed ambivalence and double vision in their themes, plots,
characteri:ation, and point of view. Their novels also reveal the 4ualities of realism and
modernism that were to become more pronounced and dichotomous in the#@%.s and #@-.s.
(. )n *eing a ,oman :ora 8eale "urston- 8to;a<e S!ange- 7aule +ars!all
African American women have struggled for a place in society since they were brought to
America as slaves. They performed strenuous labor and gave birth to children who often were
ta(en away from them. After slavery and well into the twentieth century, it was women who
were able to find )obs 5most often as house(eepers, coo(s, and maids8, which allowed the
African American family to survive financially. At the same time, African American women
have been viewed as intellectually inferior to men.
'hen confronted by negative stereotypes from society as a whole or even from the African
American community itself, African American women have not given in to defeat. They have
continued to rise and to demand their rightful place in society. As individuals, mothers,
daughters, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers, they have wor(ed within their families, in their
)obs, and in their communities to search for and create a sense of themselves as African
Americans and women.
African American women writers have created women characters who pass on their
(nowledge of life and survival through their culture and history from one generation to the
ne,t. These characters are neither perfect nor flawed. They are all trying to survive in an
imperfect world that )udges them because of the color of their s(in and their gender. This
(nowledge enables the ne,t generation of African American women to rise above the
conditions in which they live and to reach a new level of understanding about life and about
what it means to be an African American woman.
(. 1 :)#3 8/36/ "=#ST)8 (18%1&1%60)
Although Qora <eale 1urston*s fol( romances are set in the 9eep South, they also emphasi:e
the pastoral aspects of rural blac( life with which the author was familiar. 3y birth,
personality, hard wor(, and academic training, 1urston was destined to achieve distinction for
her imaginative use of ethnic fol(lore. 9elivered by a white family friend while her father was
on the road, she was born on 0anuary -, #$@#, instead of the usually cited 0anuary #, #@.#, in
the blac( town of atonville, Alorida. 1er father, a former Alabama sharecropper, was an
itinerant preacher and self"employed carpenter who served three terms as mayor of atonville.
1e was disappointed that she was not a boy and resented her assertive, stubborn nature. In her
relationship with whites, however, she seems, by her own admission and to some blac(
friends, to have been cleverly ingratiating and accommodating. 3ut, to biographer 2obert
1emenway, D a more li(ely interpretation is that she refused to repudiate her fol( origins that
were such a rich part of her total identity.F
Orphaned at nine by her mother and apparently
unloved by her stepmother, she lived with relatives and friends until at si,teen she left
atonville to wor( as a maid for a white singer in a traveling theatrical company. Aided by
several white patrons and domestic )obs, she was educated at 1oward University, 3arnard
!ollege, where she became a protJgJe of 9r. Aran: 3oa:, and !olumbia University, to which
she received a fellowship to do advanced wor( in fol(lore and anthropology. 9rawing on her
uni4ue fol( and formal bac(ground for materials, 1urston won acclaim for her short stories
and articles in "pportunit+ and other maga:ines during the close of the 1arlem 2enaissance
and the 9epression. She died in poverty and anonymity in St. Eucie !ounty, Alorida, in #@%..
The superb biography by 2obert 1emenway and the feminist movement*s reassessment of her
literary significance, spearheaded by Alice 'al(er, has led to the retrieval from obscurity of
1urston*s two boo(s of fol(loreH her three romances, 4onah/s Gourd (ine 5#@?C8, Their E+es
2ere 2atching God 5#@?-8, and 'oses, 'an of the 'ountain 5#@?@8, and her novel, Seraph
on the Suwanee 5#@C$8.
4onah/s Gourd (ine, as blac( critic 9arwin Turner has observed, demonstrates 1urston*s
strengths and wea(nesses as a novelist.
1er complete identification with fol( values, her ear
for language, and her lively imagination contribute to the vivid impressions and dramatic
appeal of the narrative but distort its structure, characters, and mood. Using her womani:ing
father as a model for the antiheroic protagonist and the 3ible to give symbolic significance to
the plot, 1urston subordinates plot and character to the illustration of blac( fol(lore. The title
of the boo( and its theme are an imaginative rewriting of 0on. C+#"##. The biblical parable
Aor the controversially insidious influence of white paternalism on 1urston, see her autobiography 1ust Tracks
on a %oad 5#@CBH rpt. <ew =or(+ 0. 3. Eippincott !ompany, #@-#8H and 1emenway, 9ora Neale 3urston, p. B-.
Turner, 9arwin T. In a 'inor Chord7 Three Afro:A!erican 2riters and Their Search for Identit+. !arbondale+
Southern Illinois University /ress, #@-#H p. #...
stresses 6od*s mercy for the repentant sinners of <ineveh, whereas 1urston*s narrative
emphasi:es 6od*s )udgment on the 2everend /earson for his unregenerate lechery.
Set in Alabama and all"blac( atonville, the narrative divides into three movements. The first
5chaps. #"#%8 traces the rise of 0ohn 3uddy /earson from poverty as an illiterate field hand
living on the wrong side of the cree( to success as a lecherous preacher and wife"made
tradesman"politician. The second 5chaps. #-"B?8 follows his fall into disgrace at the hands of a
vengeful, hoodoo"practicing second wife and envious friend. And the third, 5chaps. BC"B&8 is
an abruptly rising and falling movement that focuses on his redemption by a wealthy third
wife and death in a car accident after proving himself a contrite but incorrigible adulterer. In
addition to the disproportionate length of these ma)or parts, the narrative time is compressed
and e,panded at the e,pense of the logical development of plot and character. Aor e,ample,
0ohn*s return with his mother and brothers to /earson*s plantation to pic( cotton is relegated
to a subordinate clause, whereas the description of the barbecue following the harvest e,tends
through five pages of dialogue, music, and dance. Gechanical shifts in time and melodramatic
episodes also wea(en the realistic characteri:ation of Eucy /otts, the heroic first wife, and
1attie Tyson, the malicious second wife whom 0ohn divorces after discovering that she was
con)uring him.
The language spar(les with colorful invective, metaphors, and fol("sayings. DI=ou (now
Ahm uh fightin* dawg and muh hide is worth money,* F Amy taunts her husband. D I1it me if
you dareP Ah*ll wash yo* tub up Igator guts and dat 4uic(.* F As illustrated in the opening
sentence of the first chapter, even the omniscient author"narrator spea(s in vivid fol(
metaphors+ D6od was grumbling his thunder and playing the :ig":ag lightening thru his
fingers.F This usage is functional insofar as it contributes to the pastoral atmosphere of the
narrative and reveals the author"narrator*s intimacy and sympathy with her sub)ect.
/articularly effective is the 2everend /earson*s ten"page sermon, which vividly dramati:es
the poetic gifts of the Southern blac( preacher. 3ut fre4uently, the use of metaphor, invective,
and fol(sayings are inappropriate and improbable for the dramatic mood, indicating either a
lac( of control of the aesthetic distance between author"narrator and material or the
e,ploitation of the language as an end in itself. This is particularly true of the beginning of
several chapters and of Eucy*s and 0ohn*s dialogue, in which 1urston integrates le,ical,
idiomatic, and syntactical features in a credible Southern blac( dialect. In addition, because of
2everend /earson*s death is summari:ed rather than dramati:ed, the reader is detached from
this tragic event and does not share the author"narrator*s apparent sympathy for the
protagonist. 4onah/s Gourd (ine is therefore more successful as a celebration of the poetry of
the Southern blac( fol( preacher and of the moral strength and fol( wisdom of a Southern
blac( woman than it is as a realistic tragedy.
Their E+es 2ere 2atching God is Qora <eale 1urston*s best romance. Its language is poetic
without being fol(sy, its structure loose without being dis)ointed, its characters styli:ed
without being e,otic, and its theme of personal wholeness centered on egalitarianism in living
and loving, especially in heterose,ual relationships. As in 4onah/s Gourd (ine, the third"
person omniscient narrator and characters fre4uently spea( in fol( metaphors and evo(e
colorful nature images. The narrator*s most vivid metaphors appear in descriptions of sunrise
and sunset, such as, DThe sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the s(yF and Dvery
morning the world flung itself over and e,posed the town.F /hysical and human nature are
organically related thematic signs.
The metaphorical style gives poetic intensity to the theme of se,ual politics, which is
e,pressed in the opening paragraphs of the narrative+
Ships at a distance have everyman*s wish on board. Aor some they come in with the
tide. Aor others they sail forever on the hori:on, never out of sight, never landing until
the 'atcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams moc(ed to death by Time.
That is the life of men.
<ow, women forget all those things they don*t want to remember, and remember
everything they don*t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do
things accordingly. 5p. &8.
The inner forces that control the lives of men and women are differentH some are driven by the
need to possess thingsH others are moved by the need for a mutual relationship to share with
people. Thus the dramatic tension in the narrative occurs between the efforts of 0anie Gae
!rawford, the heroine, to fulfill her dreams as a Dcoffee"and"creamF comple,ioned rural
woman, and the conventions of a male"dominated, lower middle"class society that frustrate
the reali:ation of her romantic vision of love and fulfillment until she meets 7ergible DTea
!a(eF 'oods.
The central episodes of the primary narrative, which is framed by 0anie*s passing on her story
to her friend /heoby and the fusion of symbols of natural and personal harmony, focus on the
three men who challenge 0anie*s youthful concept of love and personal fulfillment. The first
is Eogan Lillic(s, an older man with property whom her plantation"born grandmother
compels her to marry at si,teen so that men would not ma(e Da wor("o,,F Da brood"sow,F or
Da spit cupF of her. 'ith her unattractive, unromantic first husband, 0anie learned that
Dmarriage did not ma(e love.F The second is adventurous 0oe Star(s, who Ddid not represent
sun"up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spo(e for far hori:on. 1e spo(e for change and
chanceF 5p. B$8. !harmed into bigamy by 0oe*s dream of becoming Da big voiceF in all"blac(
atonville and by his whirlwind courtship, 0anie is gradually robbed of her own dream by her
second husband*s authoritarianism, vanity, and abuse. 'ith the death of 0oe Star(s and her
youth, Tea !a(e comes into her life, and her dream is fulfilled. A fun"loving, guitar"playing,
crap"shooting, (nife"carrying handsome young migrant, Dhe loo(ed li(e the love thoughts of
women. 1e could be a bee to a blossom a pear tree blossom in the spring. . . . 1e was a
glance from 6odF 5p. @.8. 0anie and Tea !a(e marry and move to the verglades, where they
share the intense )oy of wor(ing, playing, and living among blac( migrant wor(ers. 3ut in
Dthe meanest moment of eternity,F 0anie (ills her rabies"mad third husband in self"defense
after the gun he aims at her misfires three times.
The ma)or problems in the narrative are the aw(ward handling of point of view, especially the
moral and emotional distance between the protagonist and her grandmother, and of time
structure. !hoosing to mi, third"person omniscient, dramatic, and first"person modes of
presentation, the implied author begins the framed story in the first chapter with the
omniscient narrator metaphorically setting the mood, introducing the theme, and dramati:ing
the conflict between her enlightened, independent central character and the inhibiting
conventions of her fol( community. 6rounded in the oral tradition of Southern blac(s, from
the gossip about 0anie by the DmouthyF atonville community to the tales about 3ig 0ohn the
!on4ueror by Dthe great flame"throwersF in the verglades, the plot begins nearly twenty"
four years after the events to be narrated have ta(en place. 'ith 0anie*s confident, content
return after a year and a half to the curious, gossipy community of atonville, the stage is set
for her to tell her close friend /heoby, with whom she has Dbeen (issin* friends for twenty
years,F about the events leading to her return. D ITo start off wid,* F 0anie says, D Ipeople li(e
dem wastes up too much time puttin* they mouf on things they don*t (now nothin* about.
<ow they got to loo( into me loving Tea !a(e and see whether it was done right or notP They
don*t (now if life is a mess of cornmeal dumplings, and if love is a bed"4uiltP* F 5pp. @"#.8.
2ather than 0anie*s first"person narration ta(ing over from this point, the implied author
switches half"way into the second chapter to the point of view of 0anie*s grandmother <anny,
and in the third and subse4uent chapters the omniscient narrator controls the flow of past
events. Although this heightens the dramatic impact of <anny*s character, it diminishes the
reader*s emotional involvement with and moral sympathy for 0anie, who boldly asserts the
power to spea( in a signifying confrontation with 0oe Star(s in chapters si, and seven, but
whose first"person narration resumes only in the close of the frame in the final two pages of
the story. On the other hand, 1urston*s mi,ture of points of view and time gives her more
latitude to introduce farce, a moc("heroic funeral, and fol(tales into the narrative, especially
in the si,th chapter.
A closer loo( at the relationship between <anny and 0anie reveals that the implied author
philosophically and emotionally identifies with her protagonist*s re)ection of her family as she
pursues love and adventure. 2aised until si, in the bac(yard of Dthe 4uality white fol(sF for
whom her grandmother wor(ed, 0anie awa(ened to the possibilities of love and life at si,teen.
After spending a spring afternoon watching bees pollinating a blossoming pear tree the
symbol of love, marriage, and procreation 0anie is seen by her grandmother allowing a boy
to (iss her. This episode reminds nanny of her e,perience during slavery of being
impregnated by her master, of her seventeen"year"old daughter*s rape, impregnation and
dissolution, and of her own imminent death, and reinforces her moral imperative to protect
her granddaughter. <anny is determined that before she dies 0anie will marry Eogan Lillic(s,
thereby, in the narrator*s words, DdesecratingF 0anie*s pear"tree vision. <anny assures 0anie of
her love and passes on to her the ancient lessons about racial, se,ual, and class politics that
she has learned+
D1oney, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out.
Gaybe it*s some place way off in de ocean where de blac( man is in power, but we
don*t (now nothin* but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de
nigger man tuh pic( it up. 1e hand it to his womenfol(s. 9e nigger woman is de mule
uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin* fuh it tuh be different wid you.
Eawd, Eawd, Eawd. . . . =ou ain*t got nobody but me. . . . Ah got tuh try and do for
you befo* mah head is cold.F 5pp. #%"#-8

'hereas the implied author seems here to share philosophically in <anny*s ancient wisdom,
she is closer emotionally and morally, as we shall see, to her protagonist*s desire D Ituh utili:e
mahself all over* F 5p. @C8
3ecause she was born in slavery, <anny tells 0anie, D IIt wasn*t for me to fulfill my dreams of
whut a woman oughta be and do. . . . 3ut nothing can rom Iem of they will* F 5p. #-8. <anny*s
dream was D Ito preach a great sermon about colored women sittin* on high, but they wasn*t
no pulpit for me* F 5p. #$8. In coping with slavery and unwed motherhood, she sacrificed her
own dreams of economic security and moral respectability for the benefit of a daughter who D
Iwould e,pound what Ah felt.* F 'hen her daughter Eeafy D Igot lost offa de highway,* F
however, <anny D Isave de te,t* F for 0anie, believing that her sacrifices were not too much if
0anie D I)ust ta(e a stand on high ground la( Ah dreamed* F 5p. #$8. After passing on the te,t
of her dream of self"reali:ation as a woman of developing self"esteem, security, and status
in marriage <anny begs 0anie+ D I1ave some sympathy fuh me. /ut me down easy, 0anie,
Ah*m a crac(ed plate* F 5p. B#8. 1owever, 0anie and the implied author re)ect not only
<anny*s dream of what a woman ought to be and do, but also and this is a ma)or flaw in the
tradition of female friendship and shared understanding that feminist readings of the te,t
celebrate never really understand or share the Dancient powerF of her love and sacrifice to
provide a better life for her family.
0anie is more faithful to her symbolic significance as a 3odacious 'oman an individualist
who audaciously rebels against social conventions and re)ects family in pursuit of her
romantic personal interests, dreams, and development than to traditional poor blac( women
who respect the sturdy bridges of (inship, male and female, that helped them to survive the
pitfalls of life. 0anie is alienated from both the legitimate and the spurious middle"class values
of the blac( community. 2e)ecting the economic security that <anny and most blac( women
dream of as a cornerstone of marriage, a youthful 0anie D Iwants things sweet wid mah
marriage la( when you sit under a pear tree and thin(* F 5p. BC8. She later confuses 0oe
Star(s*s line that she was D Imade to sit on de front porch* F with her pious grandmother*s
dream that she D I)ust ta(e a stand on high ground,* F scornfully accusing her grandmother of
wanting her to D I6it up on uh high chair* F and to sit D Ion porches li(e de white madam* F
5p. @%8. In contrast to 0anie*s personal feeling that lower middle"class blac( life is une,citing
and unfulfilling, her friend /heoby says+ Dmaybe so, 0anie. Still and all Ah*d love tuh
e,perience is for )ust one year. It loo( la( heben tuh me from where Ah*m at* F 5p. @%8. Aor
0anie romance is more important than finance in marriage and common fol( less inhibited and
pretentious than middle"class people. 2ebelling against the class that Tea ca(e calls Dhigh
muc(ty muc(sF and 0oe*s his"and"hers gold"loo(ing spittoons to remarry and go down Don
the muc(F with someone both poorer and younger than herself, 0anie states+ D I9is ain*t no
business proposition, and no race after property and titles. 9is is uh love game. Ah done lived
6randma*s way, now Ah means tuh live mine* F 5p. @%8. Of the envious, more often
ambivalent, lower middle"class community of atonville, where she endured, even if she did
not en)oy, power and privilege for twenty years as Grs. Gayor Star(s, and to which she
returns an autonomous new woman, 0anie feels+ D IIf 6od don*t thin( no mo* Ibout Iem then
Ah do, they*s a lost ball in de high grass* F 5p. @8.
After her husband 0oe Star(s*s death, which she symbolically helped to precipitate by
attac(ing his male vanity in front of his peers with the power of her verbal wit 5D I'hen you
pull down yo* britches, you loo( la( de change uh life* F Mp. %@N8, 0anie, at thirty"nine, ta(es
stoc( of her life by reflecting on her mother and grandmother+
9igging around inside of herself li(e that she found that she had no interest in that
seldom"seen mother at all. She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself
all these years under a cloa( of pity. She had been getting ready for her great )ourney
to the hori:ons in search of peopleH it was important to all the world that she should
find them and they find her. 3ut she had been whipped li(e a cur dog, and run off
down a bac( road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some
people could loo( at a mud"puddle and see an ocean with ships. 3ut <anny belonged
to that other (ind that love to deal in scraps.
<anny had ta(en the biggest thing 6od ever made,
the hori:on for no matter how far a person can go the hori:on is still way beyond
you and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her
grandmother*s nec( tight enough to cho(e her. She hated the old woman who had
twisted her so in the name of love. Gost humans didn*t love one another nohow, and
this mis"love was so strong that even common blood couldn*t overcome it all the time.
5/p. -%"--8
'hat are we to ma(e of 0anie*s inability and unwillingness to identify with her mother and
grandmother, especially in light of the high price they paid for their and her survivalK If 0anie
does not identify with the historic slavery and se,ual e,ploitation of her female ancestors, can
she realistically represent a tradition of female friendship, understanding, and supportK Are
0anie*s security, respectability, and individuality determined only by her se,ual ties with 0oe
Star(sK Is the grandmother*s dream for 0anie to D Ita(e a stand on high ground* F really
reducing life to the pursuit of material thingsK Although the symbol of the hori:on is a
poetically effective e,pression of the possibilities of life, is it )ust, compassionate, or
responsible for 0anie to despise love and dreams of parents whose historical circumstances
and consciousness influence them to interpret the possibilities of life within the conte,t of
traditional strategies of survivalK Is it possible, in short, to cut oneself off completely from
one*s parents and past and fully reali:e one*s identity as an individualK Aor 0anie, the love of
Tea !a(e, ideali:ed life of fol( on the Dmuc(,F and friendship with /heoby are the only
human relationships she needs to attain and sustain personal wholeness, however problematic
this may seem for some readers.
In closing the frame of what Alice 'al(er, her literary daughter, calls Done of the se,iest,
most Ihealthily* rendered heterose,ual love stories in our literature,F
1urston returns to her
thematic metaphors. D IAh done ben tuh de hori:on and bac(,* F 0anie tells /heoby, D *and
now Ah (in set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.* F The memory of the love she
shared with Tea !a(e, especially in the upstairs bedroom, not only sustains her in his death
but also, by the allegorical manner that she passes it on, inspires /heoby+ D *Ah done growed
ten feet higher from )us* listenin* tuh you, 0anie. Ah ain*t satisfied wid mahself no mo*. Ah
means tuh ma(e Sam ta(e me fishin* wid him after this* F 5p. #&$8.2einforcing the centrality
of 0anie*s love of Tea !a(e to her fulfillment as a woman, 1urston tells us in the closing lines
of the narrative that Tea !a(e
Dwasn*t dead. 1e could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and
thin(ing. The (iss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall.
1ere was peace. She pulled in her hori:on li(e a great fish"net. /ulled it from around
the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshesP
She called in her soul to come and seeF 5p. #&@8.
The tragic irony here is that 0anie is probably dying from Tea !a(e biting her as she cradled
him in her arms after shooting him. The implied author and heroine of Their E+es 2ere
2atching God therefore suggest that genuine love between a man and a woman is an
e,hilarating, fulfilling relationship of mutual respect, sharing, and sacrifice. 2ather than
e,clusively female, however, the tradition that 1urston passes on through 0anie is blac(, oral,
and Southern. It was ac4uired by listening to and participating in the telling of DliesF by men
in Alorida as well as by the storytelling of her grandmother. The theme, symbolism, style,
structure, and characteri:ation of the narrative combine to impress the reader with the validity
and power of this romantic fol( vision of what a woman ought to be and do.
1urston*s final two long narratives are stri(ingly different in form and style. 'oses7 'an of
the 'ountain turns the Old Testament legend of Goses into a satiric tale of racial oppression,
the vices of modern"day blac(s, and the virtues of a great messiah. The emphasis is on the
ingratitude of the oppressed and on the heroic character and mystic powers 5the hoodoo8 of a
great leader. 3ecause the style relies more on blac( idiom than on slang, 4uaint spelling, and
'al(er, Alice. In Search of our 'others/ Gardens7 2o!anist &rose- <ew =or(+ 1arcourt 3race 0ovanovich,
#@$?, p. $$.
fol(sayings, the dialogue here, unli(e earlier boo(s, does not attract attention to itself but
complements 1urston*s adaptation of biblical language and standard nglish. The indirect
satirical portrayal of the vices and folly of the 1ebrew slaves and those of modern"day
oppressed blac(s unfortunately borders on low comedy. In contrast, Seraph on the Suwanee is
neither comic, nor fol(loristic, nor about blac(s. It is a psychological study of Arvay 1enson,
a neurotic, poor white Aloridian whose pre)udices and insecurity lead to the tragic
disintegration of her family. Although it is Qora <eale 1urston*s most ambitious and most
mimetic long narrative, its focus on whites places it outside the scope of this study. In
retrospect, 1urston*s legacy to other novelists and romancers is the most compelling
modernist vision of an autonomous woman and inspirational love story in the tradition of the
African American novel.
(. 5 8T):3>/ S"38G/ (1%'8 )
3lac( woman, poet, playwright, dancer, and mother, <to:a(e Shange
e,plores life*s Dnappy
edges,F the metaphoric terrain )ust beyond neatly fi,ed social definitions. There, the sweat of
pursuing an intimate, humane connection with the world as well as with one*s innermost
selves is manifested as a dynamic, affirmative rawness. 1ers is a holistic vision within which
language, music, movement, icon, and time and space are manipulated so that poetry becomes
drama and danceH the political is simultaneously the aesthetic and the personalH and
spirituality offers insights which ultimately empower one to grapple with a problematic social
'ith the #@-% production of for colored girls who have considered suicide; when the rain)ow
is enuf, <to:a(e Shange e,ploded upon the American national consciousness, claiming for
blac( women a beauty and artistic validity previously denied them. Though her subse4uent
theater te,ts have failed to garner the controversial public attention accorded to the first play,
Shange has nonetheless remained a significant voice in American theater. Among the
hallmar(s of her distinctive style are a disregard for conventional, linear, dramatic structureH a
crafting of arresting, poetic imageryH shrewd manipulation of nonrational modes of insightH
and daring commitment to what are perceived as personal and public truths. In the conte,t of
American theater, Shange*s dramaturgy is most closely related to that of Adrienne Lennedy
In #@-# two South African friends bapti:ed her in the /acific Ocean with a name selected to e,press the
personality she was already manifesting. Thus, she became <to:a(e, meaning Dshe who brings her own things,F
and Shange, Done who wal(s with lions.F
and Amiri 3ara(aH within a larger 'estern tradition, her most immediate references are the
Arench playwright Antonin Artaud and the 6erman 3ertolt 3recht. Though these four writers
may appear 4uite different, particularly in relation to their interest in sociopolitical issues,
they are similar in their pursuit of dramatic forms that do not reside wholly within a uro"
American framewor(. Aor Artaud and 3recht, inspiration was to be found in the nonillusionist
theaters of AsiaH for Lennedy, 3ara(a, and Shange herself, the creative source is African
culture as lived in the diaspora.
3orn /aulette 'illiams on October #@C$ to surgeon /aul T. 'illiams and psychiatric social
wor(er loise Owens 'illiams, Shange was raised initially in Trenton, <ew 0ersey. The
oldest of four children, she seems to have en)oyed a childhood blessed with material security
and loving parents who traveled widely, maintained an international set of friends, and
transmitted a pride in African and African American cultures. They e,posed the precocious
girl to a variety of influences ranging from musicians 9i::y 6illespie and !huc( 3erry to
writers li(e /aul Eaurence 9unbar, !ountee !ullen, and T. S. liot. Sunday"afternoon family
variety shows might consist of her mother offering selections from Sha(espeare, her father
performing magic tric(s or improvising on the congas, and the children doing a soft"shoe or
playing such instruments as the violin, cello, flute, and sa,ophone. As she was later to reveal
in a self"interview entitled Di tal( to myself,F included in her #@-$ poetry collection Napp+
Edges, family members voraciously pursued whichever arts struc( their fancy, so that Dany
e,ploration of personal visions was the focus of my world.F
'hen Shange was eight, the family moved to St. Eouis, Gissouri, where they lived for five
years. There she was among the first blac( children to integrate the public school system. As
later fictionali:ed in the novel $etse+ $rown 5#@$&8, that e,perience seemingly left a sense of
anger and betrayal at being thrust out of the security of the blac( community into the (nown
violence of the white world. 3ut apparently it also strengthened Shange*s fighting spirit and
pride in her own abilities, for in the poem Dnappy edges 5a cross country so)ourn8F she
answers actual and would"be oppressors+
my dreams run to meet aunt marie
my dreams draw blood from ol sores
these stains O scars are mine
this is my space
i am not movin
5Napp+ Edges, p. $$8
Though her parents too( a (een interest in events throughout the African diaspora, that
progressive perspective was nonetheless counterbalanced by a blac(, middle"class
conservatism. As a means of advancing in America, its adherents preached individual
initiative and a noblesse oblige understood through '. . 3. 9u 3ois*s Dtalented tenthF model
of relating to the impoverished massesH repression of se,ual impulses and other potentially
nonconformist instinctsH and disavowal of unrefined aspects of African American culture, as
often defined by the white mainstream. As Shange admitted in a #@-% (illage (oice interview
with Gichelle 'allace, the vacuousness of that class perspective initially led her to rebel by
adopting the idioms of the live"in maids who had cared for her as a child. Indeed, only some
nine years later with the lush rite"of"passage novel $etse+ $rown would she be able to
represent aspects of her middle"class bac(ground.
'hen /aulette 'illiams was thirteen, the family moved bac( to <ew 0ersey, settling this time
in Eawrenceville. She had written short stories in elementary school but had been deterred by
racial insults. Similarly, at Gorristown 1igh School she wrote poetry, some of which was
published in the school maga:ine, but derogatory comments concerning her choice of blac(
sub)ect matter caused her to again abandon this mode of self"e,pression. 9uring these years
she became progressively more frustrated that young blac( girls had virtually no appropriate
models of success. As she confided in the 'allace interview, DThere was nothing to aspire to,
no one to honor. So)ourner Truth wasn*t a big enough role model for me. I couldn*t go around
abolishing slavery.F
After earning a master*s degree in #@-?, Shange moved north to the San Arancisco 3ay Area,
where she taught humanities and women*s studies courses. San Arancisco, which had nurtured
an earlier generation of 3eat poets, at that time offered a fertile environment in which the
talents of Third 'orld and white women artists could particularly flourish. At this time
Shange was reciting poetry with the Third 'orld !ollective and was also dancing with
2aymond Sawyer and d Goc(, whose class routines and formal choreography lin(ed
specific fol( traditions of 'est Africa and the !aribbean to the vaudeville and street dance
traditions of Afro"America. 3y discovering in movement some of the intricacies and strengths
of her identity as a blac( woman, Shange found that she was also discovering her voice as a
poet. Thus, as she was to write in describing the creative conte,t of her San Arancisco years,
DThe freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could
continually be approached, though never (nown, wa: poem to me, my body O mind
ellipsing, probably for the first time in my life.F

The theme of the body and dance as sites of a (nowledge whose rhythms constitute poetry is
one to which Shange would return again and again. Its importance is related to her li(ely
e,posure at this time to such <ew 'orld African religions as 7odun, found in 1aiti, and
SantJria, practiced in !uba. The production of for colored girls - - -was li(e nothing America
had previously e,perienced. 0ettisoning the national preference for linearly structured,
realistic plays, the te,t manipulated poetry and dance so as to create a swirl of imagery,
emotions, colors, and movement proclaiming a woman*s e,perience a fit sub)ect for dramatic
representation. Aor many women and men, the performance became a(in to a consciousness"
raising event. At the outset, seven women, distinguishable from each other primarily by the
color of their simple dresses, set forth the image of a blac( girl
Mwho*sN been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn*t (now the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
5p. C8
They announce that what is to follow is a gift or a song calculated to restore her to life. The
subse4uent collage of danced poems or Dchoreopoem,F as Shange labeled the te,t traces a
blac( girl*s eager transition from adolescence 5high school graduation and loss of virginity8
into an adulthood of stormy relationships with men and eventual self"recognition of a
personhood whose legitimacy is divinely natural. =et, because the women play multiple
unnamed characters, what emerges is not an individual protagonist but an essential
Goments of transcendence intersect with what Shange was later to call a labored breathing
necessitated by the attempt to withstand racist and se,ist social definitions. To the e,uberant
#@%. sounds of the Gotown rhythm"and"blues songs about love, the women initially do the
pony, the swim, and other popular dance steps. Sliding effortlessly into the Afro"Eatin beat of
'illie !olon, they also e,ecute the merengue and the bomba, all in celebration of the
wondrous vitality of their bodies and graduation from Dmama to what ever wa: out there.F
3ut a sudden lighting change pierces their )oy, plunging them into a misogynist, material
One early poem is particularly remar(able, for it con)oins definitions of woman and of theater
treated separately throughout much of the play. Gost simply e,pressed, DsechitaF concerns a
down"on"her"luc( tent dancer who performs for the country yo(els in <atche:, Tennessee,
while dreaming of the bygone, elegant 4uadroon balls in St. Eouis, Gissouri. The splendor of
a !reole society insulated from the hostility of poor whites is fleetingly suggested as a
counterpoint to the dancer*s tawdry, patchwor( circumstances in which female se,uality,
constructed so as to titillate male desire, is the currency for ensuring economic survival.
Accustomed to gin"stained, itchy blac( stoc(ings and a mirror which Dmade her forehead tilt
bac(wardsT her chee(s appear sun(enT,F Sechita cannot dispel the feeling that here in <atche:
humiliation is not merely societal but natural, for Dgod seemed to be wiping his feet in her
faceT. Thus, dissociating her soul from her person, she dances to reassert her primal
connections, seemingly ever more vigorously the more the drun(en men aim gold coins
between her thighs.
3ecause Sechita is not simply an ob)ect of male fantasy, the actress must do more than narrate
a story of degradation. She must also e,hort a powerful sub)ect or agent to ma(e her presence
(nown. Aor that reason, the actress utters the character*s praise names+ D the full moonT
sechitaT goddessT of loveT egyptT the B
millennium.F Through sound, rhythm, and repetition,
through what the =orubas of 'est Africa term , or the power to ma(e things happen
5which resides in language8, she strives to call into being that primordial spirit who presides
over the perpetuation of life. Similarly, the performer who dances Sechita*s narrative both
retraces the ancestral history of female agony and parta(es of divine potency. 1er e,perience
potentially appro,imates that of a 7odun devotee who, in dancing and opening her body to
trance, serves as a medium of the gods and thereby reconnects herself and the community to
all history, past, present, and yet unlived. Through the dynamic of con)uring, as manipulated
by spea(er, dancer, and musician, Sechita is presented victorious, (ic(ing past the coins
thrown onto the ma(eshift stage to commune with the stars. The poem has thus operated
within an African conception of theatre, being simultaneously representational and
presentational, functioning both to construct a fictive event as though it were real and to
constitute a moment of transcendence when, dependent on the performers* s(ills and the
audience*s beliefs, the human and the divine merge in the body of the dancer.
The initial production and subse4uent national tour of for colored girls - - - garnered praise
throughout the media, vaulting <to:a(e Shange overnight into a celebrity status from which,
as she would later ac(nowledge, it would ta(e years to recover a sense of privacy and focus. It
provo(ed an avalanche of responses that seemingly became a barometer of audience
members* identification with larger, feminist issues. As suggested earlier, for many women
and men the te,t was refreshingly honest in naming some of the tensions e,perienced in
heterose,ual relationships. Aeminism, heretofore represented primarily as the preserve of
middle"class white women, was seen to have tangible relevance to the lives of blac( women
and women of color.
3ut for some in the blac( community in particular, the te,t constituted a virulent attac( that
left untouched the real power source, namely, white men. <o positive male"female
interactions were presented, and the Dbeau willieF poem, coming at the end of a long catalog
of male insensitivities, functioned so as to accuse all blac( men of pathological behavior. Aor
that reason, argued proponents of this view, white male critics, whose positions with <ew
=or( newspapers gave them national influence, could celebrate a newly discovered humanity
with blac( womenH they could publicly re)oice in feeling not the least bit threatened, as they
presumably had been by the earlier 3lac( Arts plays of Amiri 3ara(a and others.
In this blac( community debate, two somewhat separable issues were conflated, namely the
audience*s interpretation or production of meaning and the media*s hegemonic function in
shaping individual responses to reinforce values espoused by the dominant power structure.
'hile there is a certain validity to the te,tual ob)ections concerning Shange*s portrayal of
blac( men, the animus behind some of the negative responses seems more related to the latter
issue of the media*s function. That is, for colored girls- - - violated the unspo(en code of the
#@%.s by re)ecting the e4uation of blac( liberation with male privilege. In bringing certain
DfamilyF or intra"racial problems out of the proverbial closet, the te,t appeared to validate
e,isting negative stereotypes used to rationali:e the oppression of blac( men. Goreover, it did
so in an arena that has historically denied blac( men and women significant opportunities for
pro)ecting their own counter"narratives.
3ut ironically, were it not for a mass media controlled by white men, the te,t never would
have involved large numbers of blac( people in a much"needed ree,amination of male"female
relationships. There is yet another irony about which virtually no critic has commented. That
is, most of the representations of Shange and the actresses in photographs, posters, or
interviews pro)ected images of anger or e,treme distress. Underneath all the notoriety and
praise was a subte,t of aberrant behavior, an insinuation that the play*s feminist message
could be attributed to suicidal impulses. Arom either standpoint, white patriarchy was clearly
the beneficiary. 3ut as the foregoing discussion has demonstrated, it is nonetheless possible to
produce readings that resist these hegemonic designs and refigure the blac( woman as a self"
empowered sub)ect.
(. 9 73=6/ +3#S"366 (1%5% &)
/aule Garshall*s fiction epitomi:es the blac( diasporic woman*s 4uest for wholeness, for the
integration of the various parts of one*s self race, ethnicity, gender, historical process, and
the specific individual in the conte,t of community. Garshall is a 'omanist writer, a concept
that Alice 'al(er so succinctly defined in her introduction to In Search of "ur 'others/
Gardens 5#@$C8. An African American of 3arbadian ancestry, Garshall in her writing
carefully sculpts the comple, forms of her African cultural heritage as it appears in the blac(
cultures of the !arribean, South America, and the United States.
As pivotal as /aule Garshall*s wor(s have been to the tradition and literature of African
American women and the third world, she has not received the recognition she deserves
perhaps because she has not cultivated the re4uisite mar(etable image, or perhaps because the
comple, politics of her wor( cannot be reduced to the neat, sloganistic categories patroni:ed
by the mainstream and alternate United States literary mar(ets. 1er personal history is a
signal as to why she is the writer she is and why she adheres to an intensely private
configuration of the writer*s image.
Garshall was born @ April #@B@ in Stuyvesant 1eights, <ew =or(, the daughter of Ada and
Samuel 3ur(e, who li(e so many other immigrants came to the United States for economic
opportunity. Thus one central motif in her wor( is a ma)or theme of American literature+ the
ad)ustment of immigrants to a new material environment and culture and their attempt to
retain the spirit and integrity of the Dold country.F =et because Garshall*s parents were
descendants of slaves forcibly brought from America to the D<ew 'orld,F her wor(, li(e
other African American literature, simultaneously confronts the issues of American slavery
and racism.
Garshall*s African"!aribbean ancestry also gave her insight into another important dimension
of the diaspora, the traumatic awareness of colonialism. Aurthermore, until recently most
writers who ventured to approach these historical processes slavery, immigration,
e,ploitation, racism, colonialism did so from a male perspective. A decade before the
e,plosion of women of color literature in the #@-.s, Garshall*s fiction emphasi:ed the
distinctly se,ist character of these phenomena even as she demonstrated how women are
significant actors in the ma(ing of history. 1er writing symboli:ed a position that would
become pivotal in the second wave of American feminism.
In an essay published in the New York Ti!es $ook %eview, DArom the /oets of the Litchen,F
Garshall underlined the influence of women on her own development as a writer. Ei(e the
character Silla in her first novel, $rown Girl, $rownstones, Garshall*s mother, after a day*s
wor( Dcleaning house,F would gather with her women friends around the (itchen table. There,
in sessions that prefigured the consciousness"raising meetings of the #@-.s women*s
movement, they would dissect the personalities of their employers, re"create their conte,ts,
and discuss in distinctly !aribbean images and gestures the issues of the day as well as their
own community*s rituals. In effect, these DordinaryF cleaning women Dpracticed language as
an oral art.F As a child who witnessed these dramas, Garshall told Ale,is 9e 7eau, in a #@$.
interview in Essence, she Dwas always intimidated by the awesome power of these women.
That might be one reason that I started writing. To see if on paper I couldn*t have some of that
'hile her development as a writer was unconsciously being directed by her ancestry and her
mother*s circle of friends, Garshall was formally schooled in the more conventional
American modes of education. /erhaps because of the respect for words she had learned at
home, she was drawn to boo(s at school and in the library. Of course the traditional school
curriculum of the #@?.s and #@C.s did not include much writing by blac(s and womenH still,
she learned much from some of the writers she encountered in the dominant culture. She tells
us that during her adolescence and early twenties she went through Da very heavy Thomas
Gann and 0oseph !onrad periodF and described 1eath in (enice as Da seminal boo( for her.F
She also read the wor(s of two African American writers whose names at least were (nown at
that time /aul Eaurence 9unbar and 2ichard 'right.
'hile her development as a writer was unconsciously being directed by her ancestry and her
mother*s circle of friends, Garshall was formally schooled in the more conventional
American modes of education. /erhaps because of the respect for words she had learned at
home, she was drawn to boo(s at school and in the library. Of course the traditional school
curriculum of the #@?.s and #@C.s did not include much writing by blac(s and womenH still,
she learned much from some of the writers she encountered in the dominant culture. She tells
us that during her adolescence and early twenties she went through Da very heavy Thomas
Gann and 0oseph !onrad periodF and described 1eath in (enice as Da seminal boo( for her.F
She also read the wor(s of two African American writers whose names at least were (nown at
that time /aul Eaurence 9unbar and 2ichard 'right.
'hile her development as a writer was unconsciously being directed by her ancestry and her
mother*s circle of friends, Garshall was formally schooled in the more conventional
American modes of education. /erhaps because of the respect for words she had learned at
home, she was drawn to boo(s at school and in the library. Of course the traditional school
curriculum of the #@?.s and #@C.s did not include much writing by blac(s and womenH still,
she learned much from some of the writers she encountered in the dominant culture. She tells
us that during her adolescence and early twenties she went through Da very heavy Thomas
Gann and 0oseph !onrad periodF and described 1eath in (enice as Da seminal boo( for her.F
She also read the wor(s of two African American writers whose names at least were (nown at
that time /aul Eaurence 9unbar and 2ichard 'right.
9uring the late #@C.s and early #@&.s, as the civil rights movement escalated, Garshall was
strongly influenced by two further African American thin(ers, 2alph llison, whose Shadow
and Act 5#@&$8 she has called her Dliterary bible,F and 0ames 3aldwin, whose essays Dwere
crucial to her formation as a writer and a thin(er.F Ei(e other writers of the #@&.s, Garshall
discovered the long"neglected wor(s of African American women writers only in the
following decade, when she read Qora <eale 1urston, 9orothy 'est, and 6wendolyn 3roo(s,
whose 'aud 'artha 5#@&?8 she would in #@%% call Dthe finest portrayal of an African"
American woman in the novel to date and one which had a decided influence on my wor(.F
A survey of the writers who influenced Garshall during her childhood and adolescence
provides insight into her particular approach to writing. 3oth Thomas Gann and 0oseph
!onrad imbued their characters and settings with symbolic resonances. They also dealt with a
sub)ect that would prove critical to Garshal*s treatment of the blac( diaspora+ the negative
effects on the powerful and the powerless ali(e of bourgeois society and colonialism. In his
essays, 3aldwin not only probed the racial and political dilemmas at the core of American
culture, but also described, in a voice distinctively his own, the relationship between his
personal e,perience and societal institutions. llison*s Shadow and Act is an analytic tour de
force that e,amined the comple,ity of African American fol( culture while at the same time it
lent twentieth"century African American literature a modernist tradition. 6wendolyn 3roo(s*s
'aud 'artha not only featured an intelligent, sensitive blac( girl in a family setting an
unusual sub)ect for American literature but lyrically evo(ed the wonderfulness of the
commonplace, how the common rituals of life are the site of art.
Though they represent different cultures and times, all of these writers used language
symbolically to represent the comple, interrelationships between character and culture. ven
when they used the form of the essay, they employed narrative as the frame for their
embodied ideas. Although Garshall wrote poetry as a young girl, as a mature writer she
e,clusively devoted herself to the art of fiction. She has noted that for her the traditional novel
is still a vital form because her reader can see her characters in their conte,t even as she Dcan
e,plore their inner states and the worlds beyond them.F
Ei(e 'aud 'artha, a novella Garshall admired, $rown Girl, $rownstones 5#@&@8 is the story
of the growing up of a blac( girl. And li(e 3roo(s*s novella, Garshall*s first novel is to some
e,tent autobiographical. 3oth writers used their e,periences of growing up within the conte,t
of a specific blac( community as the basis for their wor(. =et these two wor(s are primarily
novels rather than autobiography in that neither one attempts to reconstruct the facts of the
author*s life or to validate her e,istence. 3roo(s*s novella is dominated almost e,clusively by
the internal meditations of Gaud Gartha, so as to emphasi:e that blac( girls, too, have a
sub)ective imagination through which they interpret the world around them. 'hile the
sub)ective view of Selina is certainly evident in $rown Girl, $rownstones, Garshall e,pands
her narrative world to include other comple, and diverse characters who are both distinctly
themselves yet representative of the cultural characteristics of the 3arbadian"American
'hen $rown Girl, $rownstones was published in #@&@, it had been preceded in African
American letters by a small but significant body of te,ts that featured to one degree or another
the growing"up process of a blac( girl. Today, students of African American literature (now
about nineteenth"century te,ts such as 1arriet 0acobs*s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
5#$%#8, and 1arriet . 'ilson*s autobiographical novel "ur Nig 5#$&@8, the former about a
Southern slave girl, the latter about a <orthern indentured blac( girl. &lu! $un 5#@B@8, by the
1arlem 2enaissance writer 0essie Aauset, provides some outline of the growing up of Angela
Gurray. Similarly, Qora <eale 1urston*s Their E+es 2ere 2atching God 5#@?-8 and 9orothy
'est*s The Living Is Eas+ 5#@C$8, and 6wendolyn 3roo(s*s 'aud 'artha all focus on the
protagonist*s childhood development for some portion of the te,t. 3ut with the possible
e,ception of 'aud 'artha < which she may not have even seen before writing her first novel,
since 3roo(s*s novella went out of print immediately after publication Garshall had access
to none of these wor(s.
To give primary significance to a brown girl as the protagonist of a novel was practically
unheard of in #@&@H to focus on her adolescent years for an entire novel had not been
attempted even by 3roo(s. True, the growing up of blac( boys had been recently treated in
'right*s autobiography, $lack $o+ 5#@C&8, and in 0ames 3aldwin*s Go Tell It on the
'ountain 5#@&?8. As the civil rights movement escalated in the #@&.s, more attention was
paid to the theme of blac( manhood and therefore to the precarious )ourney of blac( boys as
they became men. 3y contrast, little emphasis was placed on blac( womanhood 5e,cept as it
related to men8 and therefore on how blac( girls became women. To some e,tent, it appeared
from contemporary American literature that li(e Topsy of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in, blac( women
D)es grew.F $rown Girl, $rownstones, with its intense focus on Selina*s )ourney from budding
adolescence to 4uestioning womanhood, was uni4ue.
<ot only was Garshall*s protagonist startlingH the novel was also remar(able for its portrayal
of its insistence on the reality of blac( culture as the birthright of a people who supposedly
had lost their history as a result of their enslavement by a dominant white culture. ven 0ames
3aldwin had written about the loss of that history as he ga:ed at the cathedrals of urope,
symbol of a culture that he felt he could not possibly match. 3y her rich delineation of the
rituals, mores. And values of the African"3arbadian community in its attempt to situate itself
in the United States, Garshall enunciates the lasting power of blac( culture in the diaspora.
The language her characters spea( is itself a reflection of that history the interplay of
African, 3ritish, and !aribbean elements. And the rituals the 3oyces and the !hallenors
enact, such as the wedding at the center of the novel, are themselves reflections of the )ourney
from Africa through the coloni:ed !aribbean to racist America. Garshall*s story grows out of
the possibilities as well as the conflicts presented by these elements. Aor although Selina
3oyce and her community have come to America for economic advancement, they came with
a history and culture that is sometimes in conflict with the materialistic values of the United
In creating the shape of Selina*s )ourney into womanhood, Garshall ta(es into account the
forces that affect any young girl her parents, her environment, her biological development
and shows how they relate to the culture of Selina*s people as well as to the racism 5against
blac(s8 and discrimination 5against foreigners8 with which she must contend.
3y emphasi:ing )rown and girl in the novel*s name, Garshall signals her primary focus+ that
this wor( is about both the raceTculture and the gender of her protagonist. And by placing
)rownstone directly ne,t to )rown girl, she reiterates the importance of conte,t, of
environment. 3rownstones are associated with urban <ew =or( and the waves of immigrants
who not only lived in them but used this new environment as a means to economic
advancement. These brownstones served as a shelter from the surrounding world of
discrimination and racism as well as a place where the values of the old homeland could be
preserved. In giving her first novel its title, Garshall reminded us that personal human
development is inseparable from history, culture, and environment.
Garshall*s sense of the interrelationship of character and conte,t is also evident in the shape
of the novel itself, which is divided into four parts. The first boo(, DA Eong 9ay and a Eong
<ight,F introduces the reader to the ma)or characters and their community as well as to the
brownstone itself. D/astoraleF lyrically evo(es the pleasure and pain of Selina*s coming of
age. The third boo(, DThe 'ar,F concerns the conflicts between Silla and 9eighton 3oyce
over the purchase of the brownstone, and is also set in the conte,t of 'orld 'ar II. In the
fourth boo(, DSelina,F the near"adult protagonist challenges her parents and community and
comes to terms with her first se,ual encounter and with the racism of the white world.
Throughout the novel, the issues of materialism and intrinsic values, of individual relationship
to community, of culture and racism, and of the mysteries of male and female are highlighted
against the bac(drop of Selina*s discovery of herself as a person and as part of a community.
!entral to that understanding is Selina*s relationship to her parents, for it is through the
parents that a child first learns what it might mean to be a man or a woman. So gender
definitions are critical to the ma)or form of the novel. 1ere again. Garshall*s first novel
emphasi:ed what would later become an important sub)ect in #@-.s American literature even
as she situated Selina*s growing understanding of her parents and therefore of herself in the
conte,t of racial politics.
Garshall*s emphasis in $rown Girl, $rownstones on the mother"daughter relationships was
not recogni:ed as a significant theme in literature until the second wave of American
feminism 4uestioned conventional assumptions about the bond. Unli(e some women writers
of the #@-.s and #@$.s, she did not ideali:e the mother"daughter bond, a temptation she must
have felt, given its triviali:ation in 'estern culture and the ways it was assaulted by the racial
realities of America. 2ather, she celebrated it by probing its comple,ity and its social conte,t.
The ten"year"old Selina must loo( to her mother for what it might mean to be a womanH yet
she is drawn not to her Dwintery,F hard mother, but to her spring"li(e, magical father. 'hy the
mother appears formidable but powerful and the father delightful but ineffectual has much to
do with the racial and gender stereotypes found in Selina*s immediate community as in
American society in general.
As a foreign blac( people trying to Dma(e itF in America, the 3arbadian immigrant
community was forced to confront the same racial stereotypes and socioeconomic restrictions
that had been imposed for centuries on African American women and men. Since slavery
times blac( women had been portrayed in American popular culture as domineering mammies
or as overse,ed wenches, while blac( men were characteri:ed as hedonistic coons or dumb
buc(s boys unable to participate in the hard business world of America. These images
continued to reverberate in the #@?.s and #@C.s, as e,emplified by the popular radio show
DAmos In* Andy,F which featured Sapphire, who dominates her wea(, la:y husband with her
lashing tongue.
Such images were not only distortions of blac(s, but were based on the cultural assumption
that that men are to be dominant, women subordinate, and that any other gender construct was
deviant, wrong. Since the economic realities of life made it impossible for blac( women to
withdraw from the wor("world and be cuddled and ineffective, and since men were
systematically denied access to wealth, these stereotypes were cruel, dangerous, and an
e,cuse for not dealing with the real causes of blac( poverty. 3ut they were also se,ist, since
they assumed a specific personality as the appropriate and only one for a man or a woman.
Although the Goynihan 2eport, which emphasi:ed the fact that blac( families were
matriarchal, deviant, and the ma)or reason for poverty and crime in blac( communities, was
not published until #@%%, its ma)or tenets were already ingrained in American popular culture.
Strong blac( women who could not be matriarchs given their powerlessness in the society
were branded as the reason why blac( men were supposedly not productive enough and had
not formed traditional patriarchal families as whites had. 3lac( girls growing up in this
atmosphere, confronted by contradictory societal demands, must have been in conflict about
who they could or should become.
In a tal( given at the University of !alifornia at 3er(eley in #@$B, Garshall said that she
wrote $rown Girl, $rownstones not so much for publication as to unravel her own (nots.
/erhaps as a young 3arbadian"American girl she, li(e Selina, was confused by the
contradictory values of her own community. On the one hand, it revered the puritanical values
necessary to achieve material successH on the other, it clearly valued sensual pleasure as
symboli:ed in dancing, a motif in this novel. At the same time, Garshall*s analysis of
3arbadian"American society in $rown Girl, $rownstones indicates her profound awareness of
the effect of American stereotypes on the 3arbadian immigrant*s ability to advance
economically. 'hatever their personalities or attributes, male 3arbadian"Americans defined
themselves as men by their ability to ac4uire property and ma(e money, while in accordance
with American society*s definition of DrealF women, their wives were eventually to be ta(en
care of and live in fine houses. The !hallenor family in $rown Girl, $rownstones represents
that norm. /ercy !hallenor is a dull, hard"wor(ing man who rules his house li(e a god while
his wife subordinates herself to him, to the goal of buying a house, and to marrying their
children into other upwardly mobile 3arbadian"American families. 3y contrast, other
members of the immigrant community such as the se,ually free Suggie, the artistic !live, and
the sensual 9eighton 3oyce instinctively feel that they are giving up too much of themselves
to the ideal of ac4uisition of money and property. They are, however, perceived as a drain by
the already beleaguered community.
In particular the 3oyce family does not fit the pattern rewarded by their American
community. 9eighton refuses to be what he considers Da pawnF in the white man*s world and
will not submit himself to becoming a drudge, which for him is being less than a man. In
refusing to submit to the societal definition of manhood, he passes the weight of survival and
success to his wife, Silla, who then must become the hard one. As Dthe motherF she will do
anything to secure her own and her children*s position in the community, even at the cost of
her own Dfemininity.F
At least that interpretation of the dynamics in the 3oyce household is what the reader first
encounters in $rown Girl, $rownstones- 3ut even as that version of their story is there, so is
another. Aor Garshall is not only critici:ing the way American materialism undermines the
individualH she is also intent on demonstrating how fi,ed gender roles distort this family and
others li(e it. 1er portrayal of Silla as a strong willful woman who ma(es Dher mouth into a
gunF precisely because she has so little power, is also a different image of what a woman
could be, contrary to conventional ideals. Aurther, in her dramati:ation of Silla and her
women friends, and especially in her description of Silla*s beauty as she and her family
prepare to go to the wedding that is at the center of the boo(, Garshall underlines the fact that
this image is related to other cultural definitions of womanhood, which Silla has inherited
from her ancestors.
It is Silla*s persistent voice more than any other element in $rown Girl, $rownstones that
pronounces Garshall*s alternate perception of womanhood. Unli(e Gaud Gartha, who only
imagines her own point of view, Silla spea(s her mind. As woman she will not be silent. As
woman she is an actor, and she passes on her willfulness, her womanishness to her daughter
Selina. !ritic Gary 1elen 'ashington has commented in her afterword to the Aeminist /ress
reissue of $rown Girl, $rownstones that Silla Dteaches MSelinaN almost nothing of the Ifemale*
arts. She tolerates Selina*s adventurous spirit with a grudging respect and in subtle ways
encourages it.F Thus at the end of the novel Selina comes to reali:e that she is not so much
her father*s child as she is her mother*s daughter. In parting, her mother blesses the daughter*s
spirit+ D6*longP =ou was always too much woman for me anyway, soul. . . . If I din dead yet,
you and your foolishness can*t (ill muh now.F
The mother*s blessing is not the last scene in the novel, however, for Garshall sees that this
bond necessarily e,ists within the conte,t of the )ourney Selina will be ma(ing in a comple,
world. At the cru, of her growing up is her awareness of herself, not only as a woman but
also as a !aribbean and an American. Garshall gives shape to the interrelationship in the
formal, final gesture of the boo(, when Selina throws one of the two traditional silver bangles
worn by all 'est Indian girls into the landscape of urban 3roo(lyn, while she (eeps the other.
It is a gesture that has been preceded by similar rituals e,emplifying the bicultural tension and
energy of this immigrant community. Arom the women*s rituals around Silla*s (itchen table,
through I6atha Steed*s hybrid wedding, to the religious revivals of Aather /eace and the
meetings of the 3arbadian"American Association, the novel*s rituals reflect the many
intersecting and conflicting elements of its characters* heritage the African, the !aribbean
mi, of slavery and 3ritish colonialism, and the urban and materialistic 4uality of American
=et that outline is not necessarily one of progress, as Garshall demonstrates in the rest of her
opus. 2ather than focusing on urban American life, she moves through time and space to the
!aribbean as her literary landscape. This Darc of recovery,F as critic Susan 'illis puts it,
characteri:es Garshall*s revolutionary )ourney, her search for wholeness in the diaspora.
'hatever material gains 'est Indians may have made in the United States, the 4uestion of
what they may have lost and may need to recover looms large in $rown Girl, $rownstones- In
carefully analy:ing the characters of 9eighton and !live 5one an artist without a form, the
other a thin(er and would"be painter8, as well as their virtual ostracism from the community,
Garshall as(s hard 4uestions about the values adopted by her immigrant community in its
4uest for material success. And by ma(ing the search for the spiritualTintellectual values these
men could potentially give their community an intrinsic part of her novel about a brown
woman*s coming of age Garshall initiates the first lap of her lifelong )ourney to the recovery
of an ancestral wholeness, even as she evo(es the dilemmas of the present for peoples of the
blac( diaspora. /erhaps Selina, who is both her father and her mother*s daughter, will
struggle to that wholeness through her unity of these apparent opposites.
$rown Girl, $rownstones was a critical success, with fine reviews appearing in such
prestigious publications as the New Yorker, the Saturda+ %eview of Literature, and the New
York Ti!es- It was not a commercial success, partly because the theme of a girl*s coming of
age had not been recogni:ed as it would be twenty years later when Garshall*s novel would
be praised as a touchstone wor( in contemporary American women*s literature and partly
because of Garshall*s refusal to cultivate a mar(etable image. <onetheless the publication of
$rown Girl, $rownstones had two important immediate effects. The writing of her first novel
convinced Garshall that she had to be a fiction writer. And the novel suggested to those who
did manage to discover it in the #@%.s that there was a comple,ity and richness in blac(
women*s lives that had yet to be mined in literature.

73#T T,) T"#// 23S/ ST=4I/S
II. 1 #I2"3#4 ,#IG"T?S NATIVE SON
T"/ 3=T")# 384 "IS TI+/S
After 3igger Thomas, the central character of the novel Native Son, has Dmurdered a white
girl and cut her head off and burnt her body,F he thin(s that he has Dcreated a new life for
himself. It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had
anything that others could not ta(e from him.F 2ichard 'right could well have felt the same
way about the 4uiet, creative act of writing Native Son as that novel*s protagonist felt about
his bloody act of violence. 'right had grown up poor and lonely, without a stable family life,
a regular education, or a solid community of friends. Until he was in his late twenties, no one
too( his ambitions seriously. 3ut Native Son gave 'right Dnew lifeF as a financially secure
and internationally famous author. And, unli(e the brief sense of power that came from
3igger*s physical e,pression of anger, the changes resulting from 'right*s literary e,pression
of the same emotion were permanent.
Some of 'right*s early bac(ground resembles 3igger*s. Ei(e 3igger, he was brought up
without a fatherH li(e 3igger*s family, 'right*s also left the South for the urban ghetto of
!hicagoH li(e 3igger, whose schooling only went as far as the eighth grade, 'right*s finished
with the ninth, and li(e his fictional creation, the author of Native Son grew up a loner and a
rebel, whose devoutly religious family thought him a candidate for a life of crime.
And 2ichard 'right*s life affected his writing in two more fundamental ways as well. 1e was
often a victim of the white world*s hostility to blac(sH as a result many of his boo(s, including
Native Son, portray both racial discrimination and the blac( response to that in)ustice.
Similarly, even as an adult, 'right fre4uently felt isolated, from blac(s as well as from
whites, and several of his ma)or characters share this sense of being separate and alone.
'right was born on September C, #@.$, in a tenant farmer*s cabin in the hamlet of 2o,ie,
Gississippi. 1is father, <athaniel, was a son of one of the few local freedmen to have retained
the small farm he had ac4uired after the !ivil 'ar. 3ut because <athaniel deserted the family
when 2ichard was five, his mother, lla 'ilson 'right, was by far the more important parent
to him. Unli(e <athaniel, lla was from the middle class and had ac4uired an education. She
had been a schoolteacher, but she gave up that profession to help <athaniel with his farming.
After <athaniel left her, she wor(ed as a maid until a paralytic stro(e made her and her
children dependent on the support of lla*s own parents and siblings. In $lack $o+, an
account of his childhood and youth, 'right says his mother*s suffering was one of the ma)or
influences on his developing personality.
3ut he e,perienced much pain of his own too. 1is family was so poor that 'right was often
acutely hungry, and the 'rights moved so fre4uently that he never put down sustained roots
in one community. 1e also felt oppressed by his maternal grandmother*s stern religion, which
led her to ban fiction from the household because she regarded it as the wor( of the devil.
'ith his mother severely ill, 'right found little sympathy or understanding at home and was
usually 4uite lonely.
'right also chafed under the racial hostility that he e,perienced. After the !ivil 'ar, the
South had found ways of preventing the freed slaves from attaining e4uality. At the time
'right was growing up, Southern whites prevented blac(s from voting, maintained separate
and inferior educational institutions for them, tried to (eep them from holding all but the most
menial )obs, and insisted on their behaving deferentially in the presence of whites.
Such discriminatory practices directed against people of a particular color, ethnic bac(ground,
or race are called Dracist,F as are the attitudes, ideas, and pre)udices used to )ustify such
une4ual treatment. As 'right was to learn later, racism e,isted in the <orth as well as in the
South. 3ut in the South it was sanctioned by law, and it was more universally accepted and
more severely applied. 3lac(s who violated the South*s racial codes often faced violence, as
did 'right*s uncle, Silas D3usterF 1os(ins, who was (illed by whites who wanted to ta(e
over his business and property. 'right describes this incident and many of his later
encounters with racism in $lack $o+.
In #@B&, after completing the ninth and final grade of the blac( public school in 0ac(son,
Gississippi, 'right saved some money and left for Gemphis, Tennessee, where he wor(ed
for an optical company. In Gemphis, 'right discovered the angry )ournalism of 1. E.
Genc(en, as well as the realistic novels of writers li(e Sinclair Eewis, Sherwood Anderson,
and Theodore 9reiser. 'right had already learned to love fiction and had even written a story
published in his local newspaper. 3ut his interest had been adventure and escape stories.
Genc(en*s bitter attac(s on American institutions made 'right aware that words could be
weapons, while Eewis*s and 9reiser*s realistic portraits of middle and wor(ing class life
taught him that literature could help to understand the world, not )ust to escape from it.
The racism of Gemphis was almost as oppressive to 'right as that of Gississippi. In a pattern
continuing into his adulthood, he fled to hopefully freer territory, the <orthern city of
!hicago. Arriving in late #@B-, 'right wor(ed as a porter, dishwasher, substitute post office
cler(, hospital orderly, and insurance salesman. This last )ob introduced him to many poor
blac( households and gave him bac(ground information for Native Son. And, for a while, the
'rights, li(e 3igger*s family, all shared one room.
As the 6reat 9epression that began in #@B@ threw 'right and millions of others out of wor(,
radical political movements gained many new adherents. In #@??, 'right )oined the 0ohn
2eed !lub, an organi:ation of writers and artists who were members of or sympathi:ers with
the !ommunist /arty. One of the !hicago club*s most active participants, 0an 'ittenber, is
thought to have become a model for Native Son*s 0an rlone. The club strongly supported
'right*s literary efforts, and he agreed with the !ommunists* call for unity among poor and
wor(ing people of all races. Eeft Aront, the !hicago club*s maga:ine, published 'right*s
poetry, and only two months after )oining, he was elected e,ecutive secretary. Shortly
thereafter, 'right )oined the !ommunist /arty. 1e was soon writing poems and essays for
national radical publications, such as Anvil, New 'asses, International Literature, and
&artisan %eview. In #@?& the U.S. government set up a Aederal 'riters* /ro)ect to help
unemployed writers, and the Illinois branch of the /ro)ect hired 'right and assigned him to
the Aederal <egro Theater.
1is literary s(ills were improving, and he began writing fiction, including some short stories
about racial oppression and a humorous novel about !hicago blac(s. Titled Lawd Toda+, the
novel was not published until #@%?, three years after his death.
In Gay #@?-, 'right left !hicago for the nation*s literary and publishing capital, <ew =or(
!ity, where he became 1arlem editor of the !ommunist /arty*s newspaper, the 1ail+ 2orker.
Geanwhile, he was beginning to achieve broader renown. A novella he had submitted to a
literary contest won first pri:e, and that story plus three earlier ones were published as 0ncle
To!/s Children 5#@?$8.
Though it was well received and is still highly regarded by many critics, 'right thought the
boo( was too sentimental. 1e wrote later that he decided to write something Dso hard and
deepF that readers Dwould have to face it without the consolation of tears.F That second boo(
was Native Son 5#@C.8. An immediate best seller, it was also the ma)or achievement of his
career. Though 'right had e,pected Native Son to be controversial, the response of the white
press was immediate, almost unanimous, and wildly enthusiastic. /erhaps the continuing
economic crisis and the great popularity of 0ohn Steinbec(*s social protest novels had created
a more positive cultural climate than 'right had reali:ed. Such influential newspapers and
maga:ines as The New York Ti!es, the New York 3erald:Tri)une, The New Yorker, the
Saturda+ %eview of Literature, The Nation, the New %epu)lic, Newsweek, and Ti!e praised
'right*s social analysis and his literary s(ill. !ritics compared him to the famous American
novelist Theodore 9reiser, to Steinbec(, and even to the great nineteenth"century novelists
!harles 9ic(ens and Ayodor 9ostoevs(y. The response from the blac( press was also
favorable, though tempered with some criticism for his having chosen such a violent
protagonist. And the reading public was as e,cited as the critics. Native Son sold some
B..,... copies in less than three wee(s, a record for its publisher. 'right received a huge
number of letters, the great ma)ority of them praising the novel. Goreover, the South
acclaimed the novel as highly as did the <orth. The city of Gemphis, Tennessee, declared
'right its Dadopted son,F and after <ew =or( and !hicago, sales were best in Atlanta,
6eorgia, and 9allas and 1ouston, Te,as. Almost overnight, 2ichard 'right had become one
of the most famous writers in the United States.
A stage adaptation of Native Son played on 3roadway in #@C#, received enthusiastic reviews,
and then toured several statesH 'right had collaborated on the script. That same year 'right
wrote the te,t for a photographic fol( history of American blac(s, Twelve 'illion $lack
(oices. In it 'right used the socialist ideas he had learned from his membership in the
!ommunist /arty and e,pressed them in emotional and poetic prose. 1e then wrote DThe Gan
'ho Eived Underground,F a fable about a blac( man who hides in a sewer system.
Aoreshadowing some of his later wor(, it de"emphasi:es race and e,plores philosophical
issues of freedom and social responsibility. 9espite his fame, 'right was unable to get it
published until #@CC and then only in part.
At odds with the !ommunist /arty since #@CB, 'right announced his final brea( with that
organi:ation in a #@CC Atlantic 'onthl+ article, DI Tried to 3e a !ommunist,F later reprinted
in The God That ailed, a collection of essays by e,"!ommunist writers. Though 'right*s
involvement in the !ommunist /arty influenced the ideas that the characters 0an and Ga,
present in Native Son, many readers have also found that novel to contain evidence of
'right*s independence from the !ommunists. Indeed, the /arty*s reaction to the novel was
mi,ed. 'hen 'right )oined the !ommunist /arty, the !ommunists emphasi:ed the struggle
against racism. 3ut especially after America*s entry into 'orld 'ar II, they tended to de"
emphasi:e racial issues for fear that the fight for racial e4uality might undermine the unity
needed for the war effort. This change in /arty policy was one reason for 'right*s
disenchantment. 3ut he also felt that the /arty*s insistence on participation in political
organi:ing too( time and energy away from writing and that the /arty did not sufficiently
respect its members* needs to develop as individuals.
Originally, DI Tried to 3e a !ommunistF was to be the concluding section of 'right*s
autobiography. 3ut $lack $o+ was published in #@C& without this account of his !hicago
e,periences. 3lac( 3oy became another best seller. Though its calmer prose and factual
sub)ect matter ma(e it 4uite different from <ative Son, the two are still regarded as 'right*s
most important wor(s.
In #@C%, 'right went to /aris and became friends with some of Arance*s leading intellectuals,
especially the philosopher 0ean"/aul Sartre and his followers. 3ecause 'right felt that in
Arance he could live free of the racial discrimination that still plagued him in the United
States, in #@C- he settled in /aris permanently. Shortly thereafter, he began wor(ing on a
movie version of Native Son. 'right wrote the screenplay and starred in the film, but in the
United States censors insisted on cutting the picture severely, and it received poor reviews
when it opened in #@&#. After this e,perience, 'right returned to composing novels. Sartre*s
philosophical emphasis on isolation and on individual freedom, appealed to him, and Sartre*s
ideas are thought to have influenced his ne,t novel, The "utsider 5#@&?8. A philosophical tale
plotted li(e a detective story, The "utsider re)ects all forms of social pressure in favor of an
e,treme individualism. After The "utsider, 'right used a white hero to e,plore themes of
guilt and violence in Savage 3olida+ 5#@&C8.
'right was also becoming increasingly interested in the colonial world and in Africa
especially. 1e spent the summer of #@&? in the 3ritish dependency (nown as the 6old !oast
5now 6hana8, and his e,perience in Africa formed the basis of several nonfiction attac(s on
colonialism, including $lack &ower 5#@&C8.
In the last years of his life, 'right returned to fiction. The sub)ect matter of The Long 1rea!
5#@&$8, meant to be the first boo( of a trilogy, recalls 3lac( 3oy. It*s a fictional account of a
child growing up in Gississippi. The ne,t year 'right fell ill with amoebic dysentery and
never completely recovered. <onetheless, he continued to write and lecture, and his health
seemed to be improving until on <ovember B$, #@%., he died of a sudden heart attac( at the
age of fifty"two.
'right remains one of the most important Afro"American writers. ven blac( authors li(e
0ames 3aldwin and 2alph llison, who have found fault with him, nonetheless ac(nowledge
'right*s deep influence on their careers. 1e helped them personally when they were
beginning to write, and his success made theirs easier. 'right*s reputation in the United
States declined after the #@C.s, but it began to rise again during the political activism of the
#@%.s. 3lac( political leaders li(e Galcolm V and Sto(ely !armichael praised 'right, and
ldridge !leaver, one of the ma)or blac( writers to emerge from that period, said, DOf all
American novelists of any hue, 2ichard 'right reigns supreme.F 3oth Galcolm V*s
Autobiography and !leaver*s Soul on Ice pattern themselves after 3lac( 3oy*s
autobiographical )ourney toward a clearer understanding of the world, and llison*s Invisible
Gan shows 3lac( 3oy*s influence too. Geanwhile, 'right has affected wor(s as diverse as
Arench playwright 0ean 6enet*s The $lacks and Truman !apote*s murder story In Cold
$lood. And many readers of all colors and political views still find Native Son and $lack $o+
compelling indictments of racism and penetrating character studies of individuals in revolt.
NATIVE SON T"/ 8)(/6
T"/ 76)T
It*s a typical morning in the one"room apartment where 3igger Thomas lives with his mother,
younger brother, and sister in the central blac( section of !hicago. A foot"long rat has been
terrifying the family, and 3igger traps and (ills it. 'hen he*s done, his mother reminds him
that he has a )ob interview that evening. She begs him to ta(e the )ob. If he doesn*t, the family
will be dropped from public assistance. 3igger goes to the pool hall to hang around with his
buddies, 6us, 0ac(, and 6. 1. 1e suggests that the four rob 3lum*s 9elicatessen. Though they
have already committed several other petty robberies, 3igger*s friends are afraid to steal from
a white man. 3igger is scared too, but he won*t admit it. So he bac(s out by pic(ing a fight
with 6us. 3igger decides never to return to the gang. 1e is loo(ing forward to his new )ob.
3igger*s new employers, the 9altons, are a rich white family. 3oth their lu,urious house and
the 9altons themselves ma(e 3igger feel fearful and e,tremely self"conscious. 3ut he is hired
as a chauffeur, and his first assignment is to ta(e the 9altons* daughter Gary to her university
class. To 3igger*s surprise, however, Gary does not want to go to the university. She as(s
him to drive her to meet her boyfriend and re4uests that he not tell anyone about this visit.
3igger is shoc(ed to find out that Gary*s boyfriend, 0an, is a !ommunist and that Gary is a
!ommunist sympathi:er. 1e has heard that !ommunists are cra:y and violent. 3oth 0an and
Gary insist that 3igger eat with them at a restaurant in his own neighborhood. Unaccustomed
to such friendliness from whites, 3igger thin(s they are ridiculing him. 1e feels ashamed and
On the way home all three drin( heavily. 0an gets out to catch a streetcar. 'hen 3igger and
Gary arrive at the 9altons*, Gary is so drun( that 3igger has to carry her to her bedroom.
Then Gary*s blind mother comes in to chec( on her, and 3igger fears being discovered there.
1e holds a pillow over Gary*s head to prevent her from ma(ing a sound. 'hen Grs. 9alton
leaves, 3igger discovers he has (illed Gary. Aighting panic, he remembers that Gary was
planning to leave for 9etroit in the morning and hopes that the family will merely assume that
she left early. 1e decides to burn her body in the furnace downstairs and has to cut her head
off to ma(e her fit.
The ne,t morning 3igger starts to feel e,cited about the (illing. Though it was accidental, he
sees it as a defiance of the white people who have made him so miserable. Then he thin(s of
sending the 9altons a ransom note. /erhaps he can collect some money by ma(ing them thin(
that Gary has been (idnapped. 1e tries to tal( his girlfriend, 3essie, into helping, but she is
afraid. The 9altons are worried about Gary. 3igger has cleverly directed the investigators*
suspicions to 0an and continues to do so by signing his ransom note D2ed.F The story is front"
page news, and reporters crowd into the 9alton house.
<o one thin(s that a young, uneducated blac( man li(e 3igger would have had the
intelligence or audacity to carry out such a plan. 3ut the situation changes dramatically when
one of the reporters discovers Gary*s bones among the furnace ashes. <ow 3igger must flee.
3ecause he fears that 3essie will betray him, he crushes her s(ull with a bric( and leaves her
to die in an abandoned building. Then, penniless, tired, hungry, and cold, 3igger flees from
one empty building to another, while the !hicago police, searching door to door, close in on
him. Ainally, they capture 3igger on a rooftop.
The newspapers portray 3igger as a se, criminal, a primitive blac( man who raped and
murdered a white woman. 3igger*s mother*s preacher advises him to pray to 6od and to turn
to religion, a course 3igger re)ects. 0an visits 3igger and urges him to defend himself with the
aid of a !ommunist lawyer, 3oris Ga,. 3igger signs a confession, but Ga,, who has 3igger
plead guilty, argues that the circumstances of 3igger*s oppressed life )ustify a sentence of life
imprisonment instead of death. As a mob outside demands 3igger*s e,ecution, the )udge
sentences him to the electric chair. Lnowing that he will die, 3igger*s last desperate wish is to
communicate his feelings to Ga,. 1e tells a shoc(ed Ga, that his murders were meaningful
acts that came from deep within. The two men say good"bye, and 3igger is left to face death
T"/ 2"3#32T/#S
+30)# 2"3#32T/#S
*IGG/# T")+3S 3igger is a young blac( man who wants to be able to do all the things
white people do but who (nows he has no such chance. 1e is usually afraid, especially of
humiliation. 1is ignorance and poverty ma(e him ashamed, but he doesn*t want to reveal
either his shame or his fear because such a disclosure would be humiliating too. So 3igger
(eeps his feelings raging inside him, and he is furious at those who provo(e these
overwhelming emotions. 1e is especially furious at whites, not only because they are
responsible for the oppressive conditions of his life but also because they scare and embarrass
him. 3ut he is also often angry at his fellow blac(s, sometimes for their passivity and
sometimes for their ability to see through his poses.
3igger changes during the novel. After (illing Gary, for whose family he wor(s as a
chauffeur, he begins to feel he has the power to retaliate against whites and to ma(e them ta(e
him seriously. And after meeting 3oris Ga,, his lawyer, 3igger finds, for the first time in his
life, that he can release his feelings by tal(ing about them, as well as by acting them out
'hen reading Native Son, you will have to decide whether 3igger is merely a passive product
of his oppressive environment or whether he learns to assert himself meaningfully against that
environment. !ertainly 'right shows you conditions that may have made 3igger the surly,
hostile person you see in the novel.
9iscriminatory housing practices force him to share a one"room apartment with his mother,
brother, and sister, and he has little opportunity for employment. /ossessing only an eighth"
grade education, 3igger cannot compete, and he feels hopeless. That hopelessness can easily
turn into anger in a city where the possibility of a better life dangles so tantali:ingly before
3igger*s eyes.
3ut you can also argue that 3igger learns to assert himself against this oppressive
environment. The novel begins with an alarm cloc( wa(ing 3igger. And throughout, 'right
contrasts two conflicting tendencies of 3igger*s. One is to fall bac( into sleepy passivity. The
other is to awa(en to the world around him, to stand up against it, and to chart his own course.
This awa(ening begins when he (ills Gary. 9o you thin( 3igger can achieve a sense of self"
worth only through brutality and violenceK 9o you thin( he ever wa(es up, or is he living in a
world of illusion throughout the novelK 1ow does 'right himself feel about 3iggerK 1e
certainly portrays 3igger*s brutality in such gory detail that you may well feel that he is trying
to turn you against 3igger. 3ut by letting you (now 3igger*s state of mind, does he ma(e you
sympathi:e with 3igger anyhowK Some readers suggest that, while 3igger*s violence is self"
destructive, it is no more self"destructive than more passive responses to oppression. Through
the character of 3oris Ga,, however, 'right appears to imply that political action would be a
more constructive path. 'hat do you thin(K 3igger dominates the novel. 1e is a fully drawn
individual, but you may also see him as a symbol or representative of something larger. <ote
the possible symbolism of 3igger Thomas*s name+ his first name suggests Dbig nigger,F and
the second may be an ironic reference to DUncle Tom,F a term for blac(s who are eager to win
white approval. At the very least, he may represent one rebellious blac( response to a racist
society. 'right indicated that he modeled 3igger on a 3igger Thomas he (new as a child and
on at least four other similar men he met later in life. The first 3igger terrori:ed 'right and
his playmates, but 'right secretly admired him. Ei(ewise, the other D3iggersF were also
tough loners who defied both white society and the more passive blac(s around them. 3ut
their rebellions ended in self"destruction.
Some readers see 3igger as a symbol of the predicament of all blac( Americans of 'right*s
time. /erhaps 'right encourages such an interpretation by calling 3igger a Dnative son.F
ven blac(s who would never have considered acting li(e 3igger were products of the same
society and may have felt the same feelings and faced the same choices. And you might even
maintain that 3igger represents the plight of modern humanity, regardless of race. Isolated
and misunderstood, 3igger must give his own life a value that none of society*s institutions
will give it. <ote that 'right emphasi:es 3igger*s separation from blac( society almost as
much as his antagonism toward whites.
+#S. T")+3S Grs. Thomas is a hard"wor(ing blac( woman who does all she can to (eep
her family together. 1er main worry is her eldest son, 3igger. She thin(s he*s a troublema(er,
doesn*t li(e the gang he hangs out with, and wants him to get a )ob so her other two children
can stay in school. Grs. Thomas is also a religious woman who finds emotional support in
prayer, and she fears that 3igger*s rowdy life will lead to disaster.
Though Grs. Thomas seems li(e a fine and decent person, by nagging 3igger to improve
himself, she ma(es him angry. After 3igger (ills Gary, he sees his mother as blindly and
passively accepting the conditions of her life. This passivity enrages 3igger, and he feels
humiliated when his mother begs the 9altons to help save him. 9o you find his criticism of
his mother )ustifiedK Is Grs. Thomas*s religion a source of strength or of wea(nessK
*/SSI/ +/3#S 3essie Gears is 3igger*s girlfriend, who wor(s long, hard hours, si, and a
half days a wee(, in the hot (itchen of a white woman*s home. She finds relief at night by
drin(ing. Although neither of them admits it to the other, 3igger and 3essie use each other.
3igger gives 3essie money to buy li4uor, and in return she gives him se,. At times, however,
3essie seems to feel genuine affection for 3igger and to be emotionally dependent on him.
She tal(s of marrying him, and, despite her fear and better )udgment, she considers going
ahead with 3igger*s ransom scheme, if only to prevent him from wal(ing out on her. 9oes
she really care for him, or is this affectionate behavior )ust an actK 3essie may represent one
blac( response to an oppressive environment. =ou could view her drin(ing as a self"
destructive reaction that does not challenge the conditions under which she lives. 3ut 'right
portrays 3essie sympathetically enough that you may see her as a victim. <ote how 3igger
uses her drin(ing to control her, forces her into his ransom plan, and when the plan fails, (ills
her. 9o you sympathi:e with her plight, or do you identify more with the contempt her
cowardice and passivity provo(e in 3iggerK
+3#@ 436T)8 Though a millionaire heiress, Gary 9alton is a !ommunist sympathi:er.
A headstrong young woman, she defies her parents by dating a !ommunist. =ou don*t get to
(now Gary well enough to decide whether her political convictions are solidly grounded or
whether she simply en)oys the romance and e,citement of a secret life with her radical
boyfriend. She is li(eable, though, and her desire to help blac(s li(e 3igger is certainly
sincere. 3ut she is unaware of 3igger*s feelings, and, despite her good intentions, she acts in a
racist manner. She treats 3igger not as an individual whose friendship must be earned, but as
a representative of the blac( raceH and she seems to thin( her political views guarantee her the
right to his companionship.
3ecause the character of 3igger Thomas is so central to Native Son, Gary is important mainly
for her effect on 3igger. 'hile she means only to help him, her whiteness and wealth ma(e
3igger feel self"conscious about his blac(ness and poverty, and her treating him so familiarly
confuses him, then ma(es him feel ashamed at his confusion. Arom that shame springs hate.
In addition, 3igger (nows that white women are forbidden to blac( men and that association
with white women can invite accusations of rape. This potential danger ma(es Gary*s
friendship even more threatening to 3igger. Though 3igger (ills Gary accidentally, he (nows
that he felt li(e murdering her anyhow.
Some readers thin( the white characters in <ative Son are drawn less vividly than the blac(
characters. Others suggest that such a discrepancy is appropriate because 3igger, from whose
point of view the novel is written, would perceive the white characters less clearly and more
stereotypically than he perceives the blac( characters. 3ut Gary, who arouses particularly
strong feelings in 3igger, seems more alive than some of the other white characters.
038 /#6)8/ 0an rlone, Gary 9alton*s lover, is a !ommunist thoroughly committed to
the cause of racial )ustice and social change. 5Some readers thin( 0an was modeled on 0an
'ittenber, a white !ommunist ac4uaintance of 'right*s.8 3ut 0an (nows almost as little as
Gary about how blac( people thin( and feel. =ou get the impression that he treats all blac(s
ali(e rather than as individuals. As a result, 0an ma(es 3igger ashamed and angry, although
he is trying only to treat 3igger as an e4ual. Aor e,ample, he thin(s that sha(ing 3igger*s
hand is a friendly gesture, but 3igger finds such unaccustomed familiarity from a white man
confusing and suspects that 0an is moc(ing him.
0an*s attitude changes in the course of Native Son. 'hen he visits 3igger in )ail, he admits he
was wrong to have e,pected 3igger to accept his offer of instant friendship. 0an even forgives
3igger for having (illed Gary. 9o you find 0an*s forgiveness believableK !ertainly, selfless
people li(e 0an e,ist, but does 'right ma(e this particular selfless character convincingK =ou
might find 0an easier to accept if you saw him wrestling with his conflict about whether to
forgive or to condemn the man who (illed his girlfriend. 3ut the novel*s focus on 3igger and
on 3igger*s e,perience would have made such a portrayal difficult.
*)#IS +3A 3oris Ga, is a lawyer who speciali:es in defending blac(s, members of labor
unions, !ommunists, and others he believes are victims of persecution and discrimination. 1e
doesn*t appear until the third part of <ative Son, but there he becomes one of the novel*s
ma)or characters. Ga, wants to help 3iggerH he defends him in court and ta(es 3igger*s case
to the governor.
Ga, also befriends 3igger. Although he puts much more effort into his legal wor( for 3igger
than into his human relationship with him, Ga, ultimately helps more as a friend than as a
lawyer. Through tal(ing to Ga,, 3igger seems to learn to define his own attitude toward his
crime, even though that attitude shoc(s Ga,. Ga, may not be a fully drawn human being, but
he is an important vehicle for the statement of a political position. 1e believes that an
oppressive society is responsible for 3igger*s crimes and that, instead of lashing out blindly,
3igger should have united with others in political action demanding racial e4uality and social
and economic )ustice. Ga, may be spea(ing for 2ichard 'right because at the time he wrote
<ative Son, 'right*s political views were similar to those e,pressed by Ga,. 'hile wor(ing
on the novel, 'right told a friend that he needed the character of Ga, as a vehicle for his own
+I8)# 2"3#32T/#S
*=44@ 3igger*s younger brother, 3uddy, loo(s up to him and admires 3igger*s toughness.
3ut 3uddy shows no signs of becoming as angry, aggressive, or rebellious as 3igger. To
3uddy, 3igger*s life seems e,citing, but 3uddy is not aware of how fearful and confused
3igger feels. After 3igger (ills Gary, he sees 3uddy*s life as blind and meaningless.
(/#3 3igger*s younger sister, 7era, is a gentle adolescent who wishes 3igger would stop
causing so much trouble. She attends sewing classes, a sign of her desire to ac4uire a s(ill and
to earn a living but also perhaps an indication of how limited her ambitions are. She obviously
loves 3igger, but she feels he is mean to her. In particular, she ob)ects to his loo(ing at her.
She thin(s he stares at her, and his ga:e upsets her and ma(es her self"conscious. <ote that
later in the novel, 3igger himself feels ashamed when Gary and 0an loo( at him. Ei(e 3igger,
too, 7era lives in fear, but while his response to fear is to stri(e out, hers is to shrin( bac(.
'right establishes this difference in the opening scene+ when a rat menaces the household,
3igger (ills it, and 7era faints.
#/(/#/84 "3++)84 2everend 1ammond is a blac( preacher and the spiritual guide
of 3igger*s mother. 1e appears briefly twice, when he visits 3igger in )ail. 'right may be
using 2everend 1ammond to represent the blac( church. 1ammond believes that the proper
response to suffering is to turn to 6od and religion. 'hen 0an urges that 3igger fight the fate
that awaits him, 1ammond opposes this course. In the end, 3igger angrily re)ects 1ammond*s
ideas. 9o you find 1ammond a sympathetic characterK Is 'right critici:ing the path that
1ammond urges blac(s to ta(eK
G=S- 032>- 384 G. ". 6us, 0ac(, and 6. 1. are 3igger*s buddies and his partners in petty
robberies. Ei(e 3igger, they have no )obs and little prospect of bettering their lives. They
shoot pool with 3igger, )o(e with him, and rob small blac( businesses. 3ut they are not as
daring as 3igger, for when he suggests robbing a white man, they hesitate. They seem more
willing than 3igger to accept their limited lives. They also seem calmer and less intense.
3igger seems friendliest to 0ac(, but his relationship with 6us is the most comple,. 9espite
their friendship, 3igger almost (ills 6us in a fight. 6us seems to describe 3igger accurately
when he says that 3igger*s toughness is only a way of hiding his fear. /erhaps 3igger*s anger
at 6us is partly a result of 6us*s accurate perception of him.
4)2 9oc runs the pool hall where 3igger and his gang hang out. 1e tolerates them even
when they tal( of robberies they want to commit and only intervenes when 3igger becomes
+#. 384 +#S. 436T)8 The 9altons are an elderly, rich white couple who sincerely
desire to help blac(s. Gr. 9alton donates money to put ping"pong tables into recreation
centers for blac( youth. 1e hires young blac(s li(e 3igger as chauffeurs. 1is wife encourages
these employees to return to school and helps them to do so. 3ut Gr. 9alton owns the real
estate company that operates the building in which 3igger and his family rent a rat"infested
room. 1is company charges blac(s more than whites and does not allow blac(s to rent in
white neighborhoods. Thus, Gr. 9alton is partly responsible for the plight of !hicago*s
blac(s. And despite their good intentions, neither Gr. nor Grs. 9alton ever relates to 3igger
as a human being. To them he is not an individual, but only one more poor blac( whom they
are generously trying to help. <or do the 9altons understand or sympathi:e with their
daughter*s radical politics. Grs. 9alton, who usually dresses in white, is blind. 1er literal
blindness may be symbolic of the blindness of all white people to the reality of blac( life.
5The family name may refer to 9altonism, a form of color blindness.8
7/GG@ /eggy is the 9altons* loyal Irish maid. She is (ind to 3igger, but she identifies with
the 9alton household rather than with her fellow servant, 3igger. 'hen she spea(s of the
9alton household, she uses the word Dus,F not Dthem.F Ei(e the 9altons, she sees 3igger as a
timid blac( boy, no different from any other. She cannot imagine that he would have either
the intelligence or the daring to commit a murder and to send a ransom note.
*#ITT/8 3ritten is a private investigator employed by Gr. 9alton. Unli(e Gr. 9alton, he is
an overt racist. 1e doesn*t thin( blac(s are worth helping, is initially suspicious of 3igger,
and calls him a !ommunist. 3ut he doesn*t believe that 3igger was able to commit the crime
on his own, without !ommunist help. Thus, 3ritten*s racism helps 3igger avoid detection.
*=2>6/@ 3uc(ley, the State*s Attorney 5prosecutor8 of Illinois, is bent on advancing his
own career by seeing 3igger condemned to the electric chair. 'hen 3igger first sees
3uc(ley*s picture on a campaign poster calling for obedience to the law, he thin(s of him as a
hypocrite because he assumes that politicians are croo(s. 3ut 3uc(ley does not appear in
person until 3igger is in )ail. Then 3uc(ley tries to portray 3igger as a se, criminal, mass
murderer, and !ommunist. 1e badgers 3igger into signing a confession and insists that he
receive the death penalty. To 3igger, 3uc(ley seems typical of the powerful whites bent on
his destruction.
)T"/# /6/+/8TS
One of the ma)or themes of Native Son is the effect of people*s environments on their
behavior and personality. Thus, setting is especially important in the novel. The story ta(es
place in !hicago in the late #@?.s, when the United States had still not recovered from the
6reat 9epression. 0obs are scarce, and 3igger and his pool"hall friends are among the many
unemployed. 2ichard 'right was influenced by the literary school of naturalism, whose
adherents tried to observe and record their world, and especially its more unpleasant parts,
with scientific accuracy. 'right (new 9epression"era !hicago well and drew heavily on his
firsthand (nowledge. In many respects, the !hicago of <ative Son is an accurate
representation even in its details. Aor e,ample, rnie*s Litchen Shac( at Aorty"seventh Street
and Indiana Avenue was modeled on a real restaurant called The !hic(en Shac(, located at
C%C- Indiana Avenue and owned by a man named rnie.
Two aspects of 3igger*s environment influence him especially strongly his confinement to
!hicago*s blac( South Side ghetto and his glimpses of the da::ling white world, of which he
feels he can never be part. 3igger*s family shares a rat"infested room, but, when he sees an
airplane flying overhead or views the glamorous life portrayed in a movie, he feels teased and
tempted by a different, happier world. At the 9altons, 3igger is thrust directly into that freer,
white society. The stri(ing contrast between their impressive mansion and the Thomases* one"
room D(itchenetteF apartment illustrates 3igger*s frustrating predicament.
Gany readers have pointed out, however, that the courtroom and )ailhouse settings of 3oo(
Three are less realistic than the settings of 3oo(s One and Two, perhaps because 'right
himself was less familiar with those environments. And, though few would contest that the
hardships of life in !hicago*s 3lac( 3elt were as oppressive as 'right portrayed them, some
readers point out that the urban ghetto was also a place of opportunity for blac(s by
comparison to the 9eep South, from which most of them had migrated. Aor e,ample, in
!hicago, 'right found the respect and encouragement that he had never e,perienced in rural
Gississippi. 3ut in Native Son, 'right doesn*t seem to ac(nowledge that !hicago could hold
out any hope at all for a poor blac( youth. Ainally, many whites in 9epression"era !hicago
lived in poverty too, but because 3igger does not come into contact with them, they do not
form part of this novel.
9espite their realism, the settings of Native Son also function symbolically. 'right*s !hicago
often has a nightmarish intensity in which e,ternal locations convey his characters* inner
emotions. 3igger*s confining apartment mirrors his feeling of being hemmed in in all other
aspects of his life too. The rat that he pursues there foreshadows the hunted beast that 3igger
himself will become. Ei(ewise, the airplane 3igger sees overhead reminds you of all his
frustrated aspirations to soar away from his limited life. At the 9altons*, however, 3igger
does not soar. Instead they consign him to the symbolic hell of their basement and its fiery
furnace, an appropriate bac(ground for 3igger*s swelling rage. And when 3igger flees the
9altons*, the snow of !hicago*s wintry streets comes to represent the white enemy that
3igger cannot escape.
The following are themes of Native Son.
+30)# T"/+/S+
1. #32IS+ Native Son is an indictment of racism. 2acism affects 3igger*s life at home,
at the 9altons, and in police custody. The Thomases must live in their rat"infested
apartment partly because no one will rent to blac(s in any other section of town. At the
same time, blac(s are charged higher rents than whites. 'hen 3igger goes to the
movies, one of the films portrays blac(s as )ungle savages. After his arrest, 3igger
finds that the press and the public are using racial stereotypes to portray him as a se,
criminal and brutal mass murderer. And despite their best intentions, even the liberal
9altons and the radical 0an and Gary act toward 3igger in a racist manner by failing
to recogni:e him as an individual.
5. *632> #3G/ 3igger Thomas is angry. =ou first see him in conflict with his
mother and sister. Eater he turns in fury on one of his best friends, 6us. 0an and Gary
also enrage him. 1e fre4uently thin(s of Dblotting outF the people around him. And
some of his moments of greatest e,hilaration occur when he vents his hostility in
violence. 3igger*s anger seems to be closely connected to his sense of racial identity.
1e is often furious at other blac(s for their passive responses to the limitations placed
on their lives by whites. And he is fre4uently enraged at whites for ma(ing him feel
ashamed and self"conscious. 9oes 'right share and approve of 3igger*s fury or does
he present it as a tragedyK =our answer to this 4uestion will depend on whose views
you thin( 'right shares. 3y narrating the novel from 3igger*s point of view, 'right
draws you into sympathy with 3igger. =ou can also argue, however, that 'right
identifies more with 3oris Ga,, who seems shoc(ed and upset by 3igger*s attitude
toward violence. 'hat is your response to 3igger*s furyK
9. #/6IGI)8 Although his mother is religious, 3igger decides that she is blind to the
realities of her life. 1e sees his mother*s need for religion as parallel to 3essie*s for
whis(ey. 3oth, he thin(s, are passive, escapist responses to racist conditions. At the
end of the novel, 2everend 1ammond tries to convince 3igger to pray. 3ut 3igger
appears to re)ect the blac( church, and presumably all religion, when he throws away
the crucifi, given him by 2everend 1ammond. 3igger identifies the crucifi, with the
burning cross of the Lu Llu, Llan. 'right seems to be sharply critical of the blac(
religious establishment and its representative, 2everend 1ammond, who even ob)ects
to 0an*s suggestion that 3igger try to fight bac( and save his life. =ou might argue,
however, that 3igger*s re)ection of the cross and of religion is not necessarily the
author*s re)ection. 9o you find the views of either 2everend 1ammond or Grs.
Thomas appealingK Or do you agree with 3igger*s repudiation of themK
'. 2)++=8IS+ 384 #34I236 7)6ITI236 I4/3S 0an rlone is a !ommunist,
Gary 9alton is a !ommunist sympathi:er, and 3oris Ga, is a lawyer who wor(s
closely with causes supported by !ommunists. ven before any of these characters
appears in the novel, 3igger has seen a movie that portrays a !ommunist as a
maniacal bomb thrower. <ative Son contrasts the media image of !ommunists with
!ommunist characters who are decent, warm human beings. Some readers thin(
'right*s portrayal of his !ommunist characters is too ideali:ed. On the other hand,
'right also shows that neither 0an nor Gary understands 3igger and that, despite their
professed concern for blac( people, neither can relate to a blac( man as an individual
human being. As a result, you might maintain that the novel critici:es !ommunists
even while portraying them as victims of unfair stereotyping. In 3oo( Three, 'right
uses 3oris Ga, to present a radical social criti4ue. Ga, argues before the )udge that
3igger*s violence is a predictable response to society*s racism, which is the real
criminal. Ga, also tells 3igger that young unemployed blac(s li(e him should wor(
with other blac(s and with trade unions and radical movements. Gany readers thin(
that Ga, spea(s for 'right and that Ga,*s arguments are those of the !ommunist
/arty of 'right*s time. =ou might 4uestion whether Ga, ever really understands
3igger, however. If you feel he doesn*t, this limitation might be evidence that he isn*t
a completely reliable spo(esman for 'right. 9o you agree with any of Ga,*s
5. 4/T/#+I8IS+ 384 B#//4)+ 3igger feels happier and freer after he (ills
Gary. 1is violence against a white woman gives him a sense of power. At the end of
<ative Son, he even implies that his (illings e,pressed his deepest self. =ou could
argue that through his violent rebellion, 3igger has transcended or risen above the
passivity of the other blac( characters. Arom this point of view, 3igger*s violence is an
assertion of his freedom and a rebellion against society*s constraints. 3ut 3igger*s
lawyer 3oris Ga, suggests that 3igger is only a passive product of his society.
3igger*s violence, he says, is a refle, created by the oppressive conditions of his life.
Arom this viewpoint, 3igger is at least as blind, passive, and self"destructive as the
novel*s other blac( characters, and perhaps even more so.
+I8)# T"/+/S
1. The relationship between men and women is another of the themes of Native Son.
3igger*s affair with 3essie is affected by the difficult conditions of their lives. ach
uses the other as a means of escape, but genuine love between them doesn*t seem
possible. 3igger is attracted to Gary, and she may be attracted to him, too, but the
racial barrier prevents Gary from even understanding 3igger and ma(es 3igger fear
and hate Gary.
5. Another theme is 'right*s criti4ue of the criminal )ustice system in the U.S . 'right
suggests that the court*s verdict is predictable and perhaps even that the court is
carrying out the will of the mob. Alienation 5isolation8 is an additional theme of
<ative Son. 3igger is isolated from whites and blac(s ali(e, and his acts of self"
assertion cut him off from humanity even further.
9. 3lac( family life is another of the novel*s concerns . 3igger*s father was the victim of
a Southern lynch mob. And 3igger*s family lives in such crowded conditions that they
get on each other*s nerves.
'. Ainally the novel considers media stereotyping . 3oth the movies and the newspapers
stereotype minorities, !ommunists, rich people, and criminals.
2ichard 'right favors short, simple, blunt sentences that help maintain the 4uic( narrative
pace of the novel, at least in the first two boo(s. Aor e,ample, consider the following passage+
D1e lic(ed his lipsH he was thirsty. 1e loo(ed at his watchH it was ten past eight. 1e would go
to the (itchen and get a drin( of water and then drive the car out of the garage.F 'right*s
imagery is often brutal and elemental, as in his fre4uently repeated references to fire and snow
and Gary*s bloody head.
Though the style is similar to that of much of the detective fiction of 'right*s day, some
readers find it perfectly suited to a novel told from the point of view of an uneducated youth,
driven by overpowering feelings of fear, shame, and hate. ven the novel*s cliches 5stale or
overused phrases or e,pressions li(e D...he had his destiny in his graspF8 may fit a central
character who gets his information about the larger world from the cliche"ridden mass media.
'right wor(ed within the literary tradition (nown as naturalism. The naturalists wanted to
compile social data in such a way as to give a scientific e,planation for their characters*
behavior. 3ut 'right goes beyond merely presenting social data. At times Native Son seems
more li(e a nightmare than li(e social science.
<ote that 'right was also attracted to the horror and detective stories of dgar Allan /oe.
One of 'right*s stated goals was to ma(e readers DfeelF the heat of the 9altons* furnace and
the cold of a !hicago winter. 3ut he also ma(es the cold and heat symbols of the e,ternal
forces aligned against 3igger and of the powerful emotions raging within him. Other patterns
of imagery that appear throughout the novel include beasts 5the rat, 3igger as a hunted animal,
3igger portrayed in the newspapers as a gorilla8H suffocation 5the fire being cho(ed out by the
accumulated ashes, 3igger*s own feelings of suffocating confinement8H blindness 5Grs.
9alton*s literal blindness, the other characters* figurative blindness8H staring 53igger staring at
7era, Gary and 0an staring at 3igger, the cat staring at 3igger after the murder8H walls 5the
wall of the Thomases* apartment and of 3igger*s )ail cell, the Dlooming white wallsF of 0an
and Gary in the car8.
7)I8T )B (I/,
The third"person narrator of Native Son is neither ob)ective nor omniscient 5all"(nowing8.
Almost throughout the novel, he sees through the eyes of 3igger Thomas. 1e is aware of
3igger*s thoughts and feelings, but he sees other characters only from the outside. This point
of view has several conse4uences. Aor e,ample, some readers thin( the novel*s white
characters are less fully developed than the blac( characters. 3ut they argue that this
discrepancy stems from 3igger*s greater understanding of his fellow blac(s. Ei(ewise, the
novel uses stylistic cliches 5stale or overused e,pressions li(e, D...he had his destiny in his
graspF8 that may be )ustified as being the terms in which 3igger understands his world. And,
though some readers thin( that 0an would have been more believable if 'right had shown his
internal conflicts, 'right could not have done so without abandoning the focus on 3igger.
/erhaps the ma)or effect of narrating Native Son from 3igger*s point of view is to allow you
to sympathi:e with a character who might otherwise seem repugnant. =ou understand what
3igger is going through, even if no one else around him does. 3ut you should not
automatically assume that 3igger*s outloo( is that of 2ichard 'right. In fact, one of the ma)or
controversies about <ative Son is whether 'right approved of 3igger or condemned him.
'right is not completely consistent in his determination to adhere to 3igger*s point of view.
The greatest lapse is found in 3oo( Three, where 'right presents all of Ga,*s speech to the
)udge, even though he says that 3igger could only understand Ga,*s tone of voice, not his
words. And 'right occasionally uses more sophisticated words and phrases than 3igger
would have been li(ely to use. Aor e,ample, he has 3igger Dloo(ing wistfully upon the dar(
face of ancient waters upon which some spirit had breathed and created him.F
B)#+ 384 ST#=2T=#/
Native Son is divided into three boo(s, titled DAear,F DAlight,F and DAate.F The absence of
chapter divisions or flashbac(s helps maintain the novel*s rapid narrative pace. It also
emphasi:es the turning points that occur at the end of each boo(. In each boo(, the
circumstances of 3igger*s life change, and in each boo( his attitude toward life changes too.
As its title suggests, 3oo( One portrays a fearful 3igger. 1is fear leads him to three violent
confrontations, each more conse4uential than the one before. After (illing the rat, he leaves
home for the pool hall, where he almost (ills his friend 6us. The confrontation at the pool hall
helps him decide to ta(e the )ob at the 9altons. 3ut the day ends in his murder of Gary
9alton. The murder of Gary is the clima, of 3oo( One. 3igger resolves the crisis created by
Gary*s death when he decides to burn her body and turn suspicion upon 0an.
In 3oo( Two, 3igger*s DAlightF has double meaning. At first the (illing of Gary ta(es away
his fear. 1e feels a sense of power and freedom that he has never felt before. Although he had
wanted to fly as an aviator and thereby escape his confining life, (illing Gary is as close as he
has ever come to escaping. 3ut the second part of 3oo( Two sees him fleeing rather than
flying. The boo(*s clima, is the discovery of Gary*s bones. The crisis created by that
discovery is resolved when 3igger falls from his rooftop perch and the police capture him.
The first two boo(s are more similar to each other than either is to the third.
'hile DAearF and DAlightF focus on the gruesome events of a murder story, DAateF emphasi:es
a combination of social analysis, philosophical and political argument, and 3igger*s internal
reflections. The first two boo(s relate many dramatic events, but 3oo( Three contains more
tal( and thought than e,ternal action. The clima, of 3oo( Three is the )udge*s re)ection of
Ga,*s arguments and the death sentence he pronounces upon 3igger. 3igger must then decide
how to approach his impending death. That decision is the final resolution of both 3oo( Three
and the novel as a whole.
T"/ ST)#@
*))> )8/ B/3#
Though 'right uses no chapter divisions, he occasionally separates sections with a line of
dots. This study guide follows 'right*s divisions and gives each one a title to ma(e the
narration easier for you to follow.
*IGG/# I8 T"/ G"/TT)
The first part of 3oo( One introduces you to 3igger Thomas and to his family and friends. It
portrays 3igger*s fear, his desire to escape, and his violence.
Native Son begins with the sound of an alarm cloc(. Ei(e much of the novel, this scene shows
the realistic details of 3igger*s life and environment. 3ut it can be read symbolically too. The
opening paragraphs depict 3igger*s literal awa(ening in the morning, and your first glimpse
of him is of a man hovering between sleep and wa(efulness. Eater you will learn that 3igger*s
life alternates between sleepy indifference and angry, often violent, activity. Gany readers
interpret 3igger*s development of his own sense of self"worth as a movement toward greater
awareness, a gradual awa(ening. According to this interpretation, the opening of <ative Son
both foreshadows 3igger*s future 5his eventual awa(ening8 and illustrates his present
emotional state 5half"asleep, half"awa(e8.
3igger, his brother 3uddy, his sister 7era, and his mother dress. The boys have to loo( away
while the women dressH then the women loo( away while the brothers dress. The apartment
contains only one room, and this scene illustrates the close 4uarters in which this family lives.
3ut it also introduces the shame that results from being loo(ed at. Eater 3igger will burn with
shame under the ga:e of Gary and 0an. 3ut the tiny family apartment ma(es being loo(ed at
an issue even at home. 3efore they have finished dressing, the family notices a rat scurrying
along the floor. 3igger orders 3uddy to bloc( off the rat*s hole. Then he corners the rodent
and (ills it by beating its head in with a s(illet.
3igger teases his sister with the dead rat and ma(es her faint. 1is mother is upset, and she
says that she sometimes regrets having given birth to 3igger. She calls him Dblac( cra:y.F
3igger*s relationship with both his mother and his sister seems 4uite tense. 1e feels that a
wall separates him and his family. Over brea(fast, Grs. Thomas urges 3igger to ta(e a )ob
that he has been offered. If he refuses, the family will be removed from public assistance. 1er
nagging angers 3igger.
3igger leaves the house and heads for the pool hall to visit with his friends, 0ac(, 6us, and 6.
1. 1e sees wor(ers putting up a campaign poster for the State*s Attorney, 3uc(ley, who will
be important in 3oo( Three. 3igger thin(s about a robbery he and his friends had once
considered. Although they have held up some small blac( businesses in the past, this store is
run by a white man named 3lum. 2obbing 3lum*s would be a big step for 3igger and his
gang. At the pool hall, 6us and 3igger stand outside and tal(. They see a plane circling
overhead. It is a s(ywriting plane, and the two young men watch the wispy white smo(e
gradually spell out the words, DUse Speed 6asoline,F a message that only highlights the fact
that neither 3igger nor 6us has any chance of owning a car. Ei(e the opening scene in which
3igger (ills the rat, this scene accomplishes several ob)ectives. =ou learn that the blac( ghetto
is not completely shut off from the outside white world, which intrudes teasingly, reminding
3igger and his friends of the possibilities denied them.
3ut the plane also becomes a symbol. It represents 3igger*s desire to fly, not simply literally,
by being an aviator, but also by soaring beyond all the limitations of his environment. /erhaps
the airplane*s white smo(e adds to the symbolism by associating the freedom of flying with
the color white. This scene ends with 3igger turning his fantasy of freedom into one of
violence. 1e imagines using the plane to drop bombs on whites. 6us and 3igger then play at
T"/ #3T S2/8/ In the essay D1ow I3igger* was 3orn,F 'right says that when he began writing <ative
Son, he could not thin( of an opening scene. 1e decided to proceed without one, and when he had almost
finished the novel, this opening came to him. <ote how much it accomplishes. Of course the rat illustrates the
miserable conditions under which the Thomases live. 3ut in addition, 3igger*s (illing the rat helps reveal his
character+ he en)oys the violent clash. The rat is the first of many animal images in this novel. And the fate of the
cornered, hunted rat foreshadows 3igger*s eventual fate, )ust as the crushing of its head foreshadows 3igger*s
murder of his girlfriend 3essie in 3oo( Two.
being white. They pretend to be a general, a big businessman, and the president of the United
3igger and 6us continue to tal(, and 3igger says that being blac( is D)ust li(e living in )ail,F
an ironic statement in light of what eventually happens to him. 3igger feels that the white
fol(s live in his stomach, where they burn li(e fire. Aoreshadowing what is to come, he says
that he e,pects that Dsomething awfulF will happen to him or that he will do Dsomething he
can*t help.F 6us understands, adding that the feeling is li(e one of falling. =ou may want to
return to this conversation after you finish 3oo(s One and Two.
3igger and 6us enter 9oc*s pool hall, where 0ac( and 6. 1. soon )oin them. 3igger reminds
his three friends of their plan to rob 3lum*s, but the others are hesitant. Though 3igger taunts
them for being scared, he is afraid too. 0ac( and 6. 1. agree to go along. As 3igger awaits
6us*s decision, he begins to hate 6us because he (nows that if 6us decides to go, the robbery
will ta(e place, and 3igger will have no e,cuse to bac( out. Ainally, 6us accepts the plan, but
he rightly accuses 3igger of being scared and of using his anger to disguise his fear. 3igger
curses 6us, and the two almost fight. The four friends leave the pool hall and agree to return
at three o*cloc( for the robbery.
3igger reali:es that he has emerged from his Dcurtain of indifferenceF and that he now feels
an intense, violent energy. <ote that he usually alternates between moods of indifference and
violent anger. 1e seems to feel that viewing a movie will release some of the angry energy
that has sei:ed him.
3igger and 0ac( go to a double feature. In the first movie, The 6ay 'oman, a rich young
white woman meets secretly with her boyfriend, while her millionaire husband is busy at
wor(. 3ut one evening when the lovers are at a night club, a wild"loo(ing man enters and
throws a bomb at them. The boyfriend catches the bomb and throws it out the window before
it can e,plode. It*s revealed that the bomb"thrower was a !ommunist who thought he was
attac(ing the millionaire husband.
0. 7. +)#G38 0ohn /ierpont Gorgan 5#$%-"#@C?8 was a financier and the son of 0ohn /ierpont Gorgan
5#$?-"#@#?8, whose holdings he inherited. The Gorgans had used their ban(s to gain control of a huge empire of
industries, railroads, and insurance companies. They financed corporate mergers and in return gained ma)or roles
in the merged companies. One of the most important companies they controlled was U.S. Steel. Of course, the
Gorgans* economic power gave them tremendous political power as well. 3ut to those who were opposed to
such concentrations of wealth, the name Gorgan became almost synonymous with what they saw as big
business*s e,cessive power.
Ei(e the airplane trailing white smo(e, the movie is another e,ample of the way the white
world teases 3igger and his friends with a da::ling freedom that they can never achieve.
3ecause 3igger*s new )ob will be at a white family*s house, 3igger and 0ac( )o(e about the
loose lives these whites seem to lead. 9uring the ne,t feature, a film about blac(s dancing
na(ed in the )ungle, 3igger fantasi:es about his new )ob at the 9altons*. Gaybe Gr. 9alton
will be a millionaire with a DhotF daughter who will want him to ta(e her to the South Side.
Gaybe she*ll have a secret boyfriend, and 3igger will drive her to see him.
'hen you finish 3oo( One, you will see )ust how ironic this fantasy becomes. It comes true,
but not in the pleasant way that 3igger hopes for. <ote also that the movie presents the first
!ommunist to appear in the novel. 3igger has no idea what a !ommunist is, and the movie
portrays the !ommunist according to the popularly held image, or stereotype, of !ommunists,
)ust as the other movie stereotypes blac(s. Thin(ing about the )ob at the 9altons* ma(es
3igger more uneasy than ever about the ris( of robbing 3lum*s. 'hen 3igger returns to the
pool hall, 6us hasn*t arrived yet, and when he finally does, 3igger, furious, pic(s a fight with
him for being late. 6us runs off, and without him the robbery can*t ta(e place. On his way
out, 3igger slashes 9oc*s pool table.
'hat does this incident tell you about 3iggerK =ou*ve learned that he*s afraid, that his fear
turns easily into anger and violence, and that his violence turns more readily against other
blac(s than against whites. =ou may also have found him to be a loner, ill at ease with both
his family and friends.
*IGG/# 3T T"/ 436T)8S?
T"/ S)=T" SI4/ The South Side blac( ghetto of 'right*s !hicago was a rectangle, one"and"one"half miles
wide and seven miles long. Its western border was the trac(s of the !entral and 'estern Illinois 2ailroad, on the
other side of which lived Ge,ican, /olish, and Irish immigrants. To the east was the University of !hicago and
to the north a newly constructed white residential neighborhood. Though there were a few blac( enclaves outside
the South Side and though the ghetto was gradually pushing further south, the South Side was almost a blac( city
within the larger white city around it. It had some B..,... residents, but )ust about the only )obs available within
the ghetto*s borders were for shop(eepers and gambling house owners.
3igger goes to the 9altons*, where the unfamiliar surroundings intimidate him. 1e is e,cited
about the new )ob, but he is e,tremely upset by the strange behavior of young Gary 9alton
and her !ommunist boyfriend, 0an.
As the second half of 3oo( One begins, 3igger is leaving for his )ob interview. 1e brings his
(nife and gun with him, as if only by being armed could he cope with the frightening power
of the white world. 'hen he reaches the high, iron fence of the 9altons* mansion, he is
nervous. 3igger doesn*t (now whether to go in the front or the bac(, and, as he wanders
around, he fears that if a policeman sees him, he may be accused of robbery or rape. After you
read further, you may want to reflect on 3igger*s fear of being accused of rape. 1owever
e,aggerated such a worry seems at the moment, later you will see 3igger*s fear come
nightmarishly true.
3igger goes through the 9altons* fence and thin(s that even if he is doing wrong, the 9altons
can only deny him the )ob, not (ill him. This thought may also be ironic, in view of later
events. /eggy, the 9altons* maid, lets 3igger into the house. 3igger is uncomfortable as he
feels her staring at him. verything about the house seems strange, and 3igger feels
intimidated by the dim lighting, the unusual paintings on the walls, the 4uiet music playing,
and the large, soft armchair in which /eggy has him wait. Soon, /eggy ta(es 3igger into Gr.
9alton*s office. Gr. 9alton spea(s (indly but, li(e /eggy, he ga:es at 3igger, and his loo(
ma(es 3igger feel self"conscious.
3igger and Gr. 9alton are tal(ing, an elderly woman, Grs. 9alton, enters the room. 1er face
and hair are so white that 3igger thin(s she resembles a ghost. Eater, she will also be dressed
in white. 'hy do you thin( 'right emphasi:es Grs. 9alton*s whitenessK Leep this emphasis
on whiteness in mind, as it will become important later in 3oo( One.
Though the 9altons are tal(ing about him, 3igger cannot understand what they are saying. 1e
feels as though there are hidden presences in the roomH he feels blind. 'hen Grs. 9alton
leaves, Gr. 9alton tells 3igger that she is blind. 3igger stands with his eyes lowered and
Images related to the eyes and to sight pervade Native Son. 1ere, /eggy*s DstaringF and Gr. 9alton*s Dga:ingF
ma(e 3igger angry and uncomfortable. Eater, the way Gary and 0an loo( at 3igger will intensify those feelings.
=ou should also note the guilt and fear 3igger e,periences under the ga:e of the 9altons* cat, and the shame
3igger*s sister feels when he loo(s at her. <ote, too, the emphasis put on blindness, both Grs. 9alton*s literal
blindness and the symbolic blindness that 3igger discovers in his fellow blac(s.
shoulders stoopedH he assumes that white people wish him to maintain this humble stance.
9alton as(s 3igger for the note the welfare office gave him, and 3igger is so clumsy in trying
to find it that he wishes he could wave his hand and Dblot outF the man who is embarrassing
him, or, failing that, blot out himself. 3igger*s fear, shame, and self"consciousness as a poor
blac( in a completely unfamiliar world of rich whites ma(es him feel humiliated. 2egardless
of your race or economic status, however, you can probably thin( of times when you have felt
li(e 3igger feels during this interview.
Gr. 9alton tries to put 3igger at ease by saying that he was once a boy too, and he
understands what 3igger is going through. =ou may ta(e Gr. 9alton at his word, but you may
instead thin( that he understands little indeed. 3igger*s feelings do not derive from being a
DboyFH rather they come from being poor and blac(. =ou may also want to 4uestion Gr.
9alton*s calling twenty"year"old 3igger a Dboy.F 'ould Gr. 9alton have used this word to a
white man the same age as 3iggerK !ould using a term traditionally applied by racists to
blac( men show a lac( of sensitivity on 9alton*s partK Then Gr. 9alton as(s 3igger if he
would steal on the )ob. The 4uestion appears to assume that 3igger would be naive and stupid
enough to answer Dyes,F if he in fact would steal. In his autobiography, 3lac( 3oy, 'right
says he was once as(ed the same 4uestion by a racist Southerner.
Gr. 9alton hires 3igger as a chauffeur. 1e ma(es two comments that you may find ironic in
view of later events. 1e says, DI don*t thin( we*ll have any trouble,F and he tells 3igger to
ta(e Sunday mornings off Dunless something une,pected happens.F 3efore 3igger and Gr.
9alton are finished, Gary 9alton comes into the room. She as(s 3igger if he is a union
member, and she calls her father a Dcapitalist.F 3igger, who (nows little about unions and
who doesn*t (now what a capitalist is, finds Gary*s behavior upsetting.
3igger also has no
idea what Gr. 9alton is tal(ing about when he says that he supports the <ational Association
for the Advancement of !olored /eople 5<AA!/8.
3igger finds that Gary is not what he imagined her to be when he was watching the movie, The 6ay 'oman.
<ative Son fre4uently contrasts media images of the world with the realities these images distort. 3igger did not
notice that one of the two movies he saw presented a false picture of blac(s. And he believed the other movie*s
portrayal of both !ommunists and rich people. 'right will later show that the movie*s depiction of !ommunists
was false. 3ut here he shows that the movie was unfair to rich people too. Leep this point in mind when you try
to decide whether 'right was e,cessively influenced by radical political doctrine
83327 The blac( intellectual '. . 3. 9u 3ois and a group of white progressives founded the <AA!/ in
#@.@. Its goal was complete racial e4uality, at that time a radical cause supported by few mainstream political
leaders, blac( or white. 3y 2ichard 'right*s time, the <AA!/ had become a moderate civil rights organi:ation
with strong roots in the blac( middle class and clergy. 'right strongly disli(ed the <AA!/*s refusal to support
/eggy brings 3igger into the (itchen and gives him food. She comments that Gr. 9alton gives
money to DcoloredF schools, and she mentions that, though his wife had millions when he
married her, he also made a great deal of money in real estate after the marriage. =ou have
already been told that Gr. 9alton may be the owner of the real estate company that rents the
Thomases their apartment. 9o you find it ironic that a man ma(es money renting blac(s rat"
infested apartments and then donates some of that money to blac( schoolsK 9o these
donations ma(e you thin( better of him or worseK /eggy says that she understands Dcolored
people.F =ou will have to decide later whether she understands 3igger any better than Gr.
9alton does. 9oes she assume that all blac(s are ali(eK /eggy shows 3igger the basement
furnace he will be in charge of sto(ing.
Then she ta(es him to his room, which is decorated with the previous chauffeur*s pictures of
blac( bo,ers and white female movie stars. 'right*s use of white stereotypes of blac(s has
spar(ed controversy. One such stereotype is that blac( men are especially attracted to white
women and vice versa. 'right seems to be suggesting that 3igger*s predecessor, 6reen, was
fascinated by white women. 9o you thin( he is suggesting thisK Some readers have critici:ed
'right for seeming to affirm racist stereotypes. 9o you agree or disagree with this criticismK
3igger feels enthusiastic about his )ob. 1is first assignment is to drive Gary to her university
class. 3ut on the way there, Gary orders 3igger to change directions. She does not plan to go
to her class at all and wants 3igger to (eep her true destination a secret. =ou may find Gary
4uite appealing. 3ut note how she orders 3igger around. Though she seems to be trying to
treat him as an e4ual, she doesn*t hesitate to order him to light her cigarette, for e,ample.
3igger has mi,ed feelings about Gary. Ei(e all rich whites, she scares him, and her
unpredictability ma(es her seem even more dangerous. 3ut she treats him as a human being
and thus gives him an unfamiliar feeling of freedom. 3igger is even more confused when they
pic( up Gary*s !ommunist boyfriend, 0an. 0an and Gary violate the unspo(en rules that, in
3igger*s e,perience, have always governed blac("white social contact. 0an insists on sha(ing
hands with 3igger, and he wants 3igger to call him 0an instead of Dsir.F 0an insists on driving
the car himself, and he has 3igger sit between him and Gary. Then both 0an and Gary
demand that 3igger ta(e them to a restaurant in the blac( ghetto. They ma(e 3igger feel even
the more militant protest tactics of the !ommunist /arty. 3ut in #@C#, the <AA!/ gave him its highest award,
the Spingarn Gedal, for 0ncle To!/s Children and Native Son.
worse by as(ing him to eat with them. 3igger thin(s Gary is laughing at his confusion. 1e
feels self"conscious and ashamed, and then angry as a result. 1e believes people are loo(ing
at him, and he wishes he could ta(e a heavy ob)ect and Dblot outF the car with the three of
them in it.
9o 0an and Gary deserve 3igger*s hateK They are the first white people to treat him as an
e4ual, and you may well regard 3igger*s feelings toward them as a tragic misunderstanding.
3ut you could also argue that 0an and Gary do act in a racist manner toward 3igger.
According to this line of thought, they tell him what to do without considering his feelings,
and instead of trying to win his trust, they simply order him to be their friend. Is their insisting
that he ta(e them to his neighborhood a sign of friendship or of arroganceK /erhaps some sign
of racism is also implicit in their fre4uent references to <egro spirituals, one of which Gary
even sings in blac( dialect. 1ad they gotten to (now 3igger as an individual, they might have
found that, while his mother sings spirituals, 3igger has no use for them. They offer 3igger
fried chic(en. Eater, driving bac( from the restaurant, they compliment blac(s on having so
much Demotion,F another stereotype. =ou may also want to refer to this section of the novel
when considering whether 'right was uncritical of !ommunists. 9o 0an and Gary behave
li(e people capable of uniting blac(s and whites in a political struggle for social changeK At
the restaurant, Gary, 0an, and 3igger drin( beer and rum. The three continue drin(ing as
3igger drives Gary and 0an around the par(. 3y the time 0an gets out to catch his streetcar,
Gary is e,tremely drun(. 3igger has to carry her to her room, and, as he does, he worries
about what the 9altons would thin( if they found him with their drun(en daughter in his arms.
3ut 3igger also feels e,cited by the physical contact with Gary. 1e has never been so close to
a white woman. As he carries her into her bedroom, he begins to (iss and caress her. Then he
sees a white blur in the doorway. It is Grs. 9alton.
3igger feels as though he is falling from a great height. 1e is terrified. Although Grs. 9alton
cannot see, she can hear. As she enters the room, he holds a pillow over Gary*s head to
'right emphasi:es that Grs. 9alton appears to 3igger as a Dwhite blur.F arlier, he described Gary and 0an as
two Dlooming white walls.F Is 'right suggesting that to 3igger the whiteness of these people is more important
than their characteristics as individualsK On one level, 3igger may see the advancing figure of Grs. 9alton as the
impending vengeance of the white world for his having come close to violating one of the ma)or taboos of white
prevent her from spea(ing. 'hen Grs. 9alton leaves the room, 3igger reali:es that Gary is
dead. 1e has suffocated her.
3igger now has to figure out how to cover up what he has done. 1e remembers that Gary had
been planning to go to 9etroit the ne,t morning. 1e puts her body in her trun( and carries it
to the basement. Then he decides to burn the corpse in the furnace. The head will not fit,
however, so he cuts it off. Airst he tries gently with a (nife, then he uses a hatchet. 1e sees
Late, the 9altons* white cat, watching him and almost decides to burn Late too. 'hen
Gary*s body is finally burning in the furnace, 3igger decides to turn suspicion toward 0an.
After all, 0an is a !ommunist, and people will be ready to believe him capable of any evil.
'hy does 'right ma(e this scene so gruesomeK 3igger himself thin(s of the incident as
Dunreal, li(e a nightmare.F Though from the rest of 3oo( One you can consider 3igger an
innocent victim of racism and bad luc(, this scene may ma(e you see him as the villain of a
gory horror story, perhaps one in the tradition of dgar Allan /oe, one of 'right*s favorite
writers. Some readers thin( 'right revels in creating a scene that could be a white racist*s
worst nightmare. 'hat do you thin(K
*))> T,) B6IG"T B#)+ +3#@?S 4/3T" T) */SSI/?S 4/3T"
In this part of 3oo( Two, 3igger finds that having (illed Gary ma(es him feel freer than ever
before. Acting with a new sense of power, 3igger sends the 9altons a ransom note in which
he claims that Gary has been (idnapped. 3ut 3igger*s plans go awry, and he flees with
3essie, whom he (ills.
As 3oo( Two begins, 3igger is wa(ing up on Sunday morning. 'right says that he wa(es
Dli(e an electric switch being clic(ed on,F perhaps foreshadowing 3igger*s death in the
S/A=36 I+3G/#@ 384 (I)6/82/ A scene that began with a se,ual encounter has ended in violence,
not love. <onetheless, the language may suggest se,uality. 'hile suffocating under the pillow, Gary*s body
DsurgesF toward 3igger. 1er Dbody heavesF with increasing intensity as she digs her fingernails into his arms.
Ainally, she sighs, and her body rela,es. Some readers have found se,ual imagery in the ne,t scene, in which
3igger burns Gary*s body on what 'right refers to several times as the Dred bed of coals.F Though 3igger has
(illed only by accident, you could argue that 'right is deliberately con)uring up the feared image of se,ual
violence committed by blac( men against white women.
electric chair. 1e is bac( in his family*s one"room apartment. !ompare this opening to the
start of 3oo( One. Once more, you see 3igger struggling between sleep and wa(efulness,
then bic(ering with his family. 3ut this morning is different from the previous one. The first
difference is 3igger*s fearful memory that he has (illed Gary, cut her head off, and burned
her body. 1e must protect himself. 1e throws his bloody (nife and Gary*s purse into a
garbage can outside.
Over brea(fast, however, 3igger*s attitude changes dramatically. At the beginning of 3oo(
One, he was afraid. <ow his fear is gone. Though he had (illed by accident, he no longer
thin(s of her death as an accident. After all, he had felt li(e (illing many times before. <ow
that he has actually (illed, he feels proud and fulfilled because he has been more daring than
anyone would have believed possible. 1e loo(s at his family and their apartment as if seeing
them for the first time. Scanning his brother, mother, and sister, he compares them to whites
he has seen. The Thomases now appear to him as blind creatures of habit, incapable of bold
actions. 3ut he also reali:es that the 9altons, too, are blindH after all, they had underestimated
him. 2emember that 3igger had felt ashamed when the 9altons and 0an loo(ed at him. <ow
he shames each member of his family with his own unrelenting stare.
s 3igger leaves for
wor(, his brother 3uddy confronts him. 3igger had ta(en Gary*s money from her purse, but
in his hurry, he has accidentally dropped it on the floor. 3uddy hands the money bac( to
3igger and as(s him if anything is wrong. Aor a moment 3igger even thin(s of (illing his
little brother but then decides to trust that 3uddy won*t tell anyone about the money.
3efore returning to the 9altons*, 3igger stops to see his old gang. 1e feels li(e a man who
has awa(ened after a long illness. 1e treats 6us, 0ac(, and 6. 1. (indly because he no longer
fears them. As he continues to the 9altons*, 3igger reali:es that he has always loo(ed at
whites as Da great natural force,F a threatening one, li(e a storm. 2emember this metaphor
during the bli::ard that begins later in this section. 3igger wonders if blac(s could ever get
together and stand up against whites. 1e thin(s maybe they could unite if they had a ruler to
tell them what to do. 1e*s heard good things about the 6erman dictator Adolf 1itler and the
03+/S *364,I8?S 2#ITIC=/ Some readers have critici:ed 2ichard 'right*s portrayal of the blac(
community. /robably the most famous attac( came from the novelist and essayist 0ames 3aldwin. 1imself an
important blac( writer influenced and helped by 'right, 3aldwin claimed that D3igger has no discernible
relationship... to his own people,F that by comparison to 3igger himself, the blac(s around him would have been
Dfar richer and far more subtle and accurate illustrations of blac( life,F and that the Dshared Mblac(N e,perience
which creates a way of lifeF is missing in 'right*s wor(. 3aldwin*s criticisms have spar(ed much controversy.
9o you thin( that 'right necessarily shares 3igger*s negative impression of his fellow blac(sK
Italian dictator 3enito Gussolini. /erhaps some day the blac(s will have such a leader, he
3ac( at the 9altons*, 3igger finds the household increasingly worried about Gary. Airst,
/eggy notices that the car was left out all night. Then, when 3igger pretends to be ready to
drive Gary to the train station for her trip to 9etroit, /eggy and Grs. 9alton are surprised to
find that Gary is not home. They assume that she left for 9etroit early, and they send 3igger
to the station with her trun(. 3ut Grs. 9alton feels around in Gary*s room and notices that
Gary has left some of her traveling clothes behind. She decides to 4uestion 3igger, but she is
hesitant to push her interrogation too far, apparently because, as a rich white, she would be
embarrassed to let a poor blac( servant (now anything is wrong. <ote how the subtle racism
of 3igger*s well"meaning employers helps him avoid detection. 3igger decides to visit his
girlfriend, 3essie. On his way there, he wishes he had gotten more money from (illing Gary
and resolves that Dne,t timeF he will do better. 1e wants to brag about his crime to the white
faces around him, but he (nows he can*t. So he wishes that Dhe could be an idea in their
minds.F 1e wants a picture of the (illing and the burning of Gary to hover before their eyes.
Shortly after the publication of Native Son, 2ichard 'right wrote an essay in which he said that 3igger
Thomas could easily have become either a !ommunist or a Aascist. And he claimed that his research into the rise
of <a:ism in 6ermany helped him in his formulation of 3igger*s personality. In D1ow I3igger* was 3orn,F
'right says that both Aascists and !ommunists recruit from the Ddispossessed and disinheritedF of Da dislocated
society.F Arom what you (now of 3igger up to this point, do you thin( he would be a potential recruit to any
mass movementK 'hat evidence can you offer in support of your opinionK Throughout much of this section,
3igger*s thoughts travel in two different directions. On the one hand, he feels free and powerful, and he sees his
(illing of Gary as a Dsupreme and meaningful act.F On the other hand, his mind (eeps returning guiltily to
images li(e Gary*s bloody head and the outstretched arms of her blind mother. 2eaders have interpreted
3igger*s personality in several different ways. Some focus on the degree to which he is a victim. After all, the
(illing was an accident, and afterward he was only trying to protect himself. Others emphasi:e the ways in which
3igger may be a heroic rebel. At this point in the novel, this image seems to be developing into 3igger*s self"
image, and he certainly ma(es you aware of his )ustified anger toward whites. Still other readers see 3igger as
cold and brutal. 'hich interpretation do you favorK 'hat evidence do you have for your opinionK 'right may
have deliberately created a character who would evo(e conflicting emotions. 1e doesn*t let you slip into easy
pity 53igger, after all, is proud of what he has done8 or easy identification 53igger, after all, (eeps reminding you
of the horror of his actions8 or easy condemnation 53igger, after all, had little choice in what he did8.
D*IGG/# T")+3S... I8 ET"/F S>=66G This comment of 3igger*s may suggest something about 'right
as well. In one of his critical essays on 'right, 0ames 3aldwin said, D<o American <egro e,ists who does not
have his private 3igger Thomas living in his s(ull.F Some readers believe that 'right*s purpose in writing
<ative Son was to ma(e the 3igger Thomas in his own s(ull Dan ideaF in the DmindsF of whites. In other words,
he wanted to hold before whites an image of the blac( rage they refused to ac(nowledge, )ust as 3igger wants to
hold before whites an image of the bold actions they would never e,pect from him. 2emember that before
'right, even much blac( American literature portrayed Afro"Americans as the good"humored, gentle people
many whites wanted them to be.
3igger arrives at 3essie*s. She is upset and )ealous that he has been away so long, but when
he shows her the roll of money that he too( from Gary*s purse, she warms up to him. They
ma(e love, and afterward she mentions that the 9altons live in the same section of town as the
murderers Eoeb and Eeopold. She reminds him that Eoeb and Eeopold (illed a boy and then
tried to get ransom money by pretending that the boy had been (idnapped.
3essie has given 3igger the idea that he can do what Eoeb and Eeopold did. e wonders if he
can use 3essie in his plot and hopes she will act with him Dblindly.F 3igger thin(s that 3essie,
li(e his family, is blind. She wor(s long hours in a white woman*s (itchen, then sleeps with
him because he will buy her li4uor. 3igger wants 3essie to collect the ransom money from the
9altons. 1e doesn*t tell her that he (illed Gary but says that Gary has eloped with 0an. 3essie
is afraid to participate in this plot, but 3igger insists. 1e gives her the money he too( from
Gary*s purse.
=ou may see 3essie as a passive woman who uses whis(ey as an escape, and you could argue
that all she wants from 3igger is money. Some readers have suggested that 'right is
especially critical of his female characters. They point to Grs. Thomas*s religious escapism
and Gary*s naSvetJ. 3ut you may also feel that 'right paints 3essie*s plight 4uite
sympathetically. And 3igger*s calculating coldness toward her may increase your sympathy.
/erhaps 'right felt compassion for both 3igger and 3essie without feeling that either
responded correctly to the oppressive conditions of their lives. If 3igger hadn*t committed his
crime, would his relationship with 3essie have been able to blossomK

As 3igger heads bac( to the 9altons*, he is confident. At last his life has a purpose. The
9altons have found that Gary never arrived in 9etroit. Gr. and Grs. 9alton 4uestion 3igger,
and he tells them that he left 0an and Gary together last night. The 9altons now suspect 0an of
having played a role in Gary*s disappearance. little later, 3igger is in the basement loo(ing at
the furnace. Gr. 9alton enters with a private investigator, 3ritten. 3ritten is a hard, cold man,
and 3igger feels his hostility. The investigator 4uestions 3igger closely, and 3igger now
reveals that Gary did not go to her class. 3igger tells the truth about the evening e,cept when
3essie feels 4uite free to steal from her white employers. 3ut 3igger*s ransom scheme frightens her. If you
read 3lac( 3oy, you will notice that 'right claims that Southern whites didn*t mind their blac( employees
stealing from hem. A little petty theft enabled the whites to confirm their stereotypes of blac(s and to )ustify
their racist attitudes, 'right says. /erhaps 'right had this thought in mind in contrasting 3igger and 3essie.
3essie*s small crimes don*t challenge or defy the whites the way 3igger*s offenses do.
he says that 0an and Gary came home together and that 0an had told him to leave the car
outside and to ta(e the trun( downstairs. Then 3ritten flusters 3igger by accusing him of
being a !ommunist. Though 3ritten is an overt racist, both he and Gr. 9alton finally agree
that 3igger is being honest. 'hile napping, 3igger has a dream. 1e is carrying a heavy
pac(age. 'hen he opens it, he discovers that it is his own bloody head.
3igger is awa(ened for another confrontation with 3ritten and Gr. 9alton, who now have 0an
with them. 3igger maintains his lies even in 0an*s presence. Afterward, 3igger thin(s about
clearing the accumulated ashes out of the furnace. 3ut he is afraid to do so for fear of finding
pieces of Gary among them. 3igger goes outside, and 0an confronts him in the street. 3igger
refuses to tal( to 0an and pulls a gun on him. 0an is ma(ing 3igger feel 4uite guilty. <ow
3igger loo(s for an abandoned building to use as a drop"off point for the ransom money. 1e
finds one and returns to 3essie*s where he writes a ransom note, which he signs with the word
DredF and decorates with a hammer and sic(le, the !ommunist emblem. 3essie is e,tremely
upset. She accuses 3igger of (illing Gary, and he confesses. <ow that 3essie (nows about
Gary*s death, 3igger thin(s of (illing 3essie to (eep her 4uiet. 1e threatens 3essie until she
tearfully agrees to go along with his plans.
As 3igger wor(s out his ransom plan, 'right supplies you with some broader social
bac(ground. =ou learn that Gr. 9alton*s real estate company rents apartments to blac(s only
in the most run"down area of the city. And you learn that when blac(s first moved into that
neighborhood, whites tried to chase them away by bombing their houses. <ow whites have
fled the neighborhood, and many of the buildings are abandoned. <ote how Native Son mi,es
sociological description, a psychological portrait of 3igger*s inner conflicts, and dreamli(e
symbolism. Eoo( for all three, and see how well 'right blends them into a unified whole.
3igger returns to the 9altons* and e,citedly slips the ransom note under the door. 1is dinner
is waiting for him in the (itchen, but despite all his bold crimes, he hesitates to eat without
permission. The old, timid 3igger seems to coe,ist with the braver new one. 'hen Gr.
9alton receives the ransom note, the family panics. 3ritten returns and 4uestions /eggy. She
3igger (ills the rat by crushing its head, and he cuts off Gary*s head. Eater, you will see him batter 3essie*s
head as well. 9oes this dream suggest that 3igger*s assaults are really directed at the psychic demons that inhabit
his own headK 2emember that his violence has often been a way of coping with his own hate, fear, and shame.
The dream may suggest that, despite his violence, 3igger*s head 5and the feelings within it8 are still a heavy
burden to him.
says 3igger is D*)ust li(e all the other colored boys.*F =ou could argue that 'right is
continuing to e,pose his white characters* racism. If you ta(e this line of thought, you could
contrast 3ritten*s blatant racism with /eggy*s unconscious pre)udice. 2emember also that the
racial stereotypes held by whites are helping 3igger turn suspicion away from himself. <o
one seems to believe that a blac( could have either the intelligence or the boldness to carry
out such a crime.
<ow 3igger is no longer alone in his basement furnace room. 3ritten and his men set up their
head4uarters there, and the press soon arrives as well. 3igger is aware that, while everyone is
tal(ing about Gary, her body is burning in the fiery furnace right ne,t to them. 1e thin(s
events resemble a Dtortured dream.F Gr. 9alton reads the ransom note to the e,cited
newspapermen. The 9altons* cat )umps on 3igger*s shoulder, and the photographers snap a
3igger reads a newspaper. The story about the 9altons has a strongly anti"!ommunist tone.
2emember the distortions in the movies that 3igger saw in 3oo( One. <ow, in 3oo( Two,
'right seems to portray similar distortions in the press. 1e continues with this theme as the
reporters 4uestion 3igger and try to slant their story so it portrays a Dprimitive <egro who
doesn*t want to be disturbed by white civili:ation.F The reporters also loo( for anti"foreign,
anti"Semitic, and anti"!ommunist angles.
Geanwhile, the fire in the furnace is dying because 3igger has not cleaned out the ashes.
/eggy as(s him to clean them out, but he is afraid Gary*s remains will appear in front of
3ritten and the reporters. Instead of cleaning the ashes, which are bloc(ing the fire*s air
supply, 3igger simply adds more coal. The stifling fire begins to smo(e, cho(ing everyone.
One of the reporters grabs 3igger*s shovel and cleans out the ashes. 1e notices that they
contain some of Gary*s bones and an earring.
The smo(e clears, but 3igger*s fear has returned, and it is cho(ing him. 1e goes to his room
and )umps from the window to the snow below. 3igger*s effort at liberation seems to have
failed. =ou may now find the title of 3oo( Two ironic. In 3oo( One, 3igger wanted to fly. In
'right was an admirer of the American poet and storywriter dgar Allan /oe 5#$.@"#$C@8. In one of /oe*s
stories, DThe 3lac( !at,F a cat becomes a symbol of a murderer*s guilt. 'right uses a similar device here. 3igger
often feels that the 9altons* cat is loo(ing at him accusingly. In an appropriate twist, 'right ma(es the cat white
instead of blac(. Some readers also see the 9altons* cat as a parallel to the rat in the Thomases* apartment.
3igger hunts and (ills the rat but thin(s that the cat is helping hunt him.
3oo( Two, his (illing of Gary gave him the feeling of freedom that he had previously
associated with flying. 3ut now he may be worse off than before (illing Gary. 1e is now in
flight in a different senseH he is fleeing. 9o you thin( 'right is showing the futility of
3igger*s violence hereK Or has 3igger gained some personal strength from his violenceK

9o you thin( he could be doing bothK 3igger heads for 3essie*s. 1e reads the newspapers,
which have reported the ransom note. Aor the first time, he tells 3essie the details of Gary*s
death. She says he will be accused of rape, and he believes she is right. 3ut he also thin(s he
has committed rape many times in his mind, not )ust against white women but against all
whites. 2ape, he thin(s, is what one does when bac(ed into a corner and forced to stri(e out.
3essie is distraught, and 3igger tells her that they will have to flee together. They hide in an
abandoned building, where 3igger has se, with 3essie despite her protests. 1e is afraid she
will give him away to the police, so, when she is asleep, he (ills her by beating her head in
with a bric(. Then he dumps her body down an air shaft. Eater, he reali:es his money was in
her dress.
=ou may have noticed how 3essie*s murder seems to replay Gary*s death, but much more
brutally. In both cases, 3igger and his victim have been drin(ing, but Gary plied 3igger with
li4uor in fun, whereas now 3igger bitterly forces 3essie to drin(. In both cases, some se,ual
contact precedes the (illing, but in the second instance the se,ual encounter is rape. And, of
course, 3essie*s death is premeditated, not accidental. 1ave 3igger*s recent e,periences made
him more brutalK 2egardless, the differences between these two acts of violence further
heighten the contrast between the glamorous world of rich whites li(e the 9altons and the
harsh world of the blac( ghetto. <ote that despite all his fantasies about stri(ing out at whites
3igger*s most brutal act is against a blac(.
As 3igger tries to sleep, he reflects on what has happened. In reading this passage, try to form
some )udgment about 3igger*s character. 1e feels that his murders have been the most
BI#/ 384 S8), Throughout 3oo( Two, 3igger has been wal(ing bac( and forth between the cold and
snow of the bli::ard and the heat of the basement with its burning furnace. Some readers thin( the icy, white
bli::ard represents the white world that 3igger has always seen as a natural force. If so, it adds an element of
irony and fatalism, for its cold surrounds 3igger even while he is confidently planning his ransom scheme. Some
readers also feel the furnace represents the fires raging within 3igger. Shortly after the fire cho(es on its ashes,
3igger cho(es on his own fear. Some readers point to the fire and the snow as evidence that 'right*s main
purpose in writing Native Son was not to present a realistic social analysis but to create a symbolic tale with a
dreamli(e atmosphere.
meaningful actions of his life because he has finally acted on the hatred he has always felt. So
despite the failure of 3igger*s ransom scheme, you have evidence here that his acts of
violence have given him a new sense of self"respect. On the other hand, some readers use this
same reasoning of 3igger*s to condemn him for not feeling sufficient remorse for his crimes.
3igger*s reverie continues+ 1e condemns his mother for using religion as an escape, and he
condemns 3essie for escaping with whis(ey. 3ut then 3igger has what seems to be a new
thought. 1e wishes he could merge with the rest of humanity and not be set apart from others
)ust for being blac(. 1is earlier fantasies were of a purely solitary liberation. 'here does this
new aspiration come fromK !ould it be a result of his e,periences of the last two daysK
*IGG/#?S B6IG"T 384 237T=#/
3igger flees eight thousand armed men pursuing him. 1e is finally captured.
3igger steals a newspaper and hides in another abandoned building. The news story about him
assumes he was a rapist. It describes the reaction of the white community to his crime+ whites
are attac(ing blac(s on the street, smashing the windows of their homes, and firing them from
their )obs. One news item particularly galls 3igger. The police assume that 0an had something
to do with the crime because they cannot believe a blac( could have done it by himself.
3igger also discovers that the police are searching the South Side door to door. They are
closing in on him. 3igger is e,tremely cold and hungry.
3igger loo(s into an apartment. 1e sees a couple ma(ing love with their three children
watching and remembers similar childhood e,periences in his own one"room apartment. 1e is
aware of the contrast between the large, empty abandoned buildings and the one"room
apartments in which blac( families are forced to live.
In this section, 'right provides ample evidence both for those who see <ative Son as
primarily sociological, a protest against un)ust conditions, and for those who view it as
primarily psychological, a portrait of a man fighting bac( against impossible odds. 3igger
thin(s about the scarcity of apartments in the 3lac( 3elt, a scarcity created by the
'right*s description of 3igger*s hunger may stri(e you as especially vivid. 2emember that 'right (new
hunger first"hand as a child and rarely had enough to eat.
confinement of blac(s to one small neighborhood and by the fre4uent condemnation of
buildings within that area. 1e also thin(s about rents for blac(s being higher than rents for
whites, about businesses in blac( neighborhoods being owned by whites, and about the prices
being higher than those of businesses in white sections of the city. 1ow much has changed
since 'right*s timeK 'hile 'right fills in the details of the racist social conte,t that produced
3igger, he also (eeps returning to 3igger*s personal struggle. 3igger debates whether he
should give up or (eep fighting. =ou might see this conflict as a new level of 3igger*s
perpetual struggle between sleepy indifference and angry tension.
'right contrasts 3igger*s attitude to that of other blac(s. 3igger overhears two blac( men
arguing. One blames the 3igger Thomases of the blac( community for the fact that whites
mistreat blac(s. The other says that whites will hate blac(s no matter what. 3lac(s should
fight bac( and stand up for 3igger Thomas, he says. ven within the world of the novel,
3igger Thomas is becoming a symbol of something larger than himself.
3igger falls asleep and awa(ens to hear a church congregation singing. 9espite finding
religion tempting, he refuses to accept it. 1e finds an empty apartment in which to hide. A
newspaper reports that eight thousand armed men are closing in on him, and when he hears
them arrive at his building, he climbs to the roof. They find him there, and he flees. As 3igger
reali:es that he will be captured, he begins to retreat behind his DwallF or DcurtainF of
indifference. 1e hides on top of a water tan(, but they wash him down with a fire hose. As
3igger falls, remember 6us*s description of his feeling of falling. Also loo( bac( on 3igger*s
fall from the 9altons* window. 3igger wanted to fly, but his attempt ends in a fall, a fall
foreshadowed early in the novel. The police drag 3igger by the feet with his head banging
along the ground. 2emember 3igger*s violence against heads 5the rat*s, Gary*s, and 3essie*s8
and his dream about his own bloody head. The police stretch 3igger out as if to crucify him.
1e loses consciousness.
S@+*)6IS+ Aor a novel that uses much socially accurate detail, <ative Son also employs many recurring
symbols. Aor e,ample, as the white mob closes in on 3igger, the color white seems to appear everywhere" in the
white snow, the white map, the white mil( 3igger imagines, the Dwhite heatF the newspapers spea( of. Animal
imagery also abounds in this urban )ungle+ 3igger envies the rat he seesH one blac( man says that his people are
all DdogsF to whitesH at one point, 3igger is Don all fours.F The whites who seemed to 3igger li(e a natural force
use rushing water to capture him. The water, which comes from a fire hose, douses 3igger, a man who has felt a
fire in his stomach and whose emotional state has already been compared to a furnace.
*))> T"#// B3T/
*IGG/#?S 03I6")=S/ (ISITS
Gany people visit 3igger in )ail. 3igger signs a confession.
3igger has been in a stupor. 1e refuses to eat, tal(, or move. Ei(e the first two boo(s, this one
begins with 3igger struggling between sleep and wa(efulness, but this struggle is more
profound. 3igger seems to be on the verge of giving up entirely, but he still has a spar( of
hope. 1e wishes he could find a new way of living. Ta(en to the in4uest into Gary*s death, he
sees many faces loo(ing at him from the audience. Thin(ing they are ma(ing sport of him, he
feels as though he is fallingH then he faints. 3igger wa(es up bac( in his cell and as(s for a
newspaper. The story in the paper is violently racist, referring to 3igger as a beast incapable
of fitting into civili:ation.
<ow a series of visitors enter 3igger*s cell. Some readers thin( 3oo( Three centers on
whether 3igger will be e,ecuted. Others feel the ma)or conflict of the boo( is not about what
will happen to 3igger but about what attitude he will ta(e toward a fate that seems certain. If
you agree with the second view, you may thin( that the people who visit 3igger are in a sense
struggling for his soul.
One of the ma)or protagonists in the struggle enters first. 2everend 1ammond is Grs.
Thomas*s preacher, and he urges 3igger to turn to 0esus. 3igger hates 1ammond*s religious
message because it ma(es him feel as guilty as does the hatred of the whites. In this regard, do
you thin( there is irony in 1ammond*s tal( about washing 3igger*s sins as Dwhite as snowFK
2emember how snow has already come to represent the hateful power of the whites.
Then 0an comes in. 1e says that he had been blind before, that he had wanted to (ill 3igger
for a while, but that he now understands 3igger*s hatred and wants to help him. 0an urges
3igger to defend himself in court. 1e has a ma)or effect on 3igger, and 'right e,presses this
#)*/#T 8IA)8 This newspaper story is so e,treme that you may thin( 'right was e,aggerating. In fact,
the story is an only slightly fictionali:ed adaptation of a piece that appeared in the !hicago Tribune on 0une &,
#@?$. 'hen 'right was about halfway finished with his first draft of <ative Son, a young blac( man named
2obert <i,on was accused of raping a white woman and beating her to death with a bric(. 1e was convicted and
e,ecuted in the electric chair. 'right used many details of the <i,on case in his novel, and this racist news story
was among them. 1ere is one more instance of 'right*s use of realistic detail.
effect with the same images he has used before in the novel. 3igger feels as though Dsomeone
had performed an operation on his eyesFH he feels as though a DcurtainF has been openedH he
feels as though a roc( has detached itself from the Dlooming mountain of white hate.F 0an
urges 3igger to believe in himself and reminds 3igger that he believed enough to (ill. 0an
brings a lawyer named 3oris Ga,. 3ut perhaps even more important than 0an*s offer of legal
defense is his penetration of 3igger*s wall of isolation.
The State*s Attorney, 3uc(ley, enters ne,t. If 1ammond*s message is to turn to religion and
0an*s is to fight bac(, then 3uc(ley*s seems to be to give up, 1e tells 3igger that they already
have enough evidence to convict him, so he may as well confess.
The 9altons arrive, followed by 3igger*s friends and family. 3igger is aware of his family*s
shame under the eyes of the white people, and he again is proud of his murder, which, he
feels, has washed away his shame. 'ith his family around him, 3igger believes for the first
time that he has not been alone, that his family is part of him. To ma(e his mother happy,
3igger agrees to pray. All the visitors leave e,cept 3uc(ley.
3igger has e,perienced many different emotions in this section. 3ut two may be especially
significant. At times, he seems to want to trust other people, including some white people. At
other times, he seems to want to return to his proud isolation and anger. 'hich of these two
attitudes do you thin( 'right approves ofK Some readers thin( his political views suggest the
former. 'hat evidence can you draw from the novel to support your interpretationK 3uc(ley
as(s 3igger to confess to many rapes and murders and to implicate 0an in his crimes. 3igger
is so discouraged and so in need of someone to tal( to that he confesses to what he has done,
but not to the other things 3uc(ley as(s him to confess to.
T"/ I8C=/ST
The 9altons and 0an are interrogated at an in4uest. Eater, 3igger sees a burning Lu Llu, Llan
cross and re)ects the cross 2everend 1ammond had given him.
3igger lies crying on the floor of his cell. 'hy, he as(s, is he not able to communicate his
feelings to othersK Then 3igger is handcuffed and brought bac( to the in4uest. A spectator
hits him in the head.
Grs. 9alton is the first witness. The coroner*s 4uestioning of her is fairly routine, but he
becomes hostile when interrogating 0an. 1e as(s 0an several times if he is a foreigner.
/resumably he thin(s 0an will be easier to portray as sinister if he is seen as a foreigner. Then
he as(s 4uestions that suggest that 0an had presented Gary as a se,ual gift to the Ddrun(en
<egro,F 3igger. The coroner further insinuates that Gary was used as bait to encourage
3igger to )oin the !ommunist /arty, and he uses 0an*s friendly behavior toward 3igger as
evidence of 0an*s evil 4ualities. 3igger sees that 0an, li(e himself, is an ob)ect of hate.
<e,t Gr. 9alton is called, and 3oris Ga, 4uestions him about his real estate business. Ga,
points out that 9alton restricts blac(s to one part of the city and charges them higher rents
than he charges whites. Some readers have found Ga,*s behavior unli(ely. They wonder
whether such sharp interrogation of an old man whose daughter has )ust been murdered could
possibly win a )ury*s sympathy. 9o you agree with this criti4ueK 'hen Gr. 9alton leaves the
stand, the coroner brings in his ne,t piece of evidence 3essie*s body. 3igger reali:es that no
one cares about his having (illed a blac( woman. They are )ust using 3essie*s body to inflame
opinion against him and to convict him for having (illed a white woman. The white people
are still abusing 3essie, )ust as they did when she was alive. 3igger is formally indicted for
Gany readers 4uestion the need for this section. They claim it repeats information already
presented, doesn*t advance the plot very far, and, e,cept during the 4uestioning of 0an,
doesn*t change 3igger*s feelings. 3ut other readers point out that in this section 'right*s
attac( on racism, including the racism of the )udicial system, becomes substantially more
detailed. Some readers feel 'right has already made that case 4uite well earlier. 1owever,
because he focused so heavily on the horrors of 3igger*s crimes in the first two boo(s, he may
now need to remind readers of the horrors of the society that 3igger thought he was attac(ing.
1ow much do you thin( this section accomplishesK
In the <i,on case, the bereaved husband of the murdered woman attac(ed the handcuffed defendant at the
in4uest. Eater in this section, 3igger is brought to the 9alton house and photographed baring his teeth. 'right
also based that incident on the <i,on case.
The police ta(e 3igger bac( to the 9alton house. They demand that he reenact the rape and
murder. 1e refuses. As they return 3igger to )ail, a would"be lynch mob has gathered. 3igger
sees a burning cross, the emblem of the Lu Llu, Llan. 1e associates it with the cross the
2everend 1ammond had given him in his cell. In anger, he throws the 2everend*s cross away
and refuses to let 1ammond visit him again.
*IGG/# T36>S T) +3A
Ga, interviews 3igger. Aor the first time, 3igger puts his deepest feelings into words.
As he sits in )ail, 3igger notices that even there blac(s and whites are segregated. 'right
seems to be continuing his indictment of racism and of the criminal )ustice system. One
prisoner refers to 3igger as the guy Dthey got for that 9alton )ob.F ven among his fellow
criminals, 3igger seems unli(ely to find understanding. Then a stranger is dragged into
3igger*s cell. 1e is foaming at the mouth and screaming that someone has ta(en his papers.
Another prisoner tells 3igger that the newcomer went insane from studying too much. The
maniac claims that someone stole a boo( he wrote and that the boo( e,plained the racist
conditions under which blac(s live. =ou may find this brief incident rather odd. Some readers
feel the man is a middle"class parallel to 3igger in that the only way he can protest racism is
to go wild and cra:y. And people notice only his cra:iness, not his message. After the strange
prisoner is removed from 3igger*s cell, Ga, enters.
Ga, encourages 3igger not to give up. 1e points out that the same people who hate blac(s
also hate unions, !ommunists, and 0ews. Then he as(s 3igger more about his crimes, and
3igger finds that he wants to communicate his reasons for (illing. 1e tells Ga, that he hated
Gary, and while tal(ing about Gary, whose loo(ing at him made him feel shame, he
remembers how his younger sister 7era had felt ashamed when he loo(ed at her. Saying that
he wanted to rape Gary because white men blame such behavior on blac(s whether they
commit it or not, 3igger tells Ga, more about his feelings of unhappiness and hatred, and
In the real"life <i,on case, the defendant was initially represented by the International Eabor 9efense 5IE98,
on which Ga,*s organi:ation, the Eabor 9efenders, appears to have been modeled. 3ut the IE9*s role was small,
and the <ational <egro !ongress soon replaced it. 'right has deliberately magnified the role of white radicals
here. The bul( of <i,on*s support came from the leaders of !hicago*s blac( community. This change may have
enabled 'right to emphasi:e his radical political views. 3ut it also helped him e,plore 3igger*s changing
attitudes toward whites.
Ga, e,presses surprise that 3igger never trusted blac( leaders and that he had no interest in
The feelings 3igger e,presses to Ga, are ones you have been aware of all along. 3ut this
moment is the first time 3igger has spo(en of these feelings to anyone. After Ga, leaves,
3igger imagines a world divided into tiny isolated cells. 1e wonders what would happen if
people reached out of their cells and touched each other. 'ould there be electricity between
themK 3igger wishes he could live to find out. Ironically, he will be (illed by the 4uite
different electricity of the electric chair.
Gany readers have sensed a conflict between the message that seems to be emerging from
3oo( Three and the impact of the first two boo(s of the novel. 3oo( Three appears to be
developing an appeal for interracial cooperation. Gost of the first two 3oo(s pointed up the
unli(eliness of such cooperation, given the depths of both white racism and blac( anger.
Some readers reconcile the two points of view by suggesting that 'right uses the character of
3igger to warn whites about what will happen if social conditions do not change. Other
readers thin( the impact of 3igger*s character is so strong that the appeal for interracial
solidarity seems sentimental by comparison. 9o you thin( the balance between the two
messages would be different if 'right were completing Native Son todayK

*IGG/#?S T#I36
Ga, enters a guilty plea for 3igger and re4uests a sentence of life imprisonment. 1e blames
3igger*s crime on oppressive social conditions. The )udge sentences 3igger to death.
As he awaits trial, 3igger wishes he could again hide behind his curtain of indifference, but he
no longer can. 1e reali:es that two battles are raging, Ga,*s battle in the courtroom and his
own inner struggle over his attitude toward life and death. 3igger*s trial begins. The
Through much of American history since the !ivil 'ar, two competing political tendencies have vied for the
loyalty of blac(s. One calls for blac(s to gain access to housing, schools, )obs, and other American social and
political institutions. /eople advocating these goals usually want blac(s and whites to wor( together in achieving
blac( integration into American society. The other tendency calls for blac(s to gain control over their own
housing, schools, )obs and other separate blac( social and political institutions. Advocates of these goals often
want blac(s to organi:e separately from whites. !ertainly the views of Ga, and 0an emphasi:e the former
opinion. And at this point in the novel, 3igger himself is moving in that direction. Some readers, however, have
seen a separatist thrust in much of <ative Son, especially where it emphasi:es the depth of the gap between the
races. 9o you feel the novel emphasi:es one perspective over the otherK
spectators are shoc(ed when Ga, enters a guilty plea. Ga, has decided that a )ury will be too
biased. 1e will argue before the )udge that 3igger should receive life imprisonment. 3uc(ley,
the prosecutor, fears that Ga, will try to prove that 3igger is insane. Thus, 3uc(ley calls si,ty
witnesses to testify to 3igger*s sanity. The ne,t day the defense presents its case. 3igger
arrives in the courtroom before Ga,, and his brief wait ma(es him reali:e how dependent he
has become on Ga,.
In his plea to the )udge, Ga, spea(s of the public hostility to 3igger. Then he reviews the
history of slavery and of blac( oppression. 1e emphasi:es that he does not want to evo(e
sympathy for 3igger and that he does not see him as a victim, a point to remember in deciding
whether you consider 3igger a victim. Ga, issues a warning+ 3igger is the product of blac(
oppression, and (illing him will only produce new 3iggers and more blac( violence. 6iven
the conditions under which he lived, 3igger*s crime was Dinstinctive,F Ga, says, adding that
3igger*s psychology is Dthe /sychology of the <egro people.F Then he discusses 3igger in
more detail. Aor 3igger, he says, (illing was an Dact of creationF and 3igger*s attitude is itself
a crime. 3ut this attitude is a product of white civili:ation. Eove is impossible for a man li(e
3igger, says Ga,, and he concludes with the specter of millions of 3iggers rising up against
their white oppressors. Ga, urges the )udge to send 3igger to prison, where he could begin
his life anew.
Ga,*s speech raises several 4uestions. 6iven its repetition of much that has gone before, why
did 'right include it at such lengthK Is it a credible speech for an attorney to use in defense of
such a clientK 9oes it represent the interpretation of 3igger Thomas conveyed by the novel as
a wholeK 'hat is your opinionK =ou may wonder whether such a controversial plea would be
the best way to save a client from the electric chair. 3ut other considerations may have been
more important to 'right than credibility. Some readers feel that having presented the
murders e,clusively from 3igger*s point of view, 'right needed to go outside 3igger to
clarify his own attitude toward his ma)or character. Though Gary*s (illing may have been
instinctive, after the (illing, 3igger felt that he was ta(ing charge of his own destiny. So
Ga,*s interpretation of 3igger*s behavior is not e,actly the same as 3igger*s interpretation of
The famous lawyer !larence 9arrow 5#$&-"#@?$8 was attorney for the defense in the Eeopold"Eoeb case. As
you already (now, the Eeopold"Eoeb murder was 3igger*s inspiration for sending the 9altons a ransom note.
'right later told friends that he used 9arrow*s plea in that case for some of the material in Ga,*s speech to the
his own behavior. 3ut if 'right agrees with Ga, that 3igger is merely a passive product of
his environment and that 3igger is representative of all blac(s, then why has he made 3igger
behave so differently from the novel*s other blac( charactersK 3uc(ley sums up the
prosecution*s case. 1e says that the main crime was rape, and he calls for the death penalty.
The )udge recesses the court for an hour and returns with a sentence of death.
*IGG/#?S BI836 T36> ,IT" +3A
3igger and Ga, tal( once more. Ga, encourages 3igger to believe in himself, and 3igger
responds by affirming the value of his (illings.
3igger wishes that he could mingle with others and brea( out of his isolation before he dies.
A white priest had visited him recently, and he had thrown coffee in the cleric*s face. Arom
that action, 3igger gained the same satisfaction as from his tal( with Ga,. Apparently his old
angry pride and his new desire to communicate coe,ist within him. Ga, sends 3igger a
telegram. The governor has re)ected 3igger*s plea for clemency. 3igger must die. Shortly
thereafter, Ga, visits 3igger for the last time.
Ga, tries to comfort 3igger in the face of death, but instead of being comforted, 3igger wants
to communicate his feelings to Ga,, and he wants Ga, to help him resolve his conflicts. 1e
reminds Ga, of the night they spo(e and says that Ga, had helped him see himself and others
more truly. 1e wonders if the people sending him to the electric chair might have much the
same feelings he has.
Ga, replies by tal(ing about the people who own property and control society. They have the
same feelings as the rest of us, he says, but they ma(e themselves believe that others, li(e
blac(s and wor(ers, are not human. On both sides, people are fighting for their lives, but only
one side will win. 1e urges 3igger to believe in himself, for those who believe in themselves
can contribute to the social struggle.
Ga, and 3igger don*t seem to understand all of what the other is saying. 3igger doesn*t
appear to grasp Ga,*s concept of a society divided into two contending classes"wor(ers and
capitalists. 3ut 3igger responds to Ga,*s call for him to believe in himself. 3elieving in
himself does not necessarily mean believing in what Ga, wants, however. 3igger reaffirms
himself by reaffirming the value of his (illings. 'hat 3igger says ma(es Ga, afraid and
upset, but 3igger now feels Dall right.F As Ga, leaves, 3igger tells him to say hello to 0an,
the man who had once made 3igger feel shame and hatred. <ow 3igger calls 0an by his first
name, )ust as 0an had once as(ed him to. Apparently, 3igger has found his own way toward
contact with others.
'hy didn*t 'right let Ga, and 3igger come to complete agreementK Some readers feel that
'right was sympathetic to Ga,*s position but that he wanted a realistic conclusion. /erhaps
he did not thin( that a conclusion in which an alienated blac( youth was readily converted to a
socialist view of politics would be believable, either in light of the novel itself or of the
political conditions of 'right*s time. On the other hand, li(e 0an earlier in the novel, Ga,
may not have been able to see 3igger as an individual. 1e thin(s that blac(s, as a group,
should behave in a certain way, that they should be activists. Ga, wants 3igger to believe in
himself, but Ga, thin(s he (nows what form 3igger*s self"affirmation should ta(e.
=ou may have occasionally had people advise you to stand up for yourself but not li(e it
when you stand up against them. To be true to himself, 3igger may have to ta(e a different
path from the one Ga, has mar(ed out. At the end, 3igger affirms himself by refusing to
repudiate his violence. 3ut he also learns to reach out to others for the first time. Is 'right
suggesting that given e,isting social conditions, violence was the only way 3igger could be
true to himselfK Or is he implying that if people li(e Ga, and 0an had approached him earlier,
he might have ta(en a different courseK
2#ITI236 ,)#>S
Abcarian, 2ichard, ed. %ichard 2right/s Native Son7 A Critical 3and)ook. 3elmont,
!alifornia+ 'adsworth, #@-..
3a(er, 1ouston A., 0r., ed. Twentieth Centur+ Interpretations of Native Son7 A
Collection of Critical Essa+s. nglewood !liffs, <.0.+ /rentice"1all, #@-B.
3a(ish, 9avid. %ichard 2right. <ew =or(+ Arederic( Ungar, #@-?.
3rignano, 2ussell !arl. %ichard 2right7 An Introduction to the 'an and 3is 2orks.
/ittsburgh+ University of /ittsburgh /ress, #@-..
Aabre, Gichel. The 0nfinished 6uest of %ichard 2right. <ew =or(+ 'illiam Gorrow,
Aelgar, 2obert. %ichard 2right. 3oston+ Twayne, #@$..
6ayle, Addison. %ichard 2right7 "rdeal of a Native Son. 6arden !ity, <.=.+
9oubleday, #@$..
Linnamon, Leneth. The E!ergence of %ichard 2right7 A Stud+ in Literature and
Societ+. Urbana+ University of Illinois /ress, #@-B.
Gc!all, 9an. The E8a!ple of %ichard 2right. <ew =or(+ 1arcourt, 3race, #@%@.
Gac(sey, 2ichard, and Aran( . Goorer, eds. 2ichard 2right7 A Collection of
Critical Essa+s. nglewood !liffs, <.0.+ /rentice"1all, #@$C.
2ay, 9avid, and 2obert G. Aarnsworth, eds. %ichard 2right7 I!pressions and
&erspectives. Ann Arbor+ University of Gichigan /ress, #@-?.
2eilly, 0ohn G., ed. %ichard 2right7 The Critical %eception. <ew =or(+ 3urt
Aran(lin, #@-$.
3=T")#?S )T"/# +30)# ,)#>S
Aor a complete bibliography that includes 'right*s poetry, short stories in maga:ines, essays,
boo( reviews, prefaces to other writers* boo(s, )ournalism, and correspondence, see Gichel
Aabre*s biography.
#@?$ Uncle Tom*s !hildren+ Aour <ovellas
#@C# Twelve Gillion 3lac( 7oices+ A Aol( 1istory of the <egro in the United States
#@&? The Outsider
#@&C Savage 1oliday
#@&C 3lac( /ower+ A 2ecord of 2eactions in a Eand of /athos
#@&% The !olor !urtain
#@&% /agan Spain
#@&- 'hite Gan, EistenP
#@&$ The Eong 9ream
#@%# ight Gen
#@%? Eawd Today
II. 5 #367" /66IS)8?S INVISIBLE MAN
T"/ 3=T")# 384 "IS TI+/S
In #@&B a first novel by a virtually un(nown blac( American named 2alph 'aldo llison was
published. 2eviews of the novel were ecstatic, and in #@&? llison*s Invisible Gan won a
prestigious <ational 3oo( Award for Aiction.
Suddenly the author was in great demand for interviews and lectures, and he found himself
being compared not only with blac( writers li(e 2ichard 'right, but also with 1erman
Gelville and Gar( Twain, rnest 1emingway and 'illiam Aaul(ner. Invisi)le 'an was a
phenomenon. In #@%& the phenomenon too( on even greater proportions when a group of
some B.. authors, critics, and editors named Invisible Gan the most distinguished American
novel of the previous twenty years. The passage of time from #@%& to the mid"#@$.s did little
to change the high regard for this remar(able novel. If a similar vote were ta(en in the mid"
#@$.s, Invisi)le 'an would li(ely be near the top of any list of the best American novels
written since the end of 'orld 'ar II in #@C&.
'ho was the man who wrote this novelK 'hat were his roots, his influencesK 'hat was his
preparation for writing a boo( that has had such impactK 1e was born on Garch #, #@#C, in
O(lahoma !ity, the son of Eewis llison from Abbeyville, South !arolina and Ida Gilsap
llison from 'hite Oa(, 6eorgia. They had left the South and moved to O(lahoma to avoid
the persecution of blac(s, and to find the freedom of the frontier. Times were hard and the
llisons were poor, but they were proud and ambitious for their children. Eewis llison,
always a great reader, named his son for 2alph 'aldo merson, the influential nineteenth
century apostle of e4uality, self"reliance, and individualism. The son would eventually live up
to his name. Ida llison brought bac( boo(s, maga:ines, and newspapers from the white
homes where she wor(ed.
She was a woman who spent her life fighting against economic and social in)ustice. D'hen I
was in college,F llison said, Dmy mother bro(e a segregated"housing ordinance in O(lahoma
!ity, and they were throwing her in )ail, and the <AA!/ would get her out.... She had that
(ind of forthrightness, and I li(e to thin( that that was much more valuable than anything
literary that she gave me.F As 2alph llison grew up, he assimilated the liberal social and
political ideals of his parents, but his first love was music. In high school he learned music
theory and mastered the trumpet. There was much music in O(lahoma !ity, but especially
there was )a::. llison heard the ma)or )a:: musicians of the age and became friends with a
number of them. In #@??, when he entered Tus(egee Institute in Alabama as a scholarship
student, he could already play and write both )a:: and classical music and had also been
involved with traditional blac( church music. It was a heritage that would have important
influence on his writing.
Tus(egee Institute was llison*s home for three years, and it is clearly the model for the
college in Invisi)le 'an. <ot only do the buildings and environment in the novel strongly
resemble Tus(egee, but the portrait of the Aounder bears stri(ing resemblance to the image of
Tus(egee*s founder, 3oo(er T. 'ashington, about whom llison was clearly ambivalent. 5Aor
further analysis of the relationship between the Aounder and 'ashington, read the discussion
of !hapter & in The Story section.8 The conservative southern environment of Tus(egee was a
shoc( to llison, but his intellectual development during his years at the college more than
made up for the social disadvantages. The music faculty was e,cellent, as was the nglish
department. 1e read the ma)or wor(s of the 1arlem 2enaissance, a sudden outburst of
creativity by blac( writers that had begun in the #@B.s, and dreamed of being a part of that
movement himself. 3ut the writer who e,cited him most was the famous poet T. S. liot.
llison was stunned by the freshness and originality of liot*s The 'aste Eand. DI was
intrigued by its power to move me while eluding my understanding,F he said laterH and
themes, symbols, images, and )a:: rhythms of liot*s great poem can be found in Invisi)le
At the end of his )unior year at Tus(egee, llison boarded a train and headed north to <ew
=or(. 1e didn*t have enough money to pay for his senior year at college and so set out for the
place where gifted young blac(s went to begin their careers" 1arlem. 1arlem meant blac(
culture. It meant such )a:: musicians as 9u(e llington and Teddy 'ilson. It meant the
Apollo Theater and the Savoy 3allroom, the Eafayette Theater and '/A <egro Theater
!ompany. It meant a reunion with llison*s old friend from O(lahoma !ity, the blues singer
0immy 2ushingH and it meant a new friendship with a leading poet of the 1arlem
2enaissance, Eangston 1ughes.
It also meant poverty and loneliness and a struggle to stay alive. Ainally, and most important,
it meant becoming friends with the most significant influence on his early writing, the novelist
2ichard 'right. 'right*s collection of four stories, 0ncle To!/s Children 5#@?$8, and his
novel, Native Son 5#@C.8, made him the best (nown blac( writer in the United States during
llison*s period of apprenticeship in <ew =or(. In many ways, 'right was llison*s first
mentor. An active member of the U.S. !ommunist /arty, 'right encouraged llison to write
from a leftist point of view, because he believed at the time that the !ommunists had the best
interests of blac(s at heart. Under the influence of 'right and other Gar,ist thin(ers, llison
wrote more than twenty boo( reviews from #@?- to #@CC for a variety of leftist periodicals,
especially <ew Gasses. 1e praised writers dealing with social issues, such as 'right and
0ohn Steinbec(, and attac(ed writers who failed to give ade4uate attention to blac(s* social,
economic, and political problems.
3ut llison was never a !ommunist party member, and he never believed in communism. The
limits that the party placed on individual e,pression were far too strong for him. As early as
#@?-, when he traveled to 9ayton, Ohio, for his mother*s funeral, llison had begun seeing
himself as part of a larger literary tradition. 1e read not only writers of the 1arlem
2enaissance but also rnest 1emingway, 0ames 0oyce, 6ertrude Stein, and Ayodor
9ostoevs(y. 9ostoevs(y*s Notes fro! 0nderground became one of the models for Invisi)le
llison*s preference for literature over politics led him to 4uestion the !ommunist party, and
the !ommunist attitude toward blac(s during 'orld 'ar II caused a final rupture between the
party in the United States and most of the blac( writers who had supported it during the
#@?.s. The 3rotherhood section of Invisi)le 'an strongly echoes the feelings of llison and
other blac( writers that the party had been using blac(s for its own ends. In #@C?, during
'orld 'ar II, llison )oined the U.S. Gerchant Garine because he wanted to ma(e a
contribution to the war effort in a service that was not segregated by race. 1e served for two
years, and during that time he began to write fiction in earnest. Among his writings of the
time were two of his best short stories, DAlying 1omeF and DLing of the 3ingo 6ame,F both
published in #@CC. In these stories llison began to find a voice and an identity as a writer,
and it is no accident that in the ne,t year he started to write Invisi)le 'an.
The novel, which began with the words DI am an invisible manF scribbled on a piece of paper
in a friend*s house in 7ermont, too( seven years to complete. In writing Invisi)le 'an llison
drew on a wide range of e,perience, but his novel is not purely autobiographical. llison
should not be identified with his unnamed narrator. 3ut llison uses his personal e,perience
imaginatively to create a remar(ably inventive piece of fiction. 1e draws on his e,perience at
Tus(egee to write the college chapters and his (nowledge of the !ommunist party to write the
3rotherhood chapters. 1e uses his rich and varied e,perience in 1arlem as the basis for his
description of street life in <ew =or(. Other sources for llison were his reading and the rich
fol( heritage of blac(s. 1e uses the blues and )a:: rhythms, fol(tales and )ive tal(, and
characters drawn from frontier literature, as well as the tales he heard in the streets of
O(lahoma !ity while growing up. The novel begins and ends with references to )a:: musician
Eouis Armstrong singing, D'hat did I do T To be so blac( T And blueKF One of the unusual
things about Invisible Gan is that it was immediately popular with both whites and blac(s.
llison has the rare ability in this novel to present a hero with whom people of diverse
bac(grounds can identify. <ot only did the unnamed hero stand for the blac( man searching
for his identity in a white world, but he seemed to represent to white college students any
young man going through a crisis of values on his way to discovering himself. 2eaders on
both sides of the Atlantic viewed Invisi)le 'an as a wor( to be read alongside the popular
plays and novels of 0ean"/aul Sartre and Albert !amus.
9uring the #@%.s the popularity of Invisi)le 'an decreased, not so much with whites as with
blac(s. Gany young blac( writers resented Invisi)le 'an*s having been named the most
distinguished novel of the past twenty years. They did not thin( that llison spo(e for them
because he was too much of an DUncle Tom,F a blac( who served the white man*s interests. A
generation accustomed to outspo(en blac( leaders such as Galcolm V and Sto(ely
!armichael wanted its literature more radical. In the #@-.s, many blac( poets and novelists
emphasi:ed the uni4ueness of blac( life. llison refused to go in that direction. Aor him the
core of America lay in the genuine integration of white and blac(.
DI don*t recogni:e any white culture,F he said to his friend, the blac( writer 0ames Alan
Gc/herson. DI recogni:e no American culture which is not the partial creation of blac(
people. I recogni:e no American style in literature, in dance, in music, even in assembly"line
processes, which does not bear the mar( of the American <egro.F llison became a member
of the American literary establishment. 1e taught at 3ard !ollege, 2utgers, the University of
!hicago, and <ew =or( University. 1e served as a trustee of 3ennington !ollege. 1e became
a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the <ational Institute of Arts
and Eetters. In #@%C, he published a second boo(, Shadow and Act, a collection of essays
about his personal life, as well as about literature, music, and the blac( e,perience in
America. 1e wor(ed on a second novel, about a blac( evangelist and a white orphan boy
whom he has adopted. /arts of the novel were published as stories, but the complete novel
had not been published by the mid"#@$.s.
And so 2alph 'aldo llison remained a parado,. 1e had survived the criticism of the #@%.s
and -.s to become one of the most admired blac( American writers of the #@$.s. At the same
time he remained a one"novel man, and his admirers and critics ali(e wondered whether that
second novel would ever be published.
T"/ 8)(/6
T"/ 76)T
Invisi)le 'an opens with a /rologue. The unnamed narrator tells you that he is an invisible
man living in a hole under the streets of <ew =or( somewhere near 1arlem. 1is hole is warm
and bright. 1e has come here to hibernate, to thin( out the meaning of life, after the events he
is about to narrate. 'hat drove him to this state of hibernationK 1e begins to tell you.
The story starts when the narrator graduates from high school in a southern town. The leading
white citi:ens invite him to give his graduation speech at a Dsmo(erF in the ballroom of the
local hotel. 1e arrives to find himself part of a Dbattle royalF in which local blac( boys are
forced to fight one another blindfolded for the entertainment of the drun(en whites. After the
battle, the blac(s are further humiliated by having to crawl on an electrified carpet to pic( up
coins. Ainally, the hero is allowed to give his speech and is rewarded with a leather briefcase
and a scholarship to the state college for blac(s.
The narrator is a good student at college and is sufficiently well thought of to be allowed to
drive distinguished white visitors around the campus and community. <ear the end of his
)unior year he drives one of the trustees, a Gr. <orton, out into the country. They arrive by
accident at the cabin of a blac( sharecropper named 0im Trueblood, who has caused a terrible
scandal by committing incest with his daughter. Trueblood tells his story to <orton who is so
overwhelmed that he nearly faints. In order to revive <orton, the narrator ta(es him for a
drin( to a nearby bar and house of prostitution called the 6olden 9ay. A group of veterans
who are patients at the local mental hospital arrive at the same time, and a wild brawl ensues
during which Gr. <orton passes out. 1e is carried upstairs to one of the prostitute*s rooms
and revived by a veteran who was once a physician.
The horrified narrator finally returns <orton to the college, but the damage has been done.
The young man is called into the president*s office and dismissed from school. The president,
9r. 3ledsoe, gives him letters of introduction to a number of the school*s trustees in <ew
=or(, and the narrator boards a bus the following day, hoping that the letters will help him
succeed in the white world. To his surprise the letters do not seem to help when he arrives in
1arlem. <o one offers him a )ob. Ainally, young Gr. merson, the son of one of the trustees,
e,plains why+ The letters were not letters of recommendation at all but instructions not to help
the boy, to (eep him away from any further association with the college. The stunned narrator
now has nowhere to turn, and so ta(es a )ob at the Eiberty /aint !ompany at the
recommendation of young Gr. merson.
The e,perience is a bi:arre one. 1e is sent to wor( with an old blac( man named Eucius
3roc(way. 3roc(way, a blac( man, is the real creator of the Optic 'hite paint that Eiberty is
so proud of, but the naive young narrator doesn*t understand the irony of the situation. Eater,
when he fails to pay attention to 3roc(way*s instructions, he is (noc(ed out in an e,plosion.
'hen he wa(es up, he finds himself in a large glass and metal bo, in the factory hospital. 1e
seems to be the ob)ect of some sort of psychological e,periment. 1e is sub)ected to electric
shoc( treatment, 4uestioned, given a new name by a man in a white coat, and released. 9a:ed,
he returns to 1arlem li(e a newborn infant, unable to care for himself.
The confused protagonist is ta(en in by a compassionate blac( woman named Gary 2ambo,
who nurses him bac( to health. 3ut what is he to doK 'inter is coming and the money given
him in compensation by the factory has all but run out. The narrator goes out into the icy
streets and has the most important e,perience of his life. 1e sees an old blac( couple being
evicted and spontaneously gets up before the gathered crowd and stirs the people to action. 1e
has found a new identity " as a spo(esman for blac(s " but the police arrive and he is forced to
flee across the rooftops, followed by a white man who introduces himself as 3rother 0ac(.
3rother 0ac( would li(e the narrator to wor( for his organi:ation, the 3rotherhood, as a
spea(er for the 1arlem district. The narrator hesitates, then accepts the offer. 1e is given a
new name and is moved from 1arlem to a new location, where he will study the literature of
the 3rotherhood.
The ne,t evening the narrator is ta(en to 1arlem to begin his career as a spea(er for the
3rotherhood. 1e and several others sit on a platform in a large arena, and he is the last to
spea(. 'hen he spea(s, he electrifies the audience with his emotional power, but the
3rotherhood is not pleased. They consider his style primitive and bac(ward, and so he is
barred from further speeches until he has been trained by 3rother 1ambro in the methods and
teachings of the 3rotherhood. Aour months later the narrator is made chief spo(esman of the
1arlem district. 1is committee, which includes 3rother Tobitt, 3rother Tarp, and the
narrator*s favorite, 3rother Tod !lifton, is concerned about regaining the support of the
community from 2as the ,horter, a wild blac("nationalist rabble"rouser who has drawn
blac( people into a war with whites. The narrator and his new friend !lifton engage in a street
fight with 2as, a fight that foreshadows the final battle in the novel between the 3rotherhood
and supporters of the blac( nationalist.
<othing is concluded, but at the same time 2as is unable to stop the 3rotherhood, under the
narrator*s leadership, from ma(ing great progress in 1arlem. 3rother Tarp, as a to(en of his
support for the narrator*s leadership, gives him a lin( of leg chain. 3ut there are many in the
3rotherhood who do not li(e the narrator. 1e is too successful and moving too fast. At a
meeting of the committee, the narrator is removed from a leadership role in 1arlem and
ordered to lecture downtown on the 'oman >uestion. 1e is stunned, but he obeys the
3rotherhood and gives the lecture as ordered, whereupon a white woman, more interested in
his se,uality as a blac( man than in the 'oman >uestion, seduces him in her apartment after
the lecture. 1is lectures downtown continue until he is suddenly and surprisingly returned to
1arlem after the une,pected disappearance of 3rother Tod !lifton.
The narrator returns to 1arlem, hoping to reorgani:e the neighborhood, but things have
deteriorated since he was sent downtown. 1e searches for Tod !lifton and finds him,
pathetically selling 3lac( Sambo dolls near the <ew =or( /ublic Eibrary. A police officer
nabs !lifton for illegal peddling and shoots him when he resists arrest. Suddenly the narrator,
who has witnessed this, finds himself plunged into an historical event. A huge funeral is
arranged for !lifton in 1arlem, and the narrator spea(s at the occasion, but his speech is very
different from his earlier speeches. 1e can no longer rouse the crowd to action. 1e returns to
3rotherhood head4uarters and is severely critici:ed by 3rother 0ac( for having acted without
The angry narrator is frustrated at his inability to accomplish anything constructive. 1e puts
on a pair of sunglasses to disguise himself and suddenly finds that he has ta(en on another
new identity, that of 2inehart, a swindler. <ot even 2as the ,horter, now 2as the 9estroyer,
seems to recogni:e the narrator in this disguise. !oncerned about the growing strength of 2as
and his men, the narrator goes for advice to 3rother 1ambro*s. 1ere he is told that
international policies have temporarily changed directives. 1arlem is no longer a priority for
the 3rotherhood. The narrator is astonished. Again he has been betrayed by an organi:ation
he trusted. 1e finally begins to see what a fool he has been and understands that he has, to
white people, been invisible. 1e follows his grandfather*s advice and starts Dyessing them to
death,F meanwhile secretly planning his own strategy.
As a part of his revenge he spends a drun(en evening with Sybil, the wife of one of the
3rotherhood members, hoping to obtain useful information from her.
3ut she is more interested in his body than in politics. A telephone call interrupts them. There
is a huge riot in the district, and the narrator is needed. 1e hurries bac( to 1arlem to find total
chaos. Eooters are everywhere, and 2as and his troops are out in force. 2as, on a blac( horse
and dressed as an thiopian chieftain, is armed with spear and shield. The narrator narrowly
escapes being (illed by 2as. 1e dives into a manhole to avoid being mugged by a group of
white thugs, and falls asleep. 1e wa(es up to find himself in a dar(, underground passage
from which he can*t escape, and decides to stay. 1ere he will try to understand what has
happened to him and then write his story. The novel ends with an pilogue in which the
narrator decides it is time to come out of his hole. 1e is ready to re)oin society, because he
(nows and understands himself now DThe hibernation is over. I must sha(e off the old s(in
and come up for breath,F he says. The novel ends as he ma(es a new beginning.
T"/ 2"3#32T/#S
+30)# 2"3#32T/#S
T"/ 83##3T)# The novel*s central character has no name. Some readers refer to him as
the Invisible Gan, others call him the narrator. Some regard him as the protagonist or the
hero. =ou may call him by any of these titles, because he has all these roles. DI am an
invisible man,F he tells you in the first sentence of the novel. 'hen he calls himself invisible,
he means that other people don*t see him, that no one recogni:es him as a person, as an
individual. A helpful way to understand the Invisible Gan as a character is to use the ideas of
the noted twentieth"century 0ewish philosopher, Gartin 3uber. 3uber distinguishes between I"
Thou relationships and I"It relationships. 'hen we love someone, there is an I"Thou
relationship, one between two individuals who truly care for one another as persons. In an I"It
relationship we use others as things. 'e li(e people for what we can get out of them.
If you apply this idea to llison*s central character, you may conclude that he is invisible
because people always see him as an DIt,F never as a DThou.F 1e is used by the college
officials and the wealthy white trustees in the first half of the novel and by the leaders of the
3rotherhood in the second half. Once he is no longer useful to these people, he is discarded
li(e trash. It is particularly interesting to note that, when people want to use him, they give
him a name. 1e is named in !hapter ## by the doctors at the factory hospital before being
1e is renamed by the 3rotherhood in !hapter #C. <otice that you are never told these names.
The. only name he is ever called is D2inehart,F and that is in !hapter B? when he puts on a
pair of dar( glasses, and, later, a hat, to disguise himself from 2as the ,horter*s men.
Throughout the chapter, he is mista(en for a variety of D2inehartsF" 2inehart, the gamblerH
2inehart, the loverH 2everend 2inehart, the minister. ventually the protagonist discards the
glasses, but it is significant that it is his choice, not someone else*s. 'hen the main events of
the novel are over, he chooses to stay underground, to remain literally invisible" out of
circulation" until he has thought through who he is and who he wants to be rather than
accepting other people*s definitions of him. At the end he decides to come out of his hole and
re)oin society. Gaybe he will still be invisible. That is an interesting point for you to consider.
llison certainly seems ambiguous about it in the pilogue. 3ut the narrator is a different
person from the young man who e,perienced the adventures in the main body of the novel.
The Invisible Gan is not only the chief actor in the novel " the protagonist " he is also its
narrator. The story is told in the first person, and for that reason you have to be careful about
the way you interpret it. In this guide*s section on /oint of 7iew you will find additional
material on the problems of interpreting first"person narratives. Aor now, you need to be
aware of the way in which first"person narration affects your analysis of the Invisible Gan as
a character.
The Invisible Gan is what is (nown as a naive narrator. Throughout most of the novel, he is
young, ine,perienced, and gullible. =ou cannot ta(e what he says at face value because there
are many, many occasions when he misses the irony of a situation or the true import of
people*s words and actions. Sometimes he simply misinterprets things. So he is not only a
naive narrator, he is an unreliable narrator in the sense that you cannot trust his version of the
story to be entirely accurate. 1e tells it as he sees it, but he doesn*t always see it very well.
3ut, before you )udge the narrator too 4uic(ly, be careful. 1e is not the same person at the end
of the novel that he is at the beginning. 1e is a character who grows. The 6erman word
3ildungsroman is often used to describe the novel of education, the story of a person*s growth
to maturity. Invisible Gan is a 3ildungsroman, and the narrator changes a good deal during
the course of the story. =ou will follow his development step by step in The Story section of
this guide. Aor now, you should be aware that the protagonist is a developing rather than a
static character. The only tric(y thing to watch out for is that the /rologue represents a stage
of development after the events of !hapters # to B&. Thus, if you are tracing the narrator*s
development, the order would be !hapters # to B&, /rologue, pilogue. 3etween the /rologue
and the pilogue the narrator is actually writing the novel, and in the pilogue he is trying to
understand the meaning of what he*s )ust done.
One final point+ The narrator is an Afro"American. /art of the reason he*s invisible is that
llison feels white people do not see blac( people. Guch of what he suffers comes at the
hands of white people and those blac(s who wor( for white people. Arom this point of view
the narrator may be interpreted as a symbol for the blac( person in America. And if you are
blac( or 1ispanic, or a member of another minority that suffers from pre)udice, you may
identify especially with this character, who seems to be treated so un)ustly at the hands of
pre)udiced men and women. 3ut 2alph llison, when as(ed about the narrator, fre4uently
emphasi:ed the point that his hero was universal he was any person searching for identity in
the chaos and comple,ity of contemporary America.
)T"/# 2"3#32T/#S
Invisi)le 'an is, in a sense, a one"character novel. The narrator himself is the only figure
whose life you are concerned with from the beginning to the end of the novel. Other people
enter the novel, live in it for a few chapters as they influence the narrator, then vanish. 'e
will loo( briefly at the most important of these figures in the order that they appear in the
boo(. ach of these characters is also discussed in some detail in the appropriate chapters of
The Story section. =ou should consult those chapters for more complete treatment. The minor
figures are considered briefly in the <otes in The Story section.
+#. 8)#T)8 (2"37T/# 5)
Gr. <orton 5his name suggests northern8 is the first figure to influence the narrator*s destiny.
1e is a white"haired, red"faced multimillionaire from 3oston who serves on the blac(
college*s 3oard of Trustees. 1e loo(s and acts li(e Santa !laus, seeing himself as a good"
natured benefactor of blac( people. <orton tells the narrator that he was one of the college*s
founders and that his success as a man depends on the success of the college*s students. 1e
seems to mean by this that blac( people ought to try and rise up from the effects of slavery
and illiteracy in the way prescribed by the white power structure.
The narrator drives Gr. <orton out to the country, where they stop at the home of a blac(
sharecropper named 0ames Trueblood, who has committed incest with his daughter. <orton
seems both horrified and fascinated by Trueblood*s story and is so shoc(ed by hearing it that
he must be ta(en to a bar named the 6olden 9ay for a drin( to revive him. 1ere he is in)ured
in a scuffle, eventually revived, and finally returned to the college, but not before the damage
has been done" <orton has been educated to the realities of blac( life in the South. 1e has
seen not what 9r. 3ledsoe, the college president, wants him to see but what blac( people li(e
0im Trueblood and the veterans at the 6olden 9ay really thin( and feel about themselves and
whites. In the process he is e,posed as a vulnerable old man who is himself near death and
needs care. 'ho cares for himK A prostitute and a supposedly cra:y blac( veteran. 1as the
narrator intentionally ta(en Gr. <orton on a )ourney to self"(nowledgeK
4#. *6/4S)/ (2"37T/# ')
On his way bac( from the 6olden 9ay, the narrator says, D1ere within this 4uiet greenness I
possessed the only identity I had ever (nown, and I was losing it.F That identity is associated
with 9r. 3ledsoe, the president of the college. D1e was the e,ample of everything I hoped to
be,F the narrator tells us. 3ledsoe is rich, he has a beautiful wife, and he owns two !adillac
automobiles. 1e is a successful and powerful blac( man in a white man*s world.
9o you see the two sides of 3ledsoe that the narrator missesK There is the surface 3ledsoe
humbly attending to his white guests and doing e,actly what white people e,pect of a blac(
man. =ou can see this 3ledsoe especially in !hapter &, the vespers se4uence. There is also the
3ledsoe who bitterly attac(s the narrator for ta(ing Gr. <orton to 0im Trueblood*s and the
6olden 9ay, the 3ledsoe who will attac( anybody and anything to hold on to the power
which he has. This is the 3ledsoe who Dbleeds his people so,F as his name suggests" the
3ledsoe that the narrator can*t let himself believe in. llison depicts 3ledsoe as a man who
rather than really helping his race is actually holding it bac(. 9o you agreeK
@)=8G +#. /+/#S)8 (2"37T/# %)
=oung Gr. merson is the son of the trustee to whom the seventh of 3ledsoe*s sealed letters
is addressed. =oung merson opens the letter and e,plains to the shoc(ed narrator what the
letters have really said. 9o you admire young Gr. merson for this actionK It seems li(e a
step forward in the narrator*s development. After all, he cannot grow until he stops ideali:ing
people li(e <orton and 3ledsoe. merson*s decision to tell him the truth may enable him to
ta(e a step forward.
The 4uestion remains+ 'hat does merson offer him in place of the world of 3ledsoe and the
collegeK 2ead !hapter @ carefully and loo( at the details of young Gr. merson*s world" a
world of nightclubs li(e the !lub !alamus 5named for 'alt 'hitman*s D!alamusF poems, a
group of openly homose,ual poems8, a world of )a:: )oints in 6reenwich 7illage and 1arlem
where blac(s and whites can mingle. =oung Gr. merson thin(s of himself as 1uc(leberry
Ainn and he thin(s of blac(s as being li(e 0im. 0ust as 1uc( in Gar( Twain*s novel decides
not to turn 0im in, so young Gr. merson feels that he is helping the narrator by freeing him
from the slavery of ignorance. 9o you believe merson is really helping the narratorK 'hat
are his motivesK Are they clearK In thin(ing about him, you may wish to consider the
symbolism of his name.
2emember that 2alph llison was named after 2alph 'aldo merson. 3iographical
information on the historical merson may be found in a <ote to !hapter @. Is there a parallel
between young Gr. merson and the famous nineteenth"century essayistK 1ave you read
DThe American ScholarF or DSelf 2elianceFK 'hat might the author of these essays say about
young Gr. mersonK 1ave 2alph 'aldo merson*s ideas been diluted and corrupted over
+3#@ #3+*) (2"37T/# 15)
After his shattering e,periences in the paint factory in !hapters #. and ##, the narrator returns
to 1arlem but is too wea( to care for himself. The person who saves his life is Gary 2ambo.
Gary is important in the novel because she starts the narrator on the right trac( by offering
him love and care without as(ing anything in return. She doesn*t e,pect him to be something
for her. The fact that the narrator has been living at Gen*s 1ouse, a place where important
blac(s gather to impress one another, is significant. After the paint factory e,perience, the
narrator is li(e a newborn child. 1e cannot survive at Gen*s 1ouse. 1e needs a mother to care
for him, and Gary 2ambo serves that role. She feeds him, shelters him, and gives him love.
She is part of that important southern fol( tradition that the narrator has abandoned, the
tradition of the relatively uneducated but morally upright southern blac( mother. The narrator
has come to believe he is too good for such people. 1e traveled to <ew =or( to ma(e his way
among whites and educated blac(s. 1e has had nothing to do with the servants, farmers, and
house(eepers of his childhood in the South. Gary reminds him of those true values he has
forgotten. DI*m in <ew =or( but <ew =or( ain*t in me,F she tells him. D9on*t git corrupted.F
1e calls her Da force, a stable, familiar force li(e something out of my past which (ept me
from whirling off into some un(nown....F Though he leaves Gary*s, what she stands for
remains so important to him that, at the end of !hapter B&, when he is nearly (illed in the
street riot, he tries to get bac( to Gary*s, where he can be loved and cared for. 3ut he never
does. Instead he remains in the hole that becomes his new home, his new room or womb. 9o
you see parallels between his room at Gary*s and the underground holeK
*#)T"/# 032> (2"37T/# 19)
In !hapter #? the narrator ma(es a powerful speech at a sidewal( eviction. The speech
attracts the attention of Da short insignificant bushy"eyebrowed, white man with red hair.F The
man is 3rother 0ac(, the leader of the 3rotherhood, who dominates the narrator*s life for the
ne,t ten chapters. It is not until the crucial showdown between the narrator and 3rother 0ac(
in !hapter BB, after the funeral of Tod !lifton, that the narrator finally sees the truth about
3rother 0ac(, a truth that is vividly symboli:ed by 3rother 0ac(*s glass eye, which drops out
of its soc(et into a glass of water during the argument. =ou might want to e,plore the
symbolism of the glass eye further.
3rother 0ac(*s red hair may stand for his !ommunist ideology, )ust as the 3rotherhood may
represent the !ommunist party, to which llison and other blac( writers and thin(ers were
drawn during the #@?.s. !ertainly the se4uence of events in !hapters #? to BB roughly
parallels the relationships between many blac( American intellectuals and the !ommunists
during the 9epression and the early years of 'orld 'ar II. 0ac(, as the leader, e,presses
much of the party*s ideology.
If you wish to pursue the study of 3rother 0ac( as a symbol of communism in America during
the #@?.s, remember that a good many leftist writers and critics did not li(e llison*s
portrayal of 3rother 0ac( and thought the chapters about the 3rotherhood the wea(est section
of the novel 5see The !ritics section of this guide for some e,amples of their reaction8.
'hether you agree with them or not, 3rother 0ac( is a character who merits close study. 1is
name, 0ac(, is a common slang term for money, and money is what attracts the narrator to
3rother 0ac( in the first place. 1e uses the money to pay Gary 2ambo, to buy new clothes,
and to move into a social set that includes wealthy white women. The name D0ac(F combined
with 0ac(*s glass eye also suggests the Done"eyed 0ac(sF in playing cards. 0ac( pretends to be
the (ing of the 3rotherhood in <ew =or(, but when the real international (ings ma(e changes
in policy, 0ac( turns out to be nothing more than a discard. 9o you see any parallels between
0ac( and 3ledsoe, those two figures who dominate the narrator*s life throughout the better
part of the novelK
*#)T"/# T)4 26IBT)8 (2"37T/# 17)
In !hapter #- the narrator is made the chief spo(esman of the 1arlem 9istrict for the
3rotherhood, and at his first meeting he is introduced by 3rother 0ac( to 3rother Tod !lifton.
!lifton is tall, blac(, and stri(ingly handsome. This young, muscular man is passionately
engaged in his wor(. As a 1arlem youth leader, he is sympathetic to the narrator*s idea of
organi:ing community leaders to fight evictions. The two begin their crusade as true brothers
in the cause, and their friendship deepens when they end up literally fighting side by side
against 2as the ,horter, the militant blac( nationalist, and his men. 2as both hates and loves
Tod. 1e hates him because Tod wor(s with white men, but he loves him because he is blac(
and beautiful. 1e doesn*t (ill Tod, because he hopes that Tod will some day )oin his cause.
Tod !lifton is one of the genuinely loveable and tragic figures in the novel. 1e is the hope of
the blac( community. 1is intelligence, physical grace, strength and cunning on the streets, as
well as his loyalty to his people, ma(e him a hero. Then, without warning, he disappears from
the district. The narrator does not (now why, because it is during the time that the narrator
himself has been e,iled from 1arlem. The narrator returns to the district in !hapter B. and
begins his search for Tod. And he finds him, not in 1arlem, but downtown near the main
building of the <ew =or( /ublic Eibrary, haw(ing Sambo dolls. 'hat did llison have in
mind by ma(ing Tod a moc(ery of himself, a moc(ery of everything that he and the narrator
have stood for in 1arlemK If you are going to deal with Tod as a character, this is the first
important 4uestion you must answer. 2eread !hapter B. carefully and loo( for clues.
/erhaps Tod left 1arlem because the 3rotherhood betrayed him and changed its emphasis to
national and international issues. /erhaps he gave up because he reali:ed, as the narrator
finally does, that the 3rotherhood was )ust using him. 'hat is your interpretation, at this point
in the novel, of Tod*s roleK
Suddenly the ludicrous comedy of Tod*s part as a sidewal( peddler turns into a tragedy. Tod
is shot and (illed by a white policeman for resisting arrest. Again you must as(, D'hyFK Is
Tod*s death primarily the result of social forces, of white pre)udice, of police brutalityK Or
does Tod in a sense ta(e his own lifeK 'ould it help you to (now that the 6erman word for
DdeathF is DTodFK 9oes this name have particular symbolic importance in the novelK If so,
whatK ven if the name Tod suggests death, it still does not answer the 4uestion of why Tod
must die. Tod*s death has a powerful impact on the narrator. 1is friendship with Tod evo(es a
moving and terrible grief, which he tries to put into words at Tod*s huge outdoor funeral. Tod
!lifton, in death, becomes a symbol for all blac( people, for all the young and talented blac(
people who are symbolically shot down in all sorts of ways. Tod is dead, and the narrator
moves the crowd to grief. 3ut he cannot move them to political action. 1e can, however,
rouse himself to human action against the 3rotherhood which destroyed Tod. Tod !lifton is
the catalyst for the narrator*s final awa(ening to self in !hapters BB and B?. In that role, Tod
is one of the truly important figures in the novel.
*#)T"/# T3#7 384 *#)T"/# ,#/ST#=+ (2"37T/#S 17 384 18)
At the same time that the narrator meets Tod !lifton, he also meets two other blac( brothers,
3rother Tarp, who becomes an inspiration to him, and 3rother 'restrum, who becomes a
0udas figure. They may symboli:e two e4ual and opposite reactions to the blac( situation "
one good, the other evil.
Tarp is a genuine freedom fighter. Ei(e his hero, Arederic( 9ouglass 5see the <ote to !hapter
#-8, whose picture he puts over the narrator*s des(, Tarp has been cruelly punished for
fighting tyranny. DI said no to a man who wanted to ta(e something from me,F and for saying
no he was sentenced to nineteen years at hard labor. So he bro(e his chains, outran the dogs,
headed north, and )oined the 3rotherhood because it seemed li(e a good place to be in his
fight for freedom.
1e is old, and as a symbol of his age, he gives the narrator the piece of chain which he had
filed from his leg and saved. Aor Tarp this is a way of passing on the fight to the younger
generation. Tarp, the narrator reali:es, reminds him of his own grandfather, whose image has
haunted him since his childhood. The narrator (eeps Tarp*s leg iron on his des( as a reminder
of the fight against slavery in which they are all involved. 1e is stirred and reassured by the
gift, which he later puts into his briefcase and uses as a weapon of self"defense during the riot
described in the final chapters.
3rother 'restrum sees the leg iron on the narrator*s des( and complains about it. 1e is a
Dpure brother,F and he wants no reminders of the blac( man*s past in the office. 1e wants all
3rotherhood members to wear buttons or pins so that they can be instantly recogni:ed.
'restrum is not wor(ing for blac( freedom, but for the 3rotherhood, and he is perfectly
willing to turn against any blac( member who does not follow 3rotherhood discipline to the
letter. It seems as if 'restrum is a (ind of paid spy for the higher"ups li(e 3rother 0ac(. After
all, it is 3rother 'restrum who turns the narrator in to the board, charging him with selfish
opportunism and causing him to be sent downtown to lecture on the 'oman >uestion. Is
3rother 'restrum acting on his own initiative when he accuses the narrator in the middle of
!hapter #$, or is he acting on ordersK =ou don*t (now, but in either case there is something
consistently snea(y and dishonest about 3rother 'restrum, whose name sounds unmista(ably
li(e Drest room.F In !hapter BC the narrator refers to him as Dthat outhouse 'restrum.F <eed
anything more be saidK
#3S T"/ /A")#T/# (2"37T/# 17)
2as the ,horter enters the novel with Tod !lifton in !hapter #- but survives Tod*s death to
become the most dominant figure in the boo(*s closing chapters. 2as the ,horter, who
becomes 2as the 9estroyer during the final race riot, is a blac( nationalist who has organi:ed
the 1arlem community along racial lines.
The name D2asF clearly suggests Drace.F The name may also come from D2a,F the name of
the gyptian sun"god, who is pictured as a man with a haw(*s head. Eiterally, the name
comes from the Amharic word 2as, which means DprinceF or D(ing.F The thiopian emperor
1aile Selassie was 2as Tafari before he became emperor, and the 0amaica"based religion
2astafarianism believes that its members derive their ancestry from thiopia and, if traced all
the way bac(, to Solomon and the >ueen of Sheba. 2astafarian ideas were well (nown in
1arlem during llison*s time. 2as is inspiring because he has a message that blac(s want to
listen to, the unity of race. On the other hand, he is terrifying, because his methods are violent
and lead finally to the terrible reality of blac( fighting against blac( in senseless mutual
destruction. 'hen the 3rotherhood is no longer interested in 1arlem, they turn it over to 2as,
who uses the prete,t of Tod !lifton*s death to start a race riot. 'hat llison seems to be
suggesting through 2as is that the ultimate implications of 2as* philosophy are totally self"
destructive. 2as and the 3rotherhood appear to be e4ually wrong choices for different
One of the unusual things about llison*s portrait of 2as is that it is not based on any
particular figure. llison was as(ed if he had Garcus 6arvey in mind, because 6arvey was a
blac( nationalist from 0amaica who spo(e with a !aribbean accent similar to the one 2as uses
in Invisible Gan. llison said that 2as came from his imagination. 2ather than being
historical, the figure of 2as is prophetic. 'ithin fifteen years after Invisible Gan was
published, figures li(e 2as sprang up all over America. Some, li(e Galcolm V, became 3lac(
Others, li(e 1uey <ewton and ldridge !leaver, called themselves 3lac( /anthers and
carried weapons, as they said, to defend themselves against white violence. America*s cities"
'atts 5Eos Angeles8, 9etroit, <ewar(, !hicago" were roc(ed with race riots, and many blac(s
turned away from any (ind of dialog with whites. Today the figure of 2as, and the riot at the
end of the novel which he engenders and prolongs, seem to prophesy what America would go
through in the #@%.s when the calmer voices of integration gave way to the radical shouts of
the 3lac( Guslims and /an"African movements. 2as is a powerful and frightening figure who
may symboli:e some of llison*s worst fears.
#I8/"3#T (2"37T/# 59)
2inehart is a student*s dream. Almost anything you say about him is li(ely to be true. About
2inehart there are far more 4uestions than answers, and you should have an e,citing time
e,ploring this mysterious figure who never appears.
=ou (now that someone or perhaps several people named 2inehart e,ist, because the narrator
is mista(en for 2inehart a number of times in !hapter B? after he puts on a pair of dar(
glasses and a white hat to disguise himself from 2as the ,horter*s men. The glasses and the
hat are magical. DThey see the hat, not me. There is magic in it. It hides me right in front of
their eyes...F the narrator thin(s to himself. <ot only does it hide him, it gives him a new
identity, another new identity" that of a man named 2inehart who, it seems, is a numbers
runner, a lover, a storefront evangelist, and a hipster. 3ut can one man be all these things at
onceK !ould there be at least two or three 2inehartsK Is 2inehart a character at allK Is he really
more a symbol, a type, than an individualK The narrator thin(s about the meaning of
2inehart*s name. D!ould he himself be both rind and heartK 'hat is real anywayKF Eater he
says, DSo I*d accept it, I*d e,plore it, rine and heart.F If we are trying to discover the meaning
of 2inehart as a symbol, we need to loo( at both the words DrindF and Drine.F D2indF means a
thic( outer s(in, li(e the rind of an orange. It means a (ind of toughness that enables one to
survive. D2ineF is really street tal( for Drind.F A man with a lot of DrineF is a tough dude, one
who can survive in the chaos and confusion of the unstructured world of the street. llison
said in an interview that D2inehart is my name for the personification of chaos. 1e is also
intended to represent America and change. 1e has lived so long with chaos that he (nows
how to manipulate it.F 2inehart is a con man, a manipulator. 1e lives in the world, but he
doesn*t really do anything for the world e,cept use it. The identity of 2inehart may be a
temporary sanctuary for the narrator, but it is another identity he must re)ect if he is to find
himself as a person. ventually he discards the glasses and the hat and ta(es to his hole to
thin( out his true identity. =ou will have a fascinating time following the glasses and the hat
through !hapters B? to B& and e,ploring what they suggest symbolically about the elusive and
ever"present Gr. 2inehart, and the narrator*s adoption of his lifestyle. arly in !hapter B& the
glasses are bro(en, and the narrator must face 2as the 9estroyer without the protection of
2inehart. 'hat might that suggestK
)T"/# /6/+/8TS
Setting is always important in Invisible Gan, because llison is both a realistic writer and a
symbolist. 1e puts events in real settings, but these settings always stand for something
beyond themselves.
The largest and most significant element in setting is the contrast between South and <orth.
!hapters # to % ta(e place in the South, !hapters $ to B& in the <orth, with !hapter - as a
transition. In llison*s words, the narrator Dleaves the South and goes <orthH this, as you will
notice in reading <egro fol(tales, is always the road to freedom.F Thus one ma)or pattern of
the novel is a move from the restricting bonds of the South, symboli:ed by the rigid
distinctions between blac( and white, to the greater fle,ibility of the <orth as symboli:ed by
life in 1arlem. 3ut the e,istence of that pattern should not lead you to view <orth and South
simply as symbols for restriction and freedom. In llison*s popular short story, DLing of the
3ingo 6ame,F the anonymous narrator finds himself in the cold, unfriendly <orth missing the
warmth and easygoing 4uality of southern life.
9o you find, as you read Invisi)le 'an, that <orth and South are mi,ed symbols, representing
a variety of thingsK Is the South both restrictive and friendly, the <orth freer yet more
impersonalK There are several significant settings within each geographic area. The settings in
!hapters # to % include the hotel ballroom where the battle royal ta(es place 5!hapter #8, 0im
Trueblood*s farm 5!hapter B8, the 6olden 9ay 5!hapter ?8 and the college 5!hapters C to %8.
ach of these settings allows you to see blac( life in the South from a different perspective.
!hapter # represents blac(s in their most demeaning situation" on public display in the white
world. !hapters B and ? show blac(s acting more freely in more natural settings, but these are
settings outlawed for the college boys. The college boys are being educated on a tree"lined
campus with bric( buildings. It is a neat and orderly world, a world in which blac(s are
restricted to the (ind of behavior that suits those blac( leaders who would please wealthy
whites. The campus is an Uncle Tom world, a world of blac(s trying to act li(e whites.
To grow, the narrator must stop ideali:ing this world and its leaders. 1e must accept the freer
and yet more dangerous world symboli:ed by <ew =or(. <ew =or( is a microcosm of the
<orth. Though not rigidly segregated li(e the South, it is divided into predominantly blac(
1arlem and predominantly white downtown. 9owntown is where the 3rotherhood has its
main office. It is where the narrator visits white Dbrothers and sisters.F It is where Tod !lifton
is (illed by a white policeman. It is significant that when the narrator )oins the 3rotherhood,
he leaves his rooms at Gary 2ambo*s boarding house in 1arlem to ta(e more e,pensive
rooms in a white part of town. 1arlem is the center of blac( life and culture, the place where
llison himself lived for a number of years after leaving Tus(egee Institute in Alabama. The
blac( must (now and understand 1arlem in order to find his identity. 3y re)ecting 1arlem, the
narrator has re)ected his own blac(ness. 1e has spent most of the novel trying to become
The final significant setting is the underground cave of the /rologue and pilogue. 1ere, the
narrator is in a Dborder area,F not associated with either blac( or white. 1ere he has retreated
into himself to thin( out his identity, to come to some self"understanding. 1ere, alone, apart
from those who try to force identity on him, he is able to arrive at some genuine self"
(nowledge. The cave is a place of contemplation, a place to grow a new s(in and be protected
from the harsh realities of the outside world until he is strong enough to go outside. The novel
ends, significantly, with the narrator*s decision to leave the cave, to go up and out into the real
world again, a world of both blac(s and whites.
Invisi)le 'an is a stylistic performance of the highest order, a delight and a constant series of
surprises to anyone who loves words. That*s one view. The other is that it is a confusing mass
of shifting styles that only serves to (eep the reader from (nowing what*s going on.
Therefore, ta(e this section of the study guide as a warning+ Invisible Gan is not an easy
novel to read, and if you want to get the ma,imum pleasure and understanding from llison*s
da::ling use of language, you will have to wor( at it.
llison*s first stylistic device is word play. 1e loves puns, rhymes, slogans, and parado,es. DI
yam what I amPF cries the narrator, after buying a hot buttered yam from a street vendor in
!hapter #?. DIf It*s Optic 'hite, It*s the 2ight 'hiteF is a slogan for the Eiberty /aint
Aactory coined by the blac( Eucius 3roc(way. It reminds the narrator of the old southern
e,pression, DIf you*re white, you*re right.F DAll it ta(es to get along in this here man*s town is
a little shit, grit, and mother"wit,F says /eter 'heatstraw, a street blues singer in 1arlem.
'hat all these e,pressions and many others have in common is that they are not only funny
and clever, they also embody fol( wisdom that the narrator needs to hear and understand.
llison also has a fine ear for all (inds of speech especially varieties of blac( fol( dialect.
All the blac( fol( characters 0im Trueblood, 3urnside the 7et, 3roc(way, 'heatstraw,
Gary 2ambo, 3rother Tarp, and at the end the two blac( revolutionaries Scofield and 9upree"
spea( in their own varieties of blac( fol( dialect and e,hibit a (ind of (nowledge that the
more educated DwhiteF characters seem to lac(, a DstreetF (nowledge that has passed from
South to <orth, from generation to generation, and needs to be remembered.
llison*s stylistic range is enormous. In !hapter B he writes a description of the college in the
style of the poet T. S. liot. In !hapter C he writes a sermon modeled on the classic oratory of
blac( preachers throughout the South in the early twentieth century. Influenced by a range of
writers from liot and 0oyce to 9ostoevs(y and 2ichard 'right, he can write in whatever
style suits his purpose at the time. 'hen as(ed about his changing styles in the novel, he said,
DIn the South, when he Mthe narratorN was trying to fit into a traditional pattern and where his
sense of certainty had not yet been challenged, I felt a more naturalistic treatment was
ade4uate.... As the hero passes from the South to the <orth, from the relatively stable to the
swiftly changing, his sense of certainty is lost and the style becomes e,pressionistic. Eater on
during his fall from grace in the 3rotherhood it becomes somewhat surrealistic. The styles try
to e,press both his state of consciousness and the state of society.F =ou might underline the
three words naturalistic, e,pressionistic, and surrealistic. If llison is right in his analysis,
then these are the three ma)or styles of the novel. D<aturalisticF means faithful to the small
details of outward reality or nature. D,pressionisticF means characters and actions standing
for inner states. DSurrealisticF means tending to deal with the world of dreams and the
unconscious. Thus, the scenes at the college are naturalistic, the scenes at the paint factory are
e,pressionistic, and the scenes from the 1arlem riot chapters at the end are surrealistic. 'e
will e,plore the significance of these stylistic shifts more fully in The Story section. Aor now
you may want to thin( about why llison felt that realism alone was not enough. 'hat could
these other styles do for him that realism could notK
7)I8T )B (I/,
Invisible Gan is a first"person narrative told by a developing character. That means you can
trust his perceptions and )udgments much more toward the end of the novel than you can at
the beginning.
At the beginning 5leaving out the /rologue, which we will loo( at later with the pilogue8 the
narrator is young and naive. In !hapter # he is a high school graduate. In !hapters B to % he is
a college )unior. 1e has e,perienced little of the real world. As a result he misinterprets,
misses ironies, and ma(es naive )udgments about other characters. =our interpretation of the
events of the first third of the novel must be colored by your awareness that the narrator is
fre4uently missing the point. =ou must be more mature and perceptive than he is.
9uring !hapters - to #., his first months in <ew =or(, he is not much better, but the accident
in the paint factory at the end of !hapter #. changes him. In !hapters ## to #? you see a more
thoughtful narrator emerge from the machine in the paint factory hospital. 1e begins to as(
4uestions about his identity, ma(es some connection with his blac( roots, and discovers his
vocation when he ma(es an elo4uent speech protesting the eviction of an old couple from
their apartment.
As the narrator becomes more concerned with social )ustice, you may find yourself
identifying more strongly with him. 3ut he still has a long way to go. In !hapters #C to B#,
the period when he is wor(ing for the 3rotherhood, he is mature in some ways but not in
others. The narrator*s sight begins to clear in !hapter BB, when he sees many of the
3rotherhood members for what they really are for the first time. !hapter B?, in which he
discovers the identity of 2inehart, mar(s another phase of his development, and the /rologue
and pilogue, which happen chronologically after the action of the novel proper, represent a
final phase.
=our )ob as a reader is to sort out this progress as it occurs and to evaluate how much the
ideas of the narrator at any particular stage of his development may be associated with those
of the author. Is the narrator, as he nears maturity in the later chapters, spea(ing for llisonK
9o the /rologue and pilogue, more than the main body of the novel, represent an
identification between narrator and authorK A loo( at llison*s essays in Shadow and Act
5#@%C8 would help you answer these 4uestions. DThat Same /ain, That Same /leasureF is
particularly helpful.
Some critics, Garcus Llein for one 5see DThe !riticsF8, feel that llison violates point of view
in the pilogue by ma(ing the narrator come to conclusions that are too optimistic, too
affirmative for his character. These statements, say the critics, are really more llison*s than
the narrator*s, and they belong in a different novel. =ou will have to ma(e your own decision
about these 4uestions as you study the pilogue to the novel.
The following are ma)or themes of InvisiHle +an.
I8(ISI*I6IT@ The most natural theme to begin with is that of invisibility. 'hat is
an invisible manK 1ow is the (ind of invisibility llison writes about different from
the physical invisibility of the nglish writer 1. 6. 'ells* famous boo( The Invisi)le
'anK A reading of llison*s novel suggests that the theme of invisibility has different
#. Invisibility suggests the unwillingness of others to see the individual as a
person. The narrator is invisible because people see in him only what they
want to see, not what he really is. Invisibility, in this sense, has a strong sense
of racial pre)udice. 'hite people often do not see blac( people as individual
human beings.
B. Invisibility suggests separation from society. 'hile the narrator is in his hole,
he is invisible. 1e cannot be seen by society. 1e is invisible because he
chooses to remain apart. Invisibility, in this sense, is associated with
hibernation, with the narrator*s conscious choice to remain in his cave and
?. Invisibility suggests lac( of self"hood. A person is invisible if he has no self,
no identity. This leads you to the second theme.
T"/ S/3#2" B)# I4/8TIT@ D'ho am IKF This phrase echoes through the
novel, especially in !hapters #B and B?, those crucial se4uences where the narrator
struggles most openly with the problem of identity. The narrator has no name. At
various points in the novel he is given pieces of paper by individuals or groups. These
pieces of paper name him, identify him as having some role+ student, patient, member
of the 3rotherhood. =et none of these names is really his. The narrator cannot be
named until he has a self, a self that is not defined by outside groups and
organi:ations. The story of Invisible Gan, then, might be described as the narrator*s
ta(ing on and discarding a whole series of false identities, each one bringing him a
little closer to a true sense of self.
*632> (S ,"IT/ This is both a very simple and an enormously comple, theme.
On a simple level Invisible Gan is a novel about race in America, about the way in
which blac( people suffer from the pre)udice of white people and from the cruelty of
other blac( people who want to please white people. 3ut the symbols of blac( and
white are used also in more comple, fashion. Traditionally, in 'estern culture blac(
symboli:es evil, and white stands for good. llison plays with this symbolism in
Invisi)le 'an, turning it inside out and upside down. The narrator, for e,ample, at first
tries to deny his blac(ness, but eventually plunges into a dar( hole" a blac( hole"
where he remains for a long time. 'hat is the true relationship between blac( and
whiteK The e,pressionistic se4uence at Eiberty /aints in !hapter #. is built almost
entirely on the interplay between blac( and white as symbols. If blac( and white are
mi,ed, what are the resultsK !an they be (ept separateK Should blac(s try to be li(e
whitesK If not, why notK These are all 4uestions raised by llison*s fascinating use of
the blac("white conflict in this novel.
B#)+ IG8)#382/ T) >8),6/4G/ Invisi)le 'an might be read as a novel
about a young man*s )ourney from ignorance to (nowledge. arly in the novel, the
naive narrator (nows little. 1e is constantly ta(en in by people*s appearances. As he
goes through the series of initiations from the battle royal in !hapter # to the
humiliating e,posure by young Gr. merson in !hapter @, to the e,periences with the
3rotherhood in the later chapters, he gains more and more insight. =ou might notice
that ignorance is often associated with blindness and (nowledge with sight, ignorance
with dar(ness and (nowledge with light. The narrator falls into a dar( hole, but he fills
it with light, with #,?%@ light bulbs. If you e,plore this theme fully, you will see that it
parallels and interrelates with the blac( vs white theme.
T"/ ,IS4)+ )B T"/ *632> B)6> /A7/#I/82/ 2obert 6. O*Geally*s
fine boo(, The Craft of %alph Ellison, focuses on this important theme 5see T!e
2riti$s section of this guide for an e,cerpt8. 1e notes how important the blac( fol(
tradition is in Invisi)le 'an. This tradition includes blues 5Eouis Armstrong singing
D'hat 9id I 9o to 3e So 3lac( and 3lueKF8, spirituals, sermons of southern ministers,
fol(tales 5especially the Uncle 2emus stories8, )ive tal(, street language, collo4uial
speech of southern blac(s li(e 0im Trueblood, the down"home wisdom of Gary
2ambo, and all sorts of traditional verbal games. Eoo( for these elements as you read
the novel and notice that the narrator fre4uently either ignores or loo(s down on the
people who embody or preserve these traditions. To the e,tent that he tries to be white,
to be upper class, the narrator forgets his blac( fol( heritage and the common"sense
wisdom that goes with it. It is only when he accepts this source of (nowledge and
culture that he can become a real human being.
B)#+ 384 ST#=2T=#/
Aorm and structure do not pose a problem in this otherwise comple, novel. The form is
simple+ It is chronological narrative with no flashbac(s and no confusing time switches. The
only formal element that might give you any trouble is llison*s use of the /rologue and
pilogue. The /rologue, which precedes !hapter #, occurs in time after the action of !hapters
# to B& has been completed, but before the pilogue. In the novel proper, !hapters # to B&, the
narrator tells you what he did to end up in the DholeF which he describes in the /rologue. In
the pilogue he tal(s about leaving the hole and going bac( up into the world which he has
temporarily abandoned. =ou don*t (now how long the narrator has been in the hole, but you
may infer that his main activity there has been writing the novel. 'hen he has completed that,
he will then re)oin the world of action. Thus, the /rologue and pilogue frame the novel,
putting it in the conte,t of the narrator*s present thoughts about life and activity. The narrator
is finally not )ust the person to whom these events have occurred but the person who is
organi:ing them into a wor( of art that tries to e,plain their significance. In the process, he
creates himself.
The main body of the novel is a straightforward chronological narration of the protagonist*s
development. It may be divided into two, three, or four parts, depending on where you thin(
the main structural brea(s are. llison gives you only chapters, so the division into larger units
is up to you. One structural principle is the movement from South to <orth 5see comments
under Setting8. A second is that of death and rebirth. If you loo( at the death and rebirth
structure, the novel would brea( into four ma)or sections. Section I 5!hapters # to %8 ta(es
place in the South, mainly at the college. The narrator is e,pelled and this way of life is
literally dead for him. In Section II 5!hapters - to #B8 he is born again in <ew =or(, only to
have that e,istence literally e,ploded by the accident in the paint factory. Section III
5!hapters #? to BB8 tells the story of his life with the 3rotherhood and its eventual destruction.
Section I7 5!hapter B? to the pilogue8 reveals the narrator*s brief e,istence as 2inehart
followed by his decision to disappear and rethin( his values from his underground hole. 1e
says at the end, using the words of the 6erman philosopher <iet:sche, DI must sha(e off the
old s(in and come up for breath.F Eife is a series of rebirths, a process of sha(ing off the old
s(in 5rind8 over and over.
'hatever pattern you thin( is the most essential, the novel is fundamentally a developmental
novel, a 3ildungsroman in which a young man goes through a series of difficult and
confusing e,periences on the way to his maturity. =our main )ob is to discover what each of
those e,periences contributes to his growth.
T"/ ST)#@
=ou might thin( of the /rologue as a personal introduction. DI am an invisible man,F is the
first sentence of the novel. It establishes immediately the fact that this is to be a first"person
narrative and that the theme of invisibility which gives the novel its title is e,tremely
important. The nameless narrator e,plains that this invisibility is not literal but metaphorical
or symbolic. 1e is invisible, he tells you, because people don*t see him. They see only Dmy
surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination.F One reason for this is racial. The
narrator is a blac( man, invisible because white people in America refuse to see blac( people
as human beings, as individuals. 1e is also invisible because he has never developed his own
identity but has instead played the roles that other people, especially white people, have
re4uired of him. 3ut he doesn*t really (now that yet. It is something he will come to learn as
he tells his life story.
The narrator is living in an abandoned cellar in a section of <ew =or( !ity bordering on
1arlem, but it is not a dar( cellar. It is lit by #?%@ light bulbs, paid for by Gonopolated Eight
O /ower, which doesn*t (now where all that electricity is going. The narrator is fighting
white power by draining off their electricity. It is also a warm cellar, a place where he can
thin( and listen to music and try to figure out the meaning of his life up to this point. The
narrator presents himself as a man in hiding who is preparing for a return to the real world,
where he can ta(e part in some action.
2"37T/# 1
!hapter #, originally published before the rest of the novel as a short story called D3attle
2oyal,F is the most famous chapter of the novel. It is often discussed by readers as a story
complete in itself. =ou may en)oy reading it as a (ind of parable about the general condition
of blac( people in the South before the !ivil 2ights movement that began in the late #@&.s.
The narrator is seventeen or eighteen. 1e has )ust graduated from high school in a southern
town called 6reenwood and has made a speech in the style of 3oo(er T. 'ashington calling
for blac(s to be socially responsible and cooperative with whites. 1e has been invited, as the
top"ran(ed blac( student, to give the speech again to a group of the leading white male
citi:ens of the town at an evening Dsmo(erF in the ballroom of the town*s main hotel. 'hat he
6)=IS 3#+ST#)8G- D,"3T 4I4 I 4) I T) */ S) *632> I 384 *6=/JG Three times in the
/rologue the narrator refers to the great blac( trumpet player and singer, Eouis Armstrong, playing and singing
this song, a recording of which is available. It is the first of many references to the blues, an important tradition
in blac( music that allows both performer and listener to e,press their suffering in musical terms, to ma(e art out
of their pain and sorrow. llison himself writes in his essay, D2ichard 'right*s 3lues,F DThe 3lues is an impulse
to (eep the painful details and episodes of brutal e,perience alive in one*s aching consciousness, to finger its
)agged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by s4uee:ing from it a near"tragic,
near"comic lyricism.F The title D3lac( and 3lueF is a pun on both words. It means DbruisedF or Dhurt.F It also
means Da member of the blac( raceF and Dsad or depressed.F Thus, when the narrator as(s, in the last line of the
/rologue, D'hat did I do to be so blac( and blueKF, he is as(ing several 4uestions at the same time. The story
that begins in !hapter # is the narrator*s attempt to answer those 4uestions.
does not (now is that before he is allowed to give the speech, he must participate with nine
other blac( boys in a Dbattle royal.F The ten blac( boys, supplied with shorts and bo,ing
gloves, are herded li(e cattle into the ballroom, where they are forced to watch a blonde white
woman do a provocative striptease, full of se,ually arousing movements. The narrator is both
attracted and repulsed by this woman. She is a symbol of everything the blac( man must
confront in America. 1e is made to want her, but told he cannot have her, ordered to watch
her, but punished should he show any signs of desiring her. At the same time she is mauled
and caressed by drun(en white men who can do what they want and go unpunished because
they have the power.
The whites are both sadistic and hypocritical. They obviously en)oy watching the blac( boys
suffer and seem to feel no guilt over their own behavior. After the girl is carried out, they
blindfold the ten blac( boys and force them into a ring where they will blindly attac( one
another and get paid by the whites for it. Gany readers have noticed that the Dbattle royalF is a
prefiguration of the ending, where the blac(s in 1arlem riot, essentially hurting one another,
while the whites stand by and watch.
The narrator is able to avoid being hurt when he can peep through his blindfold. One of the
boys brea(s his hand because he hits the ring post. The fight is sheer anarchy, because
blindness reduces the blac( boys to nothing more than flailing beasts. 1ow can blac(s e,pect
to gain dignity when they are figuratively DblindfoldedF by whitesK After a period of time, the
blindfolds are removed and the narrator finds himself alone in the ring with a big blac( named
Tatloc(. They are e,pected to bo, for the championship. At first the narrator does well, but
when he hears one of the powerful whites say, DI got my money on the big boy,F he stops
trying, because he is afraid that he might offend the whites by winning and thus not be as(ed
to ma(e his speech. As a result, he is (noc(ed out.
3ut his humiliation is not over. 'hen he recovers, the other boys are brought bac( in, and all
of them are told to get their money from a rug covered with coins, bills, and gold pieces. They
scramble for the money, only to be violently shoc(ed. The rug has been electrified. This scene
is not only horrifying in itself, but as some readers have noticed, it foreshadows the scene in
*6I848/SS 3S S@+*)6 Throughout the novel the contrast between sight and blindness will play a ma)or
role. In this scene the symbol of blindness is introduced through the imaginative use of the blindfolds. 2eread the
battle royal scene and loo( for the various ways in which the inability to see outwardly parallels the inability to
understand inwardly.
!hapter ## when the narrator is given electric shoc( therapy in the factory hospital, again by
white people, who find it interesting to De,perimentF on blac(s.
3efore he is allowed to receive the award for achievement, the young narrator is forced to
undergo one more humiliation. 1e must give the speech, his mouth filled with blood and
saliva, to an audience of drun(s who either moc( or ignore him. 1e is forced to repeat the
phrase Dsocial responsibility,F and at one point he mista(enly says Dsocial e4uality.F There is
a sudden stillness in the roomH the boy corrects himself, and everything is all right. 3ut the
point of the lesson is clear. 3lac(s are to rise, but always and only by the rules whites ma(e.
To encourage him along these lines, the white leaders present him with a calfs(in briefcase, in
which he finds a document announcing his scholarship to the Dstate college for <egroes.F
3oth of these props are important in the subse4uent development of the novel. The briefcase
follows the narrator through all his adventures and remains in the hole with him at the end.
Gost of the narrator*s significant possessions wind up in that briefcase. The scholarship, of
course, is the first item in the briefcase. Gore importantly, it is the first of three crucial pieces
of paper given to the narrator by white groups. ach of these pieces of paper serves to identify
him, name him for a portion of the novel.
The meaning of these documents is suggested in a dream the narrator has at the end of the
chapter. 1e dreams he is at the circus with his strange grandfather and that he is as(ed to open
his briefcase. In it is a letter, and in that another letter, and so endlessly until a final document
engraved in gold contains the words+ DTo 'hom It Gay !oncern, Leep This <igger"3oy
2unning.F At the time the narrator is too young and too naive to understand the meaning of
the dream. 'hat is your interpretationK
2"37T/# 5
Three years have passed. The narrator is now a )unior at the state college for blac(s. 1e is
doing very well and has been such a model student that he is entrusted with the )ob of
chauffeuring important guests around the campus and its surroundings.
T"/ 2)66/G/ 384 /6I)T?S THE WASTE LAND 3efore the action of !hapter B begins, the narrator
describes the college in terms borrowed directly from T. S. liot*s The 'aste Eand. 'e (now that llison read
the poem during his years at Tus(egee Institute 5the model for the college in the novel8, and in this section he
implies that the college was a (ind of waste land by using liot*s language. D'hy does no rain fall through my
recollectionsKF the narrator as(s, paralleling the narrator*s thoughts of dryness in liot. And the phrase DOh, oh,
oh those multimillionairesF is borrowed from liot*s DO O O O that Sha(espeherean 2ag.F 'hen you get deeper
into the boo(, you will be better able to understand why the narrator views the college as a waste land. 'hat
clues do you have at this pointK
The chapter opens on Aounder*s 9ay, the day set aside each spring to honor the mythical
founder of the college. Gany of the distinguished white multimillionaires who serve as
trustees are present for the occasion. The narrator has been engaged to drive one of them, a
Gr. <orton. Since there is plenty of time before Gr. <orton*s ne,t engagement, they drive
into the country and end up at the run"down farm of a blac( sharecropper named 0im
Trueblood. Gr. <orton wants to find out the age and history of the place, but the narrator is
uncomfortable at the thought of stopping. Trueblood had created a scandal by having fathered
a child of his own daughter, and the narrator (nows the school officials will be furious if they
discover that Gr. <orton has been to see Trueblood. 3ut <orton is fascinated, and the more
the narrator tells him about Trueblood, the more <orton wants to tal( with him. 'e begin to
understand <orton*s interest in Trueblood when we remember the white man*s conversation
with the narrator at the start of the chapter. <orton had been telling the narrator about his only
daughter, whom he loved more than anything else in the world. 1e and his daughter had been
traveling in urope when she died. <orton*s gifts to the blac( college have all been in her
memory. 9id <orton feel an incestuous attraction to his daughterK Is he fascinated by
Trueblood because Trueblood did what he, <orton, wanted 5in his blood8 to do but was
terrified of doingK =ou will have to decide what you thin( here, but many readers have found
the parallels between <orton and Trueblood intriguing and important.
<orton persuades Trueblood to tell his story. 'hat Trueblood has to say is important not only
for what he reveals but also for how he tells it. Trueblood is the first of several important
Afro"American fol( figures that llison creates. 1e is a storyteller, a singer of spirituals, and a
blues singer. 1e tells <orton, D...while I*m singin* them blues I ma(es up my mind that I ain*t
nobody but myself and ain*t nothin* I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen.F This
is a lesson that it will ta(e the narrator the entire novel to learn.
Trueblood doesn*t thin( it out before he commits incest with his daughter. 1e doesn*t plan it.
/erhaps his name DTrueF combined with DbloodF suggests his character. 1e is true to himself
and he follows his blood. The incest ta(es place almost in a dream where he can feel his body
doing it without his mind really (nowing that it is happening. Afterwards his wife Late nearly
(ills him with an a,e, but he decides to stay with his wife and daughter and both their
children. 1e will live the best he can, no matter what people say. The blac(s at the college
hate him 5and, of course, the narrator is one of them8 because they see him as the sort of blac(
man they are trying not to be. 3ut white people are fascinated by Trueblood. They give him
money and come to hear his story, and so he ends up much better off than he was before the
incident. <orton, too, gives Trueblood W#.. after hearing the story, and the narrator is furious.
D=ou no good bastardPF he says under his breath, not wanting to offend the white man, and
the scene is complete.
2"37T/# 9
The shoc( of Trueblood*s story has made Gr. <orton feel faint, and he as(s the narrator to get
him some whis(ey. The only place the narrator can thin( to ta(e him is the 6olden 9ay, a
wild combination of tavern and house of prostitution that is" li(e Trueblood*s place" off limits
to the college students. It is a world that the leaders at the college pretend does not e,ist. 0ust
as the narrator pulls up to the 6olden 9ay, a group of blac( war veterans from the local state
hospital are on their way to the place for their wee(ly recreation. They have all been affected
mentally by their war e,perience and e,hibit a variety of bi:arre symptoms. They allow the
narrator*s car to pass when he tells them he is driving 6eneral /ershing, their commander in
the war.
The narrator doesn*t want Gr. <orton to see the patients or the girlsH so he as(s the bartender
to let him ta(e the whis(ey to the car. The bartender refuses, and there is no way to revive
<orton, who has by now passed out, e,cept to carry him into the 6olden 9ay and pour the
whis(ey down his throat. <orton revives, but at this moment a huge blac( named Supercargo,
who is the attendant, appears on the balcony. The vets hate him and charge the stairs. A riot
brea(s out, and in the process the narrator loses Gr. <orton. Ainally, he finds him, passed out
again, under the stairs. This time some of the vets carry <orton upstairs to one of the
prostitute*s rooms where he is again revived and cared for by a whore named dna and a
patient named 3urnside, who was a doctor before the war.
*=#8SI4/ The fat veteran"patient who ta(es care of Gr. <orton in this chapter ma(es a brief but significant
appearance 5you see him only once more, in !hapter -, on the bus to <ew =or(8. 1e is the first blac( man who
tal(s openly to a white man, and that fact scares the narrator, who is too intimidated by whites to reali:e that they
are )ust human beings, too. 3urnside is a doctor, and he not only (nows that <orton needs help 5D1e*s only a
man. 2emember that.F8, but he (nows that the narrator is Da wal(ing :ombieP Already he*s learned to repress not
only his emotions but his humanity.F
3urnside tries to teach the narrator a lesson about life, but the narrator is too rigid, too narrow"
minded at this point in his life to get the message. So is Gr. <orton. They both see the
important wor( of blac("white relations as somehow tied to the college. 3urnside, especially,
andblac("white relations as somehow tied to the college. 3urnside, especially, and the other
vets at the 6olden 9ay are trying to say that the wor( must be done in the real world. Since
Trueblood and 3urnside are an important part of the narrator*s education, why does he re)ect
them at this point in his lifeK The chapter ends with the narrator and Gr. <orton being literally
thrown out the door of the 6olden 9ay. Gr. <orton, who it seemed was nearly dead, ma(es a
strong recovery and wal(s to the car unaided. D9A9PF says the bartender, 1alley. D1e cain*t
diePF The statement, li(e so many others, has multiple meanings, one of which is that the
white money that <orton represents is always there. It can*t be (illed. !an you thin( of other
interpretations of this passageK
2"37T/# '
The narrator, full of fear, drives Gr. <orton bac( to the campus. The life he has found for
himself at the college means everything to him. 1is goal is to imitate Gr. 3ledsoe, the
president, by becoming an educator, by returning to teach at the college after he has
completed his own training. 1e hates 0im Trueblood and the vets at the 6olden 9ay for
ruining his life, because all he can see now is that he will surely be dismissed for what has
happened to Gr. <orton. And yet, somehow, it does not seem to be his fault. It )ust happenedP
3ut whether it is his fault or not, he must face the conse4uences in the person of the furious
9r. 3ledsoe. 1e lashes out at the narrator in language that the narrator has never heard before.
D9amn what he wants,F says 3ledsoe about Gr. <orton, Dwe ta(e these white fol(s where we
want them to go, we show them what we want them to see.F The narrator cannot believe he is
hearing such tal( from 9r. 3ledsoe, who has always been so humble and dignified and
apparently obedient to the wishes of white people. In front of Gr. <orton, 3ledsoe returns to
the role of the polite but humble blac( educatorH alone with the narrator he is blunt and brutal,
but the narrator is too naive to grasp what is going on.
1e returns to his room and tries to pu::le out 3ledsoe*s behavior, but before he can, a
message sends him bac( to Gr. <orton*s room at 2abb 1all. Gr. <orton is a different person
now. 3athed and dressed in fresh clothes, he is the distant northern trustee you might have
e,pected to meet earlier. 1e is civil but cool toward the narrator and informs him that he is
leaving the college that evening and will no longer re4uire the narrator*s services. 1e sends
the boy out the door, reminding him that he is to see 9r. 3ledsoe in his office after vespers.
2"37T/# 5
!hapter & consists almost entirely of a long, brilliantly written sermon delivered by 2everend
1omer A. 3arbee of !hicago. The occasion for the sermon is Aounder*s 9ay, and the purpose
of the sermon is to honor the unnamed founder of the college, a man whose life and wor(
3arbee transforms into a myth, almost a religion.
As the narrator waits for the sermon to begin, he thin(s of the many hours he has sat on those
hard benches and listened to the choir sing songs demanded by the distinguished white
visitors. 1e thin(s of the times he has spo(en and debated as a student leader, and he watches
9r. 3ledsoe, distinguished in his swallowtail coat and striped trousers, seating the white
guests on the platform.
At this point you must read very carefully. llison uses a techni4ue that recurs throughout the
novel. 1e lets the narrator tell you something with a straight face, but invites you to see the
humor or the irony that the narrator misses. Spea(ing of 3ledsoe*s arrival at the college as a
child, he tells us+ DI remember the legend of how he had come to the college, a barefoot boy
who in his fervor for education had trudged across two states. And how he was given a )ob
feeding slop to the hogs but had made himself the best slop dispenser in the history of the
school....F Arom slop dispenser he rises to office boy and from office boy to educator, from
educator to president, from president to statesman, Dwho carried our problems to those above
us, even unto the 'hite 1ouse.F 1ow are you to ta(e this storyK Or the story of the Aounder,
told by the blac( minister, 1omer A. 3arbee, which ma(es the Aounder seem li(e a
combination of Goses and 0esus !hristK In both cases, the stories are obviously e,aggerated.
The myths of 3ledsoe and the Aounder endow these men with almost superhuman 4ualities. If
you can understand why, then you can en)oy what llison is doing and what the narrator
T"/ DB)=84/#G 384 *))>/# T. ,3S"I8GT)8 The college in the novel is modeled in part on
Tus(egee Institute, which llison attended from #@?? to #@?%. The great blac( leader 3oo(er T. 'ashington
5#$&%"#@#&8 founded Tus(egee in #$$# and ran it on the fundamental principles of Dseparate but e4ual,F which
became both custom and law in the South during the #$@.s. 'ashington encouraged blac(s to learn useful trades
and not to aspire to e4uality with whites. 1e was an astute fund raiser and a politically adept leader who
succeeded in building Tus(egee into a ma)or national force in blac( education. =ou may wish to e,plore the
e,tent to which the founder in the novel is modeled on 'ashington.
misses. It suits the college to mythologi:e 3ledsoe*s past. It suits 1omer A. 3arbee to ma(e
the Aounder into a religious figure worthy of worship, because these legends and myths create
loyalty in their followers. These legends (eep the white philanthropists giving money and
(eep the students following their teachings. 'hen the narrator hears 3arbee*s beautiful story
of the life of the Aounder, born a slave but devoted from his early childhood to learning, he
feels guilty that he has wronged the college by his mista(es, and he believes that he, not
3ledsoe, is the one who has acted improperly.
All the students are moved by the sermon, and they )oin in song, this time one sincerely felt.
The narrator feels confused and apart, and when the orchestra plays e,cerpts from Antonin
9vora(*s symphony Arom the <ew 'orld he (eeps hearing strains of his mother and his
grandfather*s favorite spiritual, DSwing Eow, Sweet !hariot.F Too moved to listen, he leaves
the chapel and hurries out into the dar(.
2"37T/# 6
The moment the narrator has been dreading arrives+ the confrontation with 3ledsoe. Gostly
dialogue, this would be a powerful scene to read aloud with a friend or to act out in front of a
class. 3ledsoe tears into the narrator for ta(ing <orton to Trueblood*s and the 6olden 9ay.
1e accuses the boy of dragging the name of the college into the mud, and he e,pels him. 3ut
the narrator doesn*t ta(e it lying down. 1e fights bac(, calling 3ledsoe a liar for going bac(
on his word to Gr. <orton that he would not punish him. 3ledsoe shoc(s the boy by suddenly
changing tactics. 1e admires the boy*s fight, and he levels with him for a moment. DI*m still
the (ing down here,F he tells the narrator, Dand I will do whatever I have to do to (eep my
power. I*ll have every <egro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means
staying where I am.F Ei(e an e,pert bo,er, he shoots )abs and hoo(s at the narrator*s wea(
defenses, reducing him to helplessness. =ou begin to see the implications of 3ledsoe*s name "
he Dbleeds his people soF in order to secure and advance his own power. 1e wor(s with the
whites because it suits him. This is too much for the narrator to handle. 1e thin(s of all the
")+/# 3. *3#*// llison en)oys using symbols. At the end of 1omer A. 3arbee*s speech, he stumbles
and falls, his dar( glasses drop to the floor, and the narrator reali:es that the man is blind. The combination of his
name and blindness suggest his role. 1e is 1omer, the blind 6ree( bard 5bard X barbeeK8, who sings the praises
of his heroes, 3ledsoe and the Aounder, as 1omer sang the praises of the 6ree( and Tro)an warriors on the plains
of Troy.
events of this one day" Trueblood, Gr. <orton, the 6olden 9ay, the vespers sermon, and now
3ledsoe*s confession.
'hat does it all meanK 1e thin(s of his grandfather, who had told him on his deathbed 5at the
outset of !hapter #8 Dto overcome Iem with yeses, undermine Iem with grins, agree Iem to
death and destruction.F Aor a moment he wonders if his grandfather*s advice has not been
right. 3ut he cannot let himself believe that his true role in life ought to be the undermining of
white society. <o, the school is right, 3ledsoe is right, he thin(s. 1e decides to accept his
punishment, go to <ew =or(, and continue to build his DcareerF from there.
The ne,t morning he rises early, pac(s his bags, and goes to 3ledsoe*s office to as( a favor+
1e would li(e letters of recommendation to some of the trustees, who then might help him
find a )ob. 'ith the )ob he will be able to earn the money to come bac( to school. 1e will
suffer his punishment and return. 3ledsoe seemingly agrees and gives the boy seven sealed
letters. 1e is not to open them under any circumstances.
2"37T/# 7
!hapter - is a transitional chapter between two ma)or sections of Invisible Gan. llison does
not divide the novel into formal parts or boo(s, so you must ma(e the divisions yourself.
Gany readers place a ma)or brea( here in !hapter -, following llison*s own suggestion. In
DThe Art of Aiction+ An Interview,F llison says, Dach section begins with a sheet of paperH
each sheet of paper is e,changed for another and contains a definition of his identity, or the
social role he is to play as defined for him by others.F 5See The !ritics section for the entire
passage.8 The first piece of paper referred to seems to be the scholarship given him in !hapter
#. The second piece of paper may well be the letters given to him by 3ledsoe at the end of
!hapter %. These letters will define his identity in <ew =or( in !hapters - to @. 3ut first he
has to get there, and much of !hapter - is ta(en up with the bus trip to <ew =or(, where he
meets again the vet"patient"doctor from !hapter ?, 3urnside. 3urnside is being transferred to
St. li:abeth*s mental hospital in 'ashington and is being accompanied on the trip by an
attendant named !renshaw.
3urnside, as he did in !hapter ?, plays the role of the wise fool. 1e (nows the truth, and for
his (nowledge he is called cra:y. 3ledsoe, it seems, has had him transferred to St. li:abeth*s
to get him out of the way. Aor those who run the system, people li(e 3urnside are dangerous,
because they threaten to e,pose the truth. 9uring the bus ride, 3urnside gives the narrator
some good advice about life, e,perience and self"(nowledge. 1e tells him to play the game,
but Dplay it in your own way.... Eearn how it operates.F The narrator seems to understand little
of what 3urnside is saying. 1e is too young, too tired, too lonely, and too scared. At this
moment all he can thin( of is survival. 1e gets to <ew =or( and is terrified by the mass of
bodies crushed together in the subway that ta(es him uptown. verything is new to him" the
huge city with its impersonal masses, the mi,ture of blac( and white he had never seen in the
South, the noise, the strange sight of a short blac( rabble"rouser named D2as,F who will much
later in the novel figure very significantly. 1e has arrived in 1arlem.
2"37T/# 8
The narrator settles in at Gen*s 1ouse in 1arlem, a respectable place for young men Don the
way up,F as he believes himself to be. 1e re)ects the 3ible in the room as fit reading for
someone in <ew =or(H instead, he spreads his seven letters from 3ledsoe on the dresser and
admires them. 1e believes they are his tic(et to success, and he starts out early the ne,t
morning to deliver them, one at a time, to the important people to whom they are addressed.
Gost of these people wor( on 'all Street, and at first the narrator is frightened of the tall
buildings and the swiftly moving crowds of white businessmen. 1e thin(s people suspect him
of some crime because he is blac(. 3ut he finally gathers the courage to go into one of the
buildings, and after he has delivered the first letter, delivering the others is easier. 3ut the
letters do not seem to do any good. All the recipients say they will contact him, but no one
does. 1e tries to reach them by telephone, but he can never get past the secretaries. Something
is wrong, but he doesn*t (now what it is.
Ainally, he has only one letter left, the one addressed to Gr. merson, and rather than ta(ing
the letter and ris(ing re)ection, he telephones, saying that he has an important message for Gr.
merson from 9r. 3ledsoe. 0ust as his money is about to run out, he receives a letter from Gr.
merson inviting him to the office.
2"37T/# %
!hapter $, a brief chapter, was largely devoted to forwarding the action. !hapter @ is more
central to the themes of the novel. In it you are introduced to two important figures+ /eter
'heatstraw and young Gr. merson. As the narrator leaves Gen*s 1ouse, he sees a blac(
man pushing a cart and singing the famous D3oogie 'oogie 3luesF by !ount 3asie and
0immy 2ushing. 1is name is /eter 'heatstraw, and he does something significant+ 1e ma(es
the narrator thin( of his southern fol( roots. 1e recogni:es the narrator as a fellow blac( from
Ddown home,F and he as(s him a series of 4uestions, using language common among less
educated southern blac(s. 1e does so deliberately to remind the narrator that he is part of that
fol( tradition. The narrator re)ects him. 1e*s too proud, too educated to ac(nowledge an
illiterate southern blac( li(e /eter 'heatstraw. D'hy you trying to deny meKF 'heatstraw
as(s. The 4uestion is important. The narrator has been trying since the opening chapter to
deny his heritage, to act li(e an educated white man. 1e is ashamed of himself and his
heritage. 1e can see no value in it. /eter 'heatstraw, the blues singer, ballad ma(er, fast"
tal(ing Dseventhsonofaseventhsonbawnwithacauloverbotheyes,F is there to remind the
narrator that re)ecting the blues and fol( tradition means re)ecting his humanity.
3ut the narrator isn*t ready yet to get the message. 1e has a momentary flash of admiration
for /eter, and the blues stri(e a chord of recognition. 3ut it passes, and he goes into a
restaurant and orders orange )uice, toast, and coffee instead of por( chops, grits, one egg,
biscuits, and coffee because he doesn*t want the people to thin( he is a southern country boy.
After brea(fast he goes to Gr. merson*s office, hopeful it will be his luc(y day. 'hat
happens to him here is one of the ma)or turning points in the novel.
=oung Gr. merson, the son of the merson to whom the letter was addressed, is in the
office. 1e ta(es the letter, then invites the invisible man into the inner office. There follows a
remar(able conversation that lasts for eight or ten pages. Gr. merson tries to persuade the
narrator to go to a different college, somewhere in the <orth, perhaps. 3ut the narrator is not
interested. 1e wants to earn the money to go bac( to his own college. Gr. merson grows
increasingly disturbed.
1e as(s more 4uestions. 1as the narrator opened the lettersK 1ow many letters were thereK
9oes he believe that two strangers, one white and one blac(, can be friendsK The narrator
wonders what is going on, and you are as pu::led as he unless you have figured the truth out
first. /erhaps you have. The truth is that the letters are frauds+ the letters, rather than helping
the narrator, carefully instruct their readers to do nothing for the narrator and to (eep him in
the dar( about the truth. All this, the letters conclude, is in the best interests of the college.
=ou now understand the significance of the narrator*s dream at the end of !hapter #, where
he opens the envelope and reads the message+ DTo 'hom It Gay !oncern" Leep This <igger"
3oy 2unning.F Aor that is e,actly what 3ledsoe*s letters instruct the white trustees to do. And
the narrator never suspected it. Again, the narrator has lost his identity. The letters were all he
had, and he remembers the old fol( song, D'ell they pic(ed poor 2obin clean.F It seems
especially appropriate for him at this moment.
3ut young Gr. merson is not old Gr. merson. 1e is not content with reading the letter and
dismissing the boy. As we have noted in The !haracters section, he may represent the young,
liberal white who wants to be DpalsF with the blac( man. 1e thin(s of himself as 1uc(leberry
Ainn and the narrator as D<igger 0im.F 1e wants to wor( off his own guilt by ta(ing the
narrator to nightclubs and listening to )a::. 1e wants to be cool and modern and go to the
!lub !alamus 5see The !haracters for an analysis of the name8. At the end of the chapter he
honestly believes that his revelation of the truth about the letters has genuinely helped the
narrator. 3ut has itK
2"37T/# 10
If you are the adventuresome type, you will have a field day with !hapter #.. It*s one of the
liveliest, most imaginative chapters in the novel. 3ecause it is symbolic, it will challenge you
from beginning to end to use your mind while you are reading.
The narrator arrives at the plant on Eong Island and sees a huge electric sign announcing
L/ AG2I!A /U2 'IT1 EI32T= /AI<TS. As he enters one of the buildings and
wal(s down a Dpure white hall,F you are alerted to the fact that the plant is going to be a
symbol for white America. The company*s trademar( is Da screaming eagle,F and they
speciali:e in white paint, pure white paint, which they sell to the government. Apparently the
Eiberty /aint !ompany uses a number of Dcolored college boysF so that they don*t have to
pay union wages. 3ut the blac( wor(ers are well hidden.
T"/ 83+/ D/+/#S)8G 2alph 'aldo merson 5#$.?"#$$B8 was the most influential writer in America
during the first half of the nineteenth century. 1is essays D<ature,F DThe American Scholar,F and DSelf
2elianceF urged Americans, young Americans particularly, to thin( for themselves and base their ideas on
personal intuition rather than convention. 1e was also an active supporter of the abolition of slavery and a
believer in the e4uality of all men. As noted in T!e 3ut!or and "is Times, llison was named for merson,
and he appreciated the significance of the name. 'hy, then, you might as(, is the central figure in this chapter
named mersonK The issue has been discussed in the T!e 2!ara$ters section, and you might find it useful to
review that section now in the conte,t of !hapter @.
The narrator is sent by Gr. Gac9uffy to wor( for a Gr. Limbro, the terrible Gr. Limbro
5who is called D!olonelF" perhaps suggesting the tyranny of the colonels of the Old South
over blac(s8 in the paint"testing department. Limbro*s )ob is to inspect the paint before it is
loaded, and he shows the narrator how to assist him. The paint loo(s brown on the surface,
before it is mi,ed, but after it is stirred, the brown disappears and the paint turns white. 3ut
Limbro is not satisfied. The paint isn*t white enough, and so he directs the narrator to put ten
drops of blac( coloring into each buc(et to ma(e it a purer white" DOptic 'hite,F which is the
company*s specialty. It doesn*t ma(e much sense to the narrator to the best e,amples of
llison*s e,pressionism 5review the Style section for a definition8. !hapters #. and ## are
hard to believe literally. If you read them as realistic pictures of life in a paint factory, you
will be disappointed. 'hat llison is doing here is trying to depict e,pressionistically what
white America is doing to blac(s for its own selfish ends. The real action of these chapters is
inner, not outer.
In the second half of !hapter #., the scene shifts to the basement of 3uilding <o. B. Limbro
has sent the narrator here, because he doesn*t want anyone who thin(s for himself wor(ing for
him. Thin(ing creates troubleP The narrator*s boss in the basement is an old blac( man named
Eucius 3roc(way. 3roc(way ma(es the guts of the paint down in this deep basement. Again,
note the symbolism.
9eep underground a blac( man ma(es the guts of the white paint that (eeps this white factory
going. <ot only does he ma(e it, he is the one who coined the slogan, DIf It*s Optic 'hite, It*s
the 2ight 'hite.F The narrator reali:es that this is )ust another way of saying, DIf you*re
white, you*re right.F If you are en)oying the fun of llison*s comple, symbolism, you have
probably figured out that Eucius 3roc(way is li(e the ten drops of blac( coloring the narrator
had to pour in the buc(et to ma(e Optic 'hite loo( white. 'ithout the blac( man in the
basement doing the dirty wor(, the whites would be lost. <o one (nows how to ma(e the
paint e,cept Eucius. If he retired, the place would collapse. And he li(es it. 1e is the perfect
Uncle Tom. 1e sacrifices himself 5he (eeps out of sight8 to (eep the whites white.
The narrator and Eucius get along well until the narrator stumbles across a union meeting on
his way to get his lunch out of his loc(er. The union people thin( he is a fin(, a hired stri(e
brea(er, because he wor(s for Eucius, whom they hate. Then, when the narrator returns,
Eucius calls him a louse for attending the union meeting. The Invisible Gan can*t win.
The narrator may be naive, but he is a fighter. 0ust as he argued with 3ledsoe and young Gr.
merson, he holds his own with Eucius 3roc(way, and because he is younger and physically
stronger, he can force 3roc(way to bac( down. 3roc(way finally admits that he doesn*t li(e
the union because it is critical of the white bosses. The union threatens the relationship
between white power and blac( Uncle Toms. 3ut )ust as the narrator thin(s that peace has
been restored, 3roc(way notices that the pressure gauge his new assistant is supposed to have
been watching has gone way up. The narrator has literally Dblown itF again. There is a huge
e,plosion, and the narrator is (noc(ed unconscious into a Dblast of blac( emptiness that was
somehow a bath of whiteness.F The symbolism of the chapter is complete. The blac( man is
immersed in a world of white.
2"37T/# 11
If the primary symbolism of !hapter #. is blac( vs white, then !hapter ## operates around
the symbolism of death and rebirth. In this chapter the narrator, who has been symbolically
(illed in !hapter #., is resurrected with a new identity.
The action ta(es place in the factory hospital, where the narrator has been ta(en after the
e,plosion. 1e is e,amined and then sub)ected to electric shoc( treatment. After the electric
shoc(, he wa(es to find himself lying in Da (ind of glass and nic(el bo,.F 1e is being used for
some sort of e,periment. 1e hears men tal(ing outside the bo,. One is a surgeon who would
li(e to do a prefrontal lobotomy on him, or perhaps, castration. The surgeon wants to cut out
of the blac( man anything that would allow him to be thoughtful or creative, in any sense.
The other man is the inventor of the machine in which the narrator finds himself. The man
believes that his machine" with its electric shoc(" will have all the positive effects of the
surgery 5ma(ing the blac( man docile and cooperative8 without the negative effects. The two
argue over the narrator as if he were some (ind of ob)ect, finally deciding to use the machine.
After another series of shoc(s, the narrator feels himself in a warm, watery world. It is as if he
is an infant being born.
1e emerges from the womb, and people begin to as( him 4uestions. '1AT IS =OU2
<AGK '1AT IS =OU2 GOT12*S <AGK '1O 'AS 3U!L= T1 2A33ITK
<OT+ 3U!L= T1 2A33IT In Afro"American fol(lore, 3uc(eye the 2abbit is the
same as 3rer 2abbit. 3oth had the reputation in a variety of tales of being able to escape from
the most difficult predicaments by their cleverness and toughness. The most famous of these
tales is the story of the Tar 3aby, to which llison refers more than once in the novel. /erhaps
the narrator, li(e 3rer 2abbit, escapes from the machine because he remembers these stories
from his childhood and they help give him a toughness, an identity of sorts, at a time when the
whites are trying to destroy it altogether. 3ecause he says nothing to them, they don*t (now
what he is thin(ing.
As the chapter ends, the narrator is released from the hospital, having been pronounced
Dcured.F The whites believe that he is DsafeF now, that he will not do any more harm, because
he has lost his old identity entirely. They get him to sign some release papers, and they will
pay him compensation in return for a promise not to hold them responsible. 1e leaves the
hospital, remembering the song he sang at the end of !hapter @+ DThey pic(ed poor 2obin
2"37T/# 15
!hapter #B is a transitional chapter, mar(ing the end of the first half of the novel and the
beginning of the second. The narrator emerges from the subway onto Eeno, Avenue in
1arlem feeling li(e an infant. Totally helpless after his e,perience in the hospital, he needs
someone to care for him, and that someone appears in the person of Gary 2ambo 5see The
The narrator is a child who needs a mother, and Gary " big bosomed, deep"voiced, patient,
and loving " has been created for the role. She ta(es him to her boarding house, puts him to
bed, and watches over him until he is strong enough to go bac( to Gen*s 1ouse. She invites
him to come bac( and stay, where she can care for him and (eep him from becoming
corrupted by <ew =or(.
1e returns to Gen*s 1ouse, but he is not the same man who left it+ DGy overalls were causing
stares and I (new that I could live there no longer, that that phase of my life was past.F 1e can
no longer dream of moving up in the white man*s world. And because he no longer has that
dream, his vision of Gen*s 1ouse changes. 1e 5in his painter*s overalls8 sees the young men
with their 3roo(s 3rothers suits and briefcases and umbrellas as a bunch of phonies. As he
starts toward the elevator he sees a figure in front of him whom he immediately believes to be
3ledsoe. In his mind he calls him D3led,F appropriate for the man who has DbledF him so.
Suddenly all the hate and frustration in him rises, and he pic(s up a brass spittoon full of
Dbrown li4uidF and dumps it over the man*s head.
3ut it is not 3ledsoeP Instead, it is a well"(nown 3aptist minister, and the narrator is forced to
run for cover. This is the last he sees of Gen*s 1ouseH they have barred him for Dninety"nine
years and a day.F 1is old identity is gone, and a new one has started to grow within him. 1e
returns to Gary*s as a child returns to its parent. She nurtures him, but she also pushes him, as
a mother, to grow up and do something responsible. 1e senses that she is right, but he doesn*t
(now what to do. 1e has no contacts, no )ob, no direction. 1is compensation money is
running out, and winter is coming on. 1is head is full of voices, full of the desire to spea( out
5but about what he doesn*t (now8. 1e tries to face the reality of his condition for the first
time. The invisible man is on the verge of discovering a new self, another identity.
2"37T/# 19
!hapter #? is the central chapter of the novel. In a novel with B& chapters, a /rologue, and an
pilogue, it is near the e,act middle. That is no accident, for in this chapter the narrator
undergoes the most important event in his life thus far+ 1e finds a calling as a spo(esman for
his people.
There are three important events in the chapter+
the episode with the yam seller,
the narrator*s speech at the eviction
his first conversation with the dominant figure of the second half of the novel, 3rother
As the chapter opens, the narrator is profoundly unsettled. 1e has no )ob, no money, no
identity. As he rushes out of the house into the street, he runs into the yam seller, an old man
Dwrapped in an army overcoat, his feet covered with gunny sac(s, his head in a (nitted cap....F
1ad the narrator run into the yam seller even as much as two or three chapters earlier, he
would have avoided him as the very type of blac( man he most disapproved of" an old
country blac(, uneducated, crude, and poor. 3ut something in the factory e,perience has
changed the narrator, and the yams remind him of home, of his family and childhood. 1e is
hungry " both literally and figuratively " for the hot yams, bubbling with butter and syrup. 1e
buys one and eats it, right there on the street.
All at once he has what 0ames 0oyce called an DepiphanyF " a sudden moment of illumination,
of insight into himself. 1e says, DIt was e,hilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw
me or about what was proper... to hell with being ashamed of what you li(ed. <o more of that
for me.F 1e buys two yams and eats them on the street for all to see. 1e feels a new sense of
freedom, and he announces, DI yam what I am.F 1e suddenly thin(s of proper 9r. 3ledsoe,
that model of propriety, eating chitterlings secretly in private so white men won*t see him. 1e
laughs and accuses 3ledsoe of being a secret chitterling eater, of Drelishing hog bowels.F 1e
will e,pose 3ledsoe as a fraud.
3ledsoe and the narrator have been trying to deny both their blac(ness and their southern
heritage. They have denied their fundamental roots in blac( fol( culture. The narrator
suddenly reali:es that he really li(es these foods, but that he has stopped eating them because
he is afraid of what others will thin(. Armed with this new understanding about himself, that I
am what I am, I am what I li(e, I can choose what I want to do on the basis of personal
preference, the narrator feels both free and frightened. This new ability to be one*s self
implies the ma(ing of personal choices. 1e has never done that. 1e always did what others
e,pected of him.
As he thin(s about this, he comes upon a scene in the street. An old blac( couple is being
evicted from their apartment. All their personal belongings and furniture are being piled in the
street by white marshals. A crowd has gathered, sullen, angry, resentful at what is being done.
The narrator has never seen an eviction. 1is eyes are opened for the first time to the reality of
blac( life in America. 1e has always wor(ed for whites. <ow he begins seeing, both literally
and figuratively. 1e sees the couple*s possessions on the street, and he understands the
meaning of these possessions. It is as if his own grandparents are being evicted. 1e feels a
sense of emotional identification with these old people. They are his people. DIt is as though I
myself was being dispossessed of some painful yet precious thing which I could not bear to
lose....F The old woman, Grs. /rovo, tries to go bac( into the house to pray one last time, but
2"ITT/#6I8GS Sometimes called DchitlinsF or Dchittlings,F chitterlings are the coo(ed small intestines of
hogs. In this section, llison has the narrator mention not only chitterlings, but also pigs* ears, por( chops, blac("
eyed peas, and mustard greens. All these are foods commonly eaten by southern blac(s.
the marshals refuse to let her. One of them stri(es her, and suddenly the mob becomes angry.
Then almost without warning the narrator becomes a leader.
1e fears the violence of the crowd and of himself, and he starts spea(ing to the group, trying
to move the people to constructive action instead of useless violence. All the speeches he
made in school and college seem to have prepared him for this moment. The words come
pouring out. 1e plays on the theme of dispossession, saying that all blac(s are dispossessed,
and he tries to persuade the marshals to let them all go in and pray. The crowd, moved by his
speech, rushes past the marshals into the house, punching and beating them as they go. The
narrator himself is caught up in the emotion of the scene. DEet*s go in and pray,F he shouts,
D3ut we*ll need some chairs.F Arom chairs it is )ust a step to everything else, and the crowd
e,citedly starts carrying all the articles from the street bac( into the house.
At this point the narrator notices two white people, a man and a woman, who don*t seem to be
marshals. They act friendly, but not li(e anyone the narrator has ever seen before. They
encourage the people to have a protest march, but before anything can be organi:ed, the
police come and brea( up the scene. The white woman tells the narrator to escape across the
roofs of the buildings. DThe longer you remain un(nown to the police, the longer you*ll be
effective,F she says. The narrator doesn*t understand what she*s saying, but he does what she
suggests. 1e ta(es off across the roofs, followed by the white man who seems to be chasing
him. 1e outdistances the man, goes down the stairs of another building at the end of the
bloc(, and wal(s out into the street. The police are nowhere to be seen, but he has not lost the
man, who comes up to him and says, DThat was a masterful bit of persuasion, brother.F The
man ta(es the narrator to a cafeteria, buys him coffee and cheeseca(e 5which the narrator has
never tasted8, and e,plains who he is. 1is name is 3rother 0ac( and he wor(s for an
organi:ation (nown as the 3rotherhood. 1e is impressed with the narrator*s spea(ing ability
and wants him to )oin the organi:ation and become a spo(esman in 1arlem, Dsomeone who
can articulate the grievances of the people.F The narrator is hesitant. 'hat is this
organi:ationK 'hat do they want with himK Are they )ust interested in using him li(e
everyone elseK 1e thin(s about it, then turns 3rother 0ac( down, but he ta(es his phone
number in case he changes his mind. Another important piece of paperP
T"/ *#)T"/#"))4 384 T"/ 2)++=8IST 73#T@ Guch has been written by a variety of critics
about the relationship between the 3rotherhood and the !ommunist party. llison himself comments on it in his
DArt of AictionF interview, and the American scholar and social critic Irving 1owe 5see The !ritics8 discusses it
in some detail. This study guide comments on llison*s relation to the !ommunists in the The Author and 1is
2"37T/# 1'
The narrator returns to Gary*s and smells cabbage coo(ing. Since it*s the third time this wee(
Gary has coo(ed cabbage, the narrator assumes rightly that Gary must be short of money. 1e
stops to thin( about 3rother 0ac(*s offer. Gaybe he has made a mista(e. 1ow can he turn
down a )ob when Gary needs the money and he is several months behind in his rent
paymentsK >uic(ly he changes his mind and calls 3rother 0ac(, who tells him to go to an
address on Eeno, Avenue. 1ere the narrator is pic(ed up and whis(ed off through !entral
/ar( downtown to Dan e,pensive"loo(ing building in a strange part of the city.F The building
is called the !hthonian.
3rother 0ac( leads the narrator into an apartment in which a party is going on. The hostess at
the party is a woman named mma, who loo(s at the narrator in a way 4uite different from
women in the South, a way that ma(es him uncomfortable. 1e is ta(en into the library for a
meeting. /oint blan( he is as(ed if he would li(e to be the new 3oo(er T. 'ashington.
The narrator accepts the )ob with the 3rotherhood and is immediately given money to pay off
his debts, buy new clothes, and change living places. 1e is to have a totally new identity with
no connections whatsoever to the past. 1e is to leave Gary*s, brea( contact with his parents,
and learn his new name, which is handed to him in an envelope by 3rother 0ac(" )ust as his
other identities had been handed to him in envelopes by various people. 1e is to thin( of
himself as being the new person.
Times section. 'hile llison did not intend the 3rotherhood to represent only the !ommunist party, he never
denied that the parallel was valid. The 3rotherhood may represent any organi:ation that uses individuals andTor
minority groups to enhance its own cause. 'e will e,plore this topic further as we go along.
2"T")8I38 In 6ree( mythology this is the name for the realm of the underworld, the realm of the dead.
'hy has llison chosen this name for the building in which the 3rotherhood has its meetingsK Is the narrator, in
some sense, descending into the underworld by )oining the 3rotherhoodK There is an eerie feeling in the
building, with its Dlobby lighted by dim bulbsF and its elevator that moves in such a way that the narrator is
Duncertain whether we had gone up or down.F llison, as always, is having fun with his symbols.
*))>/# T. ,3S"I8GT)8 3oo(er T. 'ashington*s name is mentioned several times in this chapter. In
an earlier note during the discussion of !hapter &, the parallels between 3oo(er T. 'ashington and the Aounder
were discussed. In this chapter, llison seems to contradict himself by having the narrator contrast the Aounder
with 3oo(er T. 'ashington, treating them as two totally distinct people. =ou may find this confusing. The
author appears to be using 3oo(er T. 'ashington here for a different purpose than he did in !hapter &. If you
remember that 'ashington was the white man*s idea of the perfect blac( leader, then the 4uestion D'ould you
li(e to be the new 3oo(er T. 'ashingtonKF becomes highly ironic. It might suggest, D'ould you li(e to be our
man in 1arlemKF !learly, llison, if not the narrator, has a very ambivalent attitude toward 3oo(er T.
The business over, the new brother is escorted bac( to the party and introduced to the others.
A drun( white man at the piano as(s the narrator to sing. After all, all blac( men sing blac(
fol( songsP The moment is e,tremely embarrassing. 3rother 0ac( is furious and has the drun(
brother removed from the room. The narrator, who might have ta(en offense, treats the matter
lightly and the rest of the guests, obviously relieved, apologi:e for the attitude of their
Dbac(wardF brother.
Throughout the party scene llison reminds you how limited and hypocritical most whites are
in understanding and treatment of blac(s. The drun( man, li(e many whites, assumes that the
narrator can sing and entertain )ust because he*s blac(. On the other hand, the more
DadvancedF whites assume that the narrator understands history, sociology, economics, and
politics, without stopping to reali:e that white America has Ddone everything they can thin( of
to prevent you from (nowingF these things. The chapter closes with the narrator only partially
aware of the dar(er side of the 3rotherhood. 1e needs the money and the )ob, and he wants to
spea(. So he is willing to put up with their strange behavior, at least for a time. Eater in the
novel he will begin to see their real intent.
2"37T/# 15
The narrator spends his last night at Gary*s and wa(es up early the ne,t morning to the sound
of someone above him banging on the steam pipes. It is cold and there is no heat. The chorus
of banging pic(s up, as others awa(en, annoyed by the banging. The narrator*s head is
splitting from the drin(ing the night before, and he starts furiously on the pipes himself. Out
of control, he grabs a cast"iron ban(, shaped in the form of a Dvery blac( red"lipped and wide"
mouthed <egroF and starts banging away. The head brea(s, and the ban( scatters its coins
across the room. Gary hears him from outside and as(s what is going on. 1e 4uic(ly sweeps
the coins and bro(en metal into a pile, wraps them in a newspaper, and stuffs it in his overcoat
poc(et for later disposal.
T"/ S@+*)6IS+ )B T"/ *38> =ou will want to pay close attention to the ban(, if you are interested
in following llison*s symbols, because the bro(en ban( stays with the narrator from now until the end of the
novel. The ban(, li(e the Sambo dolls that Tod !lifton ends up selling, seems to represent a part of the blac( past
that the narrator would li(e to hide. Its wide"grinning mouth eats coins. A coin is placed in the hand, and when a
lever is thrown, the hand flips the coin into the grinning mouth. 9oes this suggest what Dgrinning <egroesF were
willing to do for money from white mastersK 2emember the battle royal scene in !hapter # where the blac( boys
scrambled for money on the electrified carpetK Is the narrator selling out to the 3rotherhood for moneyK Leep
this rich, comple, symbol in mind as you follow it through.
The narrator has coffee with Gary, who seems unsha(eably serene in the midst of all the
noise. The narrator pulls out a hundred dollar bill and hands it to her in payment of his bac(
rent, and she is over)oyed. She is proud she will be able to pay the bills everyone has been
bothering her about. 9id he win the money playing the numbers, she as(sK =es, he answers,
relieved to find a simple e,planation. 1e is not supposed to let her (now he is leaving, nor
that he is involved with the 3rotherhood. She is so pleased about the money she seems totally
unconcerned about what he*s doingH so he is able to get his pri:ed briefcase and leave. As he
goes out he hears Gary singing the blues, as she always does. It seems to reassure her and
bring her peace of mind.
A few bloc(s down the street he tries to throw the bro(en ban( into a garbage can, but a
woman stops him, yelling at him that she doesn*t want any trash from Dfield niggersF in her
garbage can. So he is forced to pluc( it out. A few more bloc(s down the street, he )ust leaves
it in the snow, hoping no one will notice, but someone pic(s it up and returns it to him,
accusing him of being some (ind of criminal ma(ing an illegal Ddrop.F So he finally gives up
and puts it in his briefcase, figuring that he will dispose of it later. 9on*t forget it*s there,
because it will reappear before the novel*s end. The ban(, as the previous note suggests, is a
part of himself that he )ust can*t get rid of.
The chapter ends with his arrival at his new home, a clean three"room apartment in a neutral,
racially mi,ed neighborhood on the upper ast Side. It is a neat, orderly, well"maintained
world, )ust li(e the organi:ation he has )oined. 1e spends the remainder of the day in the
apartment studying the pamphlets the 3rotherhood has given him and preparing to ma(e his
first speech at a rally in 1arlem that evening.
2"37T/# 16
!hapter #% is an important and e,citing chapter, consisting largely of the narrator*s first
speech for the 3rotherhood and the reaction of the 3rothers to it. The chapter is shot through
with images of sight and blindness. Eoo( for them as you read, and as( yourself what they are
The narrator is driven by 3rother 0ac( and some others to an arena in 1arlem that is usually
used for bo,ing matches. 1e remembers his father telling him how a famous bo,er had been
beaten blind in a fight in that arena, and the narrator notices the bo,er*s picture on the wall.
1e is nervous in his new blue suit, wondering how he will do and whether the people will li(e
him. 1e paces up and down in the loc(er room, goes outside, then comes bac( in again,
an,ious to get started. Then 3rother 0ac( gives the signal and they all march in, as the crowd
sings D0ohn 3rown*s body lies a mold*ring in the grave.F The narrator*s eyes are blinded by
the spotlights as they move toward the stage.
The speeches begin. ach spea(er touches on a different aspect of the problem. Then comes
the narrator*s turn. 1e is the one the crowd has been waiting for, the hero of the eviction
protest, the young man who spo(e and disappeared and then was found again by the
3rotherhood. At first he doesn*t (now what to do, but, as in the eviction speech, he follows
instinct. 1e goes bac( to what he (nows, the tradition of southern political oratory that he
grew up with. DThey thin( we*re blind,F he tells his audience. DThin( about it, they*ve
dispossessed us each of one eye from the day we*re born.... 'e*re a nation of one"eyed mice.F
/laying on the metaphor of blindness, he as(s the members of his audience to )oin together
and help one another to see better rather than using the one eye that each of them has to attac(
others. DEet*s reclaim our sightH let*s combine and spread our vision.F Goved by his own
words and the response of the crowd, he becomes more personal. DI feel, I feel suddenly that I
have become more human,F he tells the crowd almost in a whisper. There is at that moment a
special bond between the spea(er and his audience, a bond that is personal and deeply
emotional. 1e finishes, and the crowd goes wild. The brothers file from the stage, and 3rother
0ac( is e,cited. 3ut the reaction of the other brothers is not so positive. The narrator is
stunned. The speech has been the greatest moment of his life, and the brothers are telling him
that it was Da most unsatisfactory beginning.F Two of the brothers in particular" one identified
as the man with the pipe and the other named 3rother 'restrum 5whom we will meet again8 "
say that the speech is bac(ward and reactionary. They tell the narrator and the other brothers
that such emotional tactics are not in (eeping with the scientific discipline of the 3rotherhood.
The people must be taught rationally to understand their role as part of the process of history.
motional rabble"rousers li(e the narrator are simply of no use to the 3rotherhood*s design.
3rother 0ac(, who has listened carefully to both praise and criticism, finds a middle road. The
new brother is to be trained. 1e will not be allowed to spea( again until he is properly
indoctrinated into the 3rotherhood*s philosophy and methods. 1e will be sent to 3rother
1ambro. The group agrees that the narrator is to begin training with 3rother 1ambro the ne,t
morning, and so he goes home, e,hausted, disappointed that the brothers did not approve, but
happy about his relationship with the people. As he lies in bed, trying to figure out what has
happened, he wonders what he meant by the phrase Dmore human.F 'as it something he
learned in collegeK 1e remembers an nglish teacher named 'oolridge who taught him 0oyce
and =eats and O*!asey, those great writers of the Irish 2enaissance, and he remembers
something 'oolridge said+ DStephen*s problem, li(e ours, was not actually one of creating the
uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face.... 'e
create the race by creating ourselves....F

2"37T/# 17
There is a passage of four months. The narrator has been studying with 1ambro, Da tall,
friendly man, a lawyer and the 3rotherhood*s chief theoretician.F 1ambro is a hard teacher,
but he is fair, and the narrator feels, as the chapter opens, that he is ready for whatever the
3rotherhood wants him to do. 1e has attended meetings regularly all over the city, he has
come to (now the 3rotherhood ideology well, and he has learned the discipline that is
involved in wor(ing for the 3rotherhood.
On the day the action of the chapter begins, 3rother 0ac( calls the narrator and drives him to
1arlem, where they tal( in a bar. 1e informs the narrator that he has been appointed chief
spo(esman of the 1arlem district. The narrator is over)oyed. 1is dreams have been fulfilled.
In this way he can wor( directly with his people. 3rother 0ac( ta(es him to the office,
introduces him to 3rother Tarp, with whom he will be wor(ing, and reminds him to be there
the ne,t morning for a full committee meeting. The meeting begins promptly at nine, and all
the committee members are there e,cept for 3rother Tod !lifton. As 3rother 0ac( begins the
meeting by announcing the narrator*s appointment as chief spo(esman, !lifton comes in, a
bandage on his face covering a wound he received fighting one of 2as the ,horter*s men. 1e
is late because he had to go to the doctor.
DT"/ =82#/3T/4 B/3T=#/S )B "IS B32/G Almost every critic who writes about Invisible Gan
discusses this phrase, which has become one of the most widely 4uoted lines from the novel. Stephen 9edalus,
the hero of 0ames 0oyce*s A /ortrait of the Artist as a =oung Gan, leaves Ireland at the end of the novel to begin
his tas( as an artist of creating Dthe uncreated conscience of my race.F llison plays on 0oyce*s phrase by
changing DconscienceF to DfeaturesF and DraceF to Dface.F llison is an individualist who believes that the )ob of
each individual is to create himself, to become genuinely and honestly a single individual. Stephen wants to
become a spo(esman for the Irish people, his race, but llison does not want to be thought of )ust as a blac(
writer. 1is hero is an individual in the act of creating himself, in the act of becoming a person, a Dmore humanF
'ho is 2as the ,horterK 1e is a short, stout blac( man who has been organi:ing 1arlem on a
racist basis, preaching the gospel of blac( nationalism, and sending his men to fight any
organi:ation, li(e the 3rotherhood, that advocates cooperation between blac(s and whites.
The conflict between the 3rotherhood 5represented by the narrator and Tod !lifton8 and 2as
the ,horter serves as one of the central themes of the last third of the novel.
Tod !lifton and the narrator 4uic(ly become friends. Tod is an e,tremely handsome young
blac( man who seems to carry in his genetic ma(eup the best features of both his African and
Anglo"Sa,on ancestry. 1e is a hard wor(er who welcomes the narrator as an ally. The
narrator will organi:e the community leaders behind the 3rotherhood*s policy of fighting
against evictions, and Tod will organi:e his youth groups to protect the narrator and other
neighborhood spea(ers from being attac(ed on the street. Tod is e,cited about the plan for
organi:ing 1arlem. DIt*ll be bigger than anything since 6arvey,F he says.
Tod and the narrator ta(e to the streets and are forced almost immediately into a confrontation
with 2as the ,horter*s men, who interrupt the narrator*s first speech that evening. The
narrator tac(les one of 2as* men, and Tod goes after 2as himself. The narrator beats his man,
then goes to help Tod, whom he finds in an alley lying on his bac( with 2as, (nife in hand,
standing over him. 1elpless, the narrator is forced to watch and to listen.
2as is a fascinating figure, and in this scene you may find him both appealing and repulsive at
the same time. 1e is cra:y and violent, but to many readers what he says ma(es sense. =ou
will have to weigh the arguments on both sides carefully as you thin( about 2as. 1e spares
Tod*s life because he loves him, he admires him, and he wants him to come over to his side.
1e wants the narrator, too. 1e says that Tod is first of all an African and that in Africa a man
as handsome and intelligent as Tod would be (ing. 1e stands over Tod with his (nife,
essentially arguing with him, trying to persuade him to come over to the 3lac( <ationalist
cause. These white men will betray you, 2as tells Tod. They will get rid of you when it suits
their purpose, so don*t trust them. 1e accuses Tod and the narrator of )oining the 3rotherhood
so they can en)oy white women. 1e pleads with them to be part of blac( unity, to brea(
+3#2=S G3#(/@ Garcus 6arvey 5#$$-"#@C.8 was a native of 0amaica who came to <ew =or( in #@#%
and started a blac( nationalist movement, urging American blac(s to return to Africa. 6arvey had an estimated
two million followers during the #@B.s. 1e was convicted of mail fraud in #@B& and returned to 0amaica in #@B-
after serving time in prison. Some of 2as the ,horter*s ideas are very similar to those of 6arvey, though the
,horter is in no way an attempt by llison to depict Garcus 6arvey.
entirely with any organi:ation run by white men. 'hat do you thin( of these argumentsK
They are very similar to those used by blac( militants in the #@%.s, most notably the 3lac(
Guslims and the 3lac( /anthers. The !ommunists did, in effect, betray the blac( members of
the party who wor(ed so hard during the #@?.s, and this might suggest that 2as is right. 'hat
is llison supportingK Is it possible to (now at this point in the novelK Leep these 4uestions in
mind as you continue reading.
!hapter #- ends with a brief scene the ne,t morning in the narrator*s office. 3rother Tarp
comes in and hangs a picture of Arederic( 9ouglass on the wall facing the narrator*s des(.
9ouglass is Tarp*s hero, and he wants the narrator to see him as he wor(s.
3oo(er T. 'ashington, Garcus 6arvey, and 9ouglass represent three different paths for
blac(s to follow. 3rother Tarp would li(e the narrator to imitate Arederic( 9ouglass, and the
narrator at the end of !hapter #- finds the idea very e,citing.
2"37T/# 18
Time passes, how much you don*t (now, but it seems to be at least a couple of months. The
3rotherhood*s wor( in 1arlem is e,traordinarily successful. The narrator*s speeches and
parades, the organi:ation of the community*s ministers and politicians, the enthusiasm of the
people for the issue of evictions all combine to increase membership in the 3rotherhood at a
di::ying rate and ma(e the narrator famous.
At the beginning of !hapter #$ the narrator receives an anonymous note telling him to slow
down. The note says that the 3rotherhood doesn*t want him to be so famous. 1e will be cut
down if he isn*t careful. 1e is both angry and frightened. 'ho could have written itK It came
in an envelope with no postage stamp. 9oes that mean it was an inside )obK 'ho do you thin(
sent the letterK Eoo( for clues as you read the remainder of the chapter.
The narrator as(s 3rother Tarp how the members feel about him, and Tarp reminds him that
his stress on interracial cooperation has led to the creation of a poster entitled DAfter the
B#/4/#I2> 4)=G63SS 3orn a slave named Arederic( Augustus 'ashington 3ailey in #$#-, this
famous fighter for blac( rights ran away from his owner in #$?$, ending up in Gassachusetts, where he changed
his name to Arederic( 9ouglass. A brilliant spea(er and writer, he devoted his life to wor( for the abolition of
slavery and the elimination of racial discrimination. 1is autobiography, <arrative of the Eife of Arederic(
9ouglass 5#$C&H revised #$$#8, is one of the great pieces of blac( American literature and became an inspiration
to generations of blac(s fighting for e4uality in America. llison*s use of a variety of famous blac( leaders as
possible models for the narrator is important.
Struggle+ The 2ainbow of America*s Auture.F =outh members have mounted the posters in
subways, and people have begun hanging them in their homes. Tarp is impressed with the
success of the narrator*s wor( and reassures him that the people are behind him.
Eater in the morning 3rother 'restrum comes into the office. 1e is disturbed by the lin( of
chain sitting on the narrator*s des(. 1e sees the lin( as an advertisement of the racial nature of
the narrator*s cause, a symbol that the white brothers might find offensive. 1e doesn*t want to
stress the cause of 1arlem, of blac( people, but the cause of the 3rotherhood. 1e wants all
brothers to wear emblems that will identify them so that members of the 3rotherhood won*t
end up fighting with each other. 'restrum seems uneasy. Is he )ealous of the narrator*s
successK Is he the one who wrote the letterK 'hile 'restrum is in the office, the phone rings.
It is the editor of a maga:ine, who wants to do an article on the narrator. The narrator says that
Tod !lifton would be a much better person to interview, but 'restrum insists that the narrator
sit for the interview. 2eluctantly, the narrator agrees. Two wee(s later he will wish that he
Two wee(s after the meeting with 'restrum, the narrator finds himself downtown at
3rotherhood head4uarters. 'ith absolutely no warning, he is accused by 3rother 'restrum of
being an individualist who is e,ploiting the 3rotherhood for his own personal gain. 'restrum
accuses the narrator of trying to become a dictator in 1arlem and of having had the article in
the maga:ine published to glorify himself rather than the 3rotherhood. The narrator replies
that he hasn*t even seen the article, and besides doesn*t 3rother 'restrum (now that he tried
to have the interview done with Tod !liftonK 'restrum himself was the one who urged the
narrator to do it. 'hat is going onK The narrator and 'restrum argue and call each other
names. The narrator is as(ed to leave the room, the charges are discussed, and he is brought
T3#7?S 6I8> )B 2"3I8 As a symbol of his support for the narrator, 3rother Tarp pulls from his poc(et a
worn metal lin( from a chain, and he gives it to the narrator as a to(en. 3rother Tarp filed that chain from his
own leg after nineteen years on the chain gang when, li(e Arederic( 9ouglass, he headed north to start a new
life. 3ecause of those nineteen years given him as punishment for standing up and saying DnoF to a white man,
he still drags his foot even though there*s nothing physically wrong with it. Old now and ready to retire, he
wants to pass on that spirit of )ustice and integrity to the narrator. So he gives him that lin( of chain as a good"
luc( piece and as a reminder. The word Dlin(F has at least two senses" literally, one of a group of loops ma(ing
up a chainH figuratively, something that ties together past and present. The chain lin(s the narrator to his own
past, which he has forgotten, a past symboli:ed by Tarp*s e,perience and by his grandfather, whom Tarp
reminds him of. Ta(ing the lin( ma(es the narrator remember his own childhood and hear the songs his parents
and grandparents used to sing. 1e is reassured that he is doing the right thing. 1e li(es the symbolism of the
The decision of the committee is that, while the narrator has been found innocent on the
charge of the maga:ine article, it will be best for the Dgood of the organi:ationF that the
narrator be removed from 1arlem. 1e is given the choice of remaining inactive until further
notice or of lecturing downtown on the 'oman >uestion. This is all done seriously. <obody
laughs. The narrator is appalled. It*s li(e a cra:y dream, a nightmare, a strange )o(e. They
can*t be serious, but they are. Are you as surprised as the narratorK 'hy, when he is
obviously doing so well, is he sent downtown to lecture on the 'oman >uestion, something
he (nows nothing aboutK The narrator accepts the assignment because it is the only way he
can continue to be active, but the chapter ends with him snea(ing out of 1arlem, afraid to tell
his friends what has happened. 1is identity has been changed again, and again by someone
else*s choice.
2"37T/# 1%
!hapter #@ is a transitional chapter, li(e !hapters - and #B. Invisible Gan seems to be
constructed in four ma)or movements, each centering around a crisis. The crisis that begins
the final movement comes in !hapter B., when the narrator returns to 1arlem to try to find
Tod !lifton, who has disappeared. 3ut before he returns to 1arlem, he spends an evening
with a white woman. That is the main action of !hapter #@.
As you read this chapter, as( yourself what llison is up to. Some readers thin( the chapter
reads li(e something out of a torrid romance. 1andsome blac( man spea(s to a bunch of
unsatisfied women about the D'oman >uestion,F and what the women are really interested in
is biology, not ideology. As the narrator tells the story of his seduction by the unnamed
woman in red, whose husband appears to come home while she is in bed with him, you must
wonder how seriously you are supposed to ta(e all this. The narrator is very naive. 'hen the
woman goes off to change into something more comfortable and reappears in a red hostess
gown, the narrator does not seem to get the message. 1e has come to her apartment for
DcoffeeF and discussion after his lecture on the 'oman >uestion, and she as(s him, D/erhaps
you*d prefer wine or mil( instead of coffeeKF The idea of mil( turns him off, but he misses
the oddness of the 4uestion.
1er change of clothes, her apartment with its life"si:e painting of a pin( 2enoir nude, her tal(,
her movement, her e,citement over the DprimitiveF 4uality of the narrator, all mar( the
woman as one of llison*s ob)ects of satire. 'hen one critic as(ed him if his depiction of the
narrator*s relationship with white women wasn*t a wea(ness in the novel, llison chided the
critic for ta(ing both this scene and !hapter BC too seriously. /erhaps you ought to be guided
by llison*s own )udgment here and accept this se4uence as a piece of tongue"in"chee( satire,
based on the traditional myth that white women desire blac( men. 9o you en)oy the humor of
this chapter, or do you thin( that neither the narrator nor the scarlet woman is a very
believable character in this sceneK 'hether the scene is parody, satire, or serious writing, the
appearance of the husband scares the narrator to death. 1e puts on his clothes, leaves, and
vows to (eep Dthe biological and ideologicalF apart in the future. 1e fears that the woman
tongue"in"chee( satire, based on the traditional myth that white women desire blac( men. 9o
you en)oy the humor of this chapter, or do you thin( that neither the narrator nor the scarlet
woman is a very believable character in this sceneK 'hether the scene is parody, satire, or
serious writing, the appearance of the husband scares the narrator to death. 1e puts on his
clothes, leaves, and vows to (eep Dthe biological and ideologicalF apart in the future. 1e fears
that the woman will tell the 3rotherhood about what he*s done, but no one ever says anything.
So he goes on spea(ing on the 'oman >uestion until one evening the phone rings and he*s
called to an emergency meeting. Tod !lifton has disappeared, and the narrator is needed to
return to 1arlem immediately.
2"37T/# 50
'hen as(ed about the style of Invisible Gan 5see the section Style for details8, llison
commented that the style moved from realism to e,pressionism to surrealism. As you read the
last si, chapters, beginning with !hapter B., thin( about what surrealism is and why the style
might be described as surrealistic.
Something changes in the narrator during !hapter B., and he begins to move inward, seeing
the world outside from a new perspective. 'hat happens in !hapter B. sha(es him
profoundly and ma(es him feel that the world outside is unreal and that he is )ust awa(ening
from a deep sleep to see the world as it truly is for the first time.
The whole chapter has an air of nightmare about it. The narrator returns to 1arlem in search
of Tod !lifton, but everything has changed. 1e goes to a bar called 3arrelhouse*s 0olly
9ollar, where he used to meet one of his favorite contacts, 3rother Gaceo. 'hen he gets
there, not only is Gaceo gone but the men there resent being called Dbrother.F It*s as if the
whole movement has vanished since he was sent downtown. 1e goes to his old office in
search of 3rother Tarp, but Tarp has disappeared, and the portrait of Arederic( 9ouglass has
been ta(en down. D2eturning to the district was li(e returning to a city of the dead.F The ne,t
morning he finds a number of the members and as(s them about Tod !lifton, but no one
(nows anything about Tod*s disappearance. 1e goes bac( downtown to attend a committee
meeting and discovers that it not only has started without him but that he hasn*t been invited.
The entire 1arlem program has fallen apart and he has been sent to do a )ob with no help, no
instructions, and no official program. 'hyK Unable to figure out what to do, he wanders over
to Aifth Avenue and buys a new pair of summer shoes. Then he wal(s down Aorty"third Street
toward Si,th Avenue where he encounters a strange and remar(able sight.
A crowd is gathered in front of a piece of cardboard on which Da grinning doll of orange"and"
blac( tissue paper with thin flat cardboard dis(s forming its head and feetF is dancing.
Something behind the cardboard is ma(ing the doll dance, and that DsomethingF is saying+
Sha(e it upP Sha(e it upP 1e*s Sambo, the dancing doll, ladies and gentlemen.... 1e*ll (eep
you entertained. 1e*ll ma(e you weep sweet Tears from laughing. Sha(e him, sha(e him, you
cannot brea( him....
The sight of the dancing doll and the comic spiel of the manipulator of the doll attract the
narrator*s attention, but what stuns him is his discovery of who the street merchant is. It is
Tod !lifton. The narrator cannot believe his eyes. 'hyK 'hy would Tod give up the
3rotherhood and Dplunge outside historyF 5to use Tod*s own phrase8 to become a cheap
entertainer, a seller of Sambo dollsK The narrator comes to no answer. 2emember that this is a
first"person narration and that the narrator was not present in 1arlem when Tod made his
decision. Ei(e the narrator, you can never (now" you can only guess. One guess is that Tod
felt betrayed by the 3rotherhood when he discovered that it had changed its emphasis from
S3+*) T"/ 4382I8G 4)66 3oth the name and the movements of the doll are important. Ei(e the
grinning ban( that the narrator finds in his room at Gary 2ambo*s, the Sambo doll is one of the central symbols
of the novel. DSambo,F li(e DUncle Tom,F is a term used by blac(s to describe other blac(s who allow
themselves to be used and manipulated by whites. If an DUncle TomF is a blac( man who lets himself be used as
a servant by whites, a DSamboF is a blac( man who plays the role of comedian or mindless entertainer. 1e is a
blac( who grins and laughs and pretends that he doesn*t mind what is being done to him. 1e is the professional
funny man, the song"and"dance man, who entertains whites and seems not to mind the hurt and pain that blac(s
must suffer, in part because of his own failure to do anything. Thus the grinning Sambo ban( at Gary*s and the
dancing Sambo doll symboli:e the very type of blac( man that both the 3rotherhood and 2as the ,horter seem
to be fighting against.
local programs such as that in 1arlem to more international issues. This is precisely what the
!ommunist party did around #@C. and #@C#, thus disillusioning American blac(s who were
wor(ing with it. /erhaps Tod simply despaired of achieving anything and gave up. Or perhaps
he gave up because he thought the narrator had betrayed the cause and he was disillusioned by
the narrator*s disappearance. 'hich is the most li(ely e,planation as far as you are
concernedK 'hatever the reason, the narrator can*t loo( at him or bring himself to tal( to him.
Then Tod*s loo(out warns him to move+ The police are coming, and Tod has no license to sell
these dolls. Tod and the crowd vanish around the corner, leaving the narrator to thin( about
what has happened. The narrator pic(s up a doll that has been left on the sidewal( and puts it
in his poc(et with 3rother Tarp*s chain lin( 5an interesting combination8. Then he goes off
after Tod. 1e sees him again on Aorty"second Street, being led away by a cop. The cop pushes
him along, and suddenly Tod whirls and uppercuts the policeman. The policeman goes down,
draws his gun, and shoots Ted. The narrator, across the street, is fro:en in horror.
The narrator tries to reach Tod but is stopped by another policeman, who insults him, calling
him D0unior.F DI*m his friend,F the narrator says, but it is no use. They will not let him
through. In a few moments Tod is dead. 1e has become what the name DTodF means in
6erman. The narrator answers the policeman*s 4uestions about Tod and then wanders toward
the subway after the body is ta(en away in a police wagon.
1e is in a state of shoc(. <othing ma(es sense. 'hy should Tod deliberately court his own
death li(e thatK Tod (new better. 1e was street"wise and (new what white policemen did to
any blac( who resisted. 9id he want to dieK Again, these 4uestions are not answered. They are
only food for your thought and the thought of the narrator, who tries to pu::le out what has
happened as he waits for a train to ta(e him bac( to 1arlem. A change comes over him. 1e
starts to notice details that had escaped him before. 1e sees three boys dressed up in summer
suits and felt hats, and he reali:es that he has never seen boys li(e this before. 1e has never
thought of these boys or of women li(e Gary 2ambo or younger women who wal(ed the
streets in Ddar( e,otic"colored stoc(ings.F 1e has been so busy with historical issues he has
not really noticed people as individuals. 'ho spea(s for such people, and who will spea( for
TodK These are the 4uestions he as(s himself as the chapter ends.
1e reali:es that he is finally wa(ing up to reality. DI*d been asleep, dreaming,F he thin(s. 3ut
he is ma(ing a start. The death of Tod !lifton has stirred him to see people as people for the
first time. The last ma)or movement of the novel has begun.
2"37T/# 51
The narrator returns to 1arlem and continues to reflect on Tod !lifton*s death. 1e goes over
his own actions and wonders if he isn*t in some way responsible. 1e as(s himself how to
restore the integrity of Tod !lifton, and he comes to the conclusion that it must be done
through his funeral. They will have a massive funeral for Tod, and his death will become a
means of reuniting the community.
1e gathers together the district members and organi:es his campaign of protest against the
brutality that destroyed Tod !lifton. Signs reading 32OT12 TO9 !EIATO< T OU2 1O/
S1OT 9O'< are posted throughout the community. The funeral is held outdoors in Gount
Gorris /ar( to attract the largest possible crowd, and people come from all over the city. 2ich
and poor, brothers and sisters, and nonmembers of the 3rotherhood ali(e want to mourn for a
man everybody loved. 3ands play muted funeral marches, and an old man begins singing the
familiar hymn, DThere*s Gany a Thousand 6one.F Another man )oins in on the euphonium, a
brass instrument li(e the tuba, and then the crowd, blac( and white ali(e, begins to sing. It is a
special moment in the novel, one you will savor. The narrator himself is deeply moved+
DSomething deep had sha(en the crowd, and the old man and the man with the horn had done
it. They had touched upon something deeper than protest, or religion....F Gusic, the music of
the <egro spiritual tradition going bac( to slavery, spea(s to the heart in a way that the
scientific theory of the 3rotherhood never can. It touches and humani:es the narrator and
gives him a sense of unity with all people, not )ust with those who are part of the movement.
In this mood, the narrator gives Tod !lifton*s funeral oration, much as Gar( Antony in
Sha(espeare*s 0ulius !aesar spea(s for !aesar in that play. 0ust as Antony says he comes to
bury !aesar, not to praise him, the narrator (eeps saying that Tod !lifton is dead and that
there is nothing he can say that will ma(e any difference. 1is speech is simple and honest and
moving+ It comes to no political conclusions. 1e spea(s not as a brother to a mass of people
but as an individual to individuals. 1e mourns for the unnecessary death of a man he loved,
and he tells the people that Tod !lifton stands for all of them. D1e*s in the bo, and we*re in
there with him, and when I*ve told you this you can go. It*s dar( in this bo, and it*s crowded.
It has a crac(ed ceiling and a clogged toilet in the hall.F The people (now. The narrator does
not have to tell them+ Tod !lifton is any blac( person who was shot down because he could
not stand it in the bo, any longer.
The funeral ends. The crowd, moved to deep feeling but not to any specific action, goes
home, and the narrator feels again the tension and (nows that Dsomething had to be done
before it simmered away in the heat.F
2"37T/# 55
This is an e,tremely important chapter. The action that began in !hapter B. with the death of
Tod !lifton comes to a clima, as the narrator confronts the committee after the funeral. Aor
the first time since he )oined the 3rotherhood, he has acted on his own volition. 1e has done
something not because someone told him to, but because he chose to. 1e (nows from the
moment he arrives at the meeting that he is going to be attac(ed, but he maintains his integrity
before them.
1e acted, he tells the committee, on Dmy personal responsibility.F D=our whatKF 3rother 0ac(
as(s. DGy personal responsibility,F he says again. Immediately we are reminded of !hapter #
and the battle royal scene where he was ma(ing his speech and was reprimanded for
suggesting that blac(s try to gain social e4uality. Again he is being attac(ed by white men for
presuming to act on his own initiative, especially by 3rother Tobitt, who is e,actly what his
name suggests, a Dtwo"bitF character, who thin(s he*s superior to other white men because he
has a blac( wife.
The narrator stands up under the attac(s of 3rother Tobitt and 3rother 0ac(. 1e believes he
has done right, even though 0ac( calls Tod !lifton a 3rutus 5that is, a betrayer of !aesar, or
the 3rotherhood8. To the narrator, Tod*s defection from the 3rotherhood is not important.
'hat is important is that he was shot because he was blac(. 3rother 0ac( is not interested in
the problems of the blac( man any more. !lifton was a traitor to the 3rotherhood. Therefore,
3rother 0ac( reasons, he is not to be praised by 3rotherhood members. The narrator has
reasoned it out differently, because he has thought for himself. D=ou were not hired to thin(,F
3rother 0ac( says firmly. And the narrator (nows where he stands. This is the truth about the
3rotherhood. They don*t want his mind, only his mindless obedience to their policies.
The tension grows as the argument between the narrator and 3rother 0ac( becomes more and
more fierce. 3rother 0ac( tells the narrator that demonstrations are no longer effective and that
they should be discontinued. The narrator wants to (now who gives 3rother 0ac( the right to
spea( for blac( people. D'ho are you, anyway,F he as(s, Dthe great white fatherKF Then he
drives the point home+ D'ouldn*t it be better if they called you Garse 0ac(KF At this, the
usually cool, rational 0ac( loses his poise. 1e leaps to his feet as if to attac( the narrator, and
suddenly an ob)ect li(e a marble drops to the table. 0ac( grabs it and throws it into his water
glass. 3rother 0ac( has only one good eye. The left one is a glass eye.
The death of Tod !lifton, the funeral, and the argument with the committee have changed the
narrator. As the chapter ends, he concludes, DAfter tonight I wouldn*t ever loo( the same, or
feel the same.F 1is identity is changed once more, evolving into something more li(e a true
2"37T/# 59
The narrator is sent to 3rother 1ambro for instructions about the new policies of the
3rotherhood. On his way downtown he runs into 2as the ,horter, the last person he wants to
see. 2as attac(s him for doing nothing about the shooting and demands to (now what the
3rotherhood has to say for itself. The narrator has no answer, and he leaves, followed by two
of 2as* men who attempt to beat him up in front of a movie theater. The movie doorman
intervenes, and the narrator escapes temporarily. 1is problem is how to (eep 2as* men from
harassing him, now that the 3rotherhood organi:ation has fallen apart.
All at once he notices three men in Dnatty cream"colored summer suitsF and wearing dar(
glasses. An idea comes to him. 1e goes into a drugstore and buys himself some dar( glasses.
Immediately everything changes. The world loo(s green through the glasses, and a woman
comes up to him and calls him D2inehart.F 1e answers, and she reali:es from his voice that he
isn*t 2inehart, but the mista(e has been made. 1e has learned from the woman that 2inehart
*#)T"/# 032>?S G63SS /@/ It is worth pausing over this fascinating piece of symbolism. Throughout
the novel llison has been wor(ing with images of sight and blindness. The narrator up to now hasn*t really seen
what has been going on around him. In his first speech for the 3rotherhood he spo(e of blac( people as Done"
eyed mice,F the other eye having been put out by white men. 0ac( is one"eyed also, the other eye having been
closed by the 3rotherhood. 1e cannot see anything e,cept what the 3rotherhood permits him to see. 1e has
literally sacrificed his eye for the 3rotherhood. In this chapter, when the narrator finally sees how limited 0ac(*s
vision is, he e,pands his own vision. 1e, as it were, opens his eyes for the first time, reali:ing that 0ac( has never
seen him, never really ac(nowledged his e,istence as a human being.
usually wears a hat, so he goes to a hat shop and buys a wide"brimmed white hat to go with
his glasses, and as if by magic a couple of men on the street call him 2inehart. 1e even wal(s
by 2as the ,horter, who has now changed his name to the 9ST2O=2, and is not
recogni:ed. 1e decides to test the disguise even further by going to the 0olly 9ollar, and even
3arrelhouse, the 3artender, and 3rother Gaceo mista(e him for 2inehart. 1e ends up " as
2inehart " having a fight with Gaceo and getting thrown out of the bar.
'ho is this 2inehart, anywayK Out on the street a woman comes up to him and as(s him for
the day*s last number. A police car stops and as(s him for the usual police payoff. 2inehart
seems to be some (ind of a con man, a numbers runner, a gambler. A beautiful girl comes up
to him and starts to seduce him until she reali:es he isn*t 2inehart. Apparently 2inehart is
4uite a lover, too. The narrator runs off and finds himself in front of a store that has been
converted into a church. The minister*s name is the 2ev. 3. /. 2inehart, and a member of the
congregation comes up to the narrator on the street, mista(ing him for this minister.
'hatever 2inehart represents, the narrator is not 4uite ready to deal with it. DI caught a brief
glimpse of the possibilities posed by 2inehart*s multiple personalities and turned away. It was
too vast and confusing to contemplate.F The narrator wants some order and structure in his
life. That is why he )oined the 3rotherhood in the first place. So he puts away the hat and
glasses and goes to see 1ambro. 1ambro is honest and brutal. 'hen the narrator as(s him
why his district is being allowed to fall apart, 1ambro answers simply, D'e are ma(ing
temporary alliances with other political groups and the interests of one group of brothers must
be sacrificed to that of the whole.F The philosophy of the 3rotherhood is purely utilitarian+ 9o
what is best for the whole. If some suffer, that is unfortunate but necessary. Individuals are
not important. They are merely part of the whole. The narrator argues with 1ambro, calling
this view of individuals )ust another form of 2inehartism. Of course 1ambro doesn*t (now
who 2inehart is. The narrator begins to see the situation even more clearly than he had in the
previous chapter. D1ambro loo(ed as though I were not there.F To 1ambro, the narrator is an
,"3T 4)/S 366 T"IS +/38K =ou may wish to consult T!e 2!ara$ters section under D2inehartF for
some analysis of this strange and elusive figure. Guch can be said about him because everything llison does
here with 2inehart is open to interpretation. Is he realK Is he one personK Is he several peopleK =ou don*t (now.
=ou do (now that he is, for llison, a symbol of life in the real world. 1e is a man who can live in the chaos of
reality and survive by simply adapting to it and ta(ing advantage of it. 2inehart represents another possibility for
the narrator a strategy for coping with reality that from here to the end of the novel he will call D2inehartism.F
'e might define it as a (ind of cynical opportunism. It*s another identity that a man can adopt, and 2inehart,
with his magical hat and glasses, seems to be protected against the hurt of the world. 1e is in control.
invisible man. D'ell, I was,F he says, Dand yet I was invisible, that was the fundamental
contradiction. I was and yet I was unseen.F The narrator leaves 1ambro*s and goes home to
thin( through the day*s e,periences. 1e is e,hausted. 1e has been through the funeral, the
grueling fight with the committee, the e,perience with 2as the ,horter, the strange disguise
as 2inehart, and the discussion with 3rother 1ambro. 1is mind is trying to sort it all out. 1e
reali:es that he was always invisible" to <orton, to merson, to 3ledsoe, to 0ac(, to everyone.
Only now he (nows it. 3efore he had been nothing because he was nothing to himself. <ow,
though he is invisible to others, he is a self.
'ith this insight he comes to a decision. At last he understands the meaning of the event with
which !hapter # began, the deathbed advice of his grandfather. 1is grandfather had said, DI
want you to overcome Iem with yeses, undermine Iem with grins, agree Iem to death and
destruction, let Iem swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.F 1is grandfather*s words
have haunted him all his life, but until now they only made him feel uncomfortable. 1e has
never either understood or believed in what his grandfather had said. <ow he does. And he
decides to follow that advice. 1e will stay in the 3rotherhood, but he will be a spy in their
midst, yessing them to death and destruction while he pretends to be a loyal wor(er. 1e will
pretend to be an Uncle Tom, but in reality he will see( to undermine them. 1e plans to begin
the ne,t day by using their women as a source of information about them. 1e has a new
2"37T/# 5'
The chapter opens on the day following the crisis with the 3rotherhood, and the narrator puts
his plan of Dyessing them to deathF into effect right away. 1e openly lies to the brothers at
1ead4uarters about what is going on in 1arlem, simply telling them what they want to hear
and being pleasant and outwardly cooperative while getting on with his plan of undermining
the organi:ation. 1e decides that he needs a woman as a source of information and thin(s of
mma, 3rother 0ac(*s mistress, whom he met at the !hthonian on the first night. 1e decides
against her because she might be loyal to 0ac( and pic(s instead a woman named Sybil, whom
he invites to his apartment the ne,t night.
S@*I6 The name DSybil,F li(e nearly all the names in the novel, has symbolic meaning. A sibyl was a
woman in 6ree( times who served as an oracle or prophet for one of the gods. The sibyls would ma(e prophetic
utterances when under divine inspiration. Inspiration could be easily confused with drun(enness.
llison*s Sybil seems li(e a complete failure as a prophetess. The narrator gets her drun( and
as(s for information about the 3rotherhood, and this Sybil (nows nothing. She only wants the
narrator*s body. The evening with Sibyl becomes a series of ludicrous )o(es. Ei(e the woman
in red from !hapter #@, Sybil has the illusion that the narrator is some sort of superman. She
e,pects him to be a combination of the bo,ing champion 0oe Eouis and the noted actor and
singer /aul 2obeson. She wants to be raped by him in order to fulfill her white woman*s
fantasy of being violated by a blac( man.
Apparently Sybil has always heard that white women want blac( men. So she wants what she
assumes every other white woman wants, but what she wants is a myth. It doesn*t e,ist. And
to emphasi:e the point, llison has the narrator grab her lipstic( and write on her belly,
DS=3IE, =OU '2 2A/9 3= SA<TA !EAUS. SU2/2IS.F The myth of the blac(
stud is on the same level as that of Santa !laus. It*s a child*s fantasy to be outgrown.
Sybil never outgrows it. She falls into a drun(en sleep and wa(es up thin(ing that something
wonderful has happened to her while she was sleeping. She continues to thin( the narrator is
perfectly wonderful, calling him Dboo*fulF in her drun(en stupor. The phone rings, )arring the
narrator bac( to reality. It is someone from the district. All hell has bro(en loose in 1arlem,
and the narrator is needed at Gorningside 1eights.
1e struggles to get Sybil dressed, grabs his briefcase, puts Sybil in a ta,i, and starts wal(ing
toward 1arlem. 'hen he gets to ##.th Street, he finds Sybil Dwaiting beneath a street lamp,
waving.F She runs away, then falls in the street, totally unable to control herself. 1e gets
another ta,i and orders the driver to ta(e her straight home. Then he flags down a bus and
rides it to #B&th Street and 2iverside 9rive. 1e can*t seem to do anything right, for he has
even ta(en the wrong bus, and now he will have to wal( across #B&th Street to 1arlem.
2"37T/# 55
'hen he reaches Gorningside 1eights, the riot is in full force. Aour men are running toward
him pushing a safe, and he is caught with them in police fire. 1e falls to the pavement, hit by
a bullet, and feels blood on his face. It is only a superficial wound, though. A slug has creased
his head.
1e finds himself in a nightmare world, unable to ta(e care of himself. Then, for no reason, a
man named Scofield helps him, and the narrator finds himself following Scofield and 9upre,
the leader of a group of local blac(s. They are planning something. They go to a hardware
store, get flashlights, and then buc(ets which they fill with coal oil. 9upre seems to have
organi:ed everything. They ta(e the buc(ets to a tenement house and clear the house of
women and children. Scofield tells the narrator, DThis is the place where most of us live.F
<othing in the narrator*s e,perience has prepared him for this. 1e is ama:ed.
These people need no 3rotherhood. <o leaders. They are ta(ing their lives into their own
hands. The narrator thin(s, DThey organi:ed it and carried it through aloneH the decision is
their own and their own action.F The people spread the oil, light it, and the building goes up in
flames. Suddenly in the street, someone recogni:es the narrator and calls him by his
3rotherhood name. 1e runs, afraid that 2as* men will find him, and ends up in another rain of
pistol fire. 9upre and Scofield have guns and are fighting it out with the police. 3ut, the
narrator suddenly sees that this battle is pure suicide " a few pistols against the police arsenal.
Is this what the 3rotherhood wanted, to have blac(s fighting one another and the police in a
riot which will ultimately mean self"destructionK The narrator runs again in the nightmare of
the streets littered with bro(en glass. There are looters everywhere, ta(ing what they can, and
as the narrator runs he sees a white body hanging from a lamp post. 1ave they lynched a
white womanK <o, it is another macabre )o(e. It is a dummy, a store manne4uin.
Again, the narrator runs, and this time straight into 2as the 9estroyer. 2as, surrounded by his
men and carrying a shield and spear, is riding toward him on a huge blac( horse. The narrator
searches for his dar( glasses, his 2inehart disguise, but they have bro(en in his briefcase. So
he must face 2as. 2as flings his spear at him and misses, hitting one of the manne4uins
behind him. The narrator grabs the spear and spea(s, trying to hold bac( the tide of
DThey want this to happen,F he says, trying to e,plain that he now sees through the
3rotherhood. And even as he spea(s, he (nows it is too late. 2as and his men want to hang
the narrator as a symbol. They would li(e to lynch him as whites lynched blac(s. 3ut the
narrator is not ready to die. DI (new that it was better to live out one*s own absurdity,F he
says, Dthan to die for that of others, whether for 2as* or 0ac(*s.F

Spurred by the will to live, he throws the spear bac( at 2as and fights his way through the
crowd, using his briefcase and Tarp*s leg chain as weapons. 1e is through with everything.
All he wants is to get away, to find his way bac( to Gary*s and be ta(en care of. 1e wants to
say, D...we*re all blac( fol(s together,F but it*s too late and the violence has spread
everywhere out of control. 1e runs until e,hausted, then stops to rest behind a hedge, where
he hears people tal(ing about 2as and his final battle with the police+ 2as charging the cops
li(e some cra:y (night of old, fighting with spear and shield.
1e gets up to run again, to find 0ac( and Tobitt and 'restrum, when he sees two young white
men in civilian clothes. !ops, he thin(s, until he sees one holding a baseball bat. They want
his briefcase, and he ta(es off down the street running. Suddenly he falls through an open
manhole into what seems to be a coal cellar. The whites can*t see him because he*s a blac(
man lying in the dar( on a blac( heap of coal. 1e is now literally invisible, and they clamp the
manhole cover bac( on, leaving him there, where he stays in a (ind of tomb, a (ind of living
death, to sleep until morning.
The novel has come full circle. This is the underground home that the narrator refers to in the
/rologue. This is where he has remained and written his novel since the night of the riot,
slowly converting his dar( into light, not (nowing for a long time whether it was night or day.
That process of lighting his way out of both the literal and figurative dar(ness of the
underground cave begins at the conclusion of this chapter with the narrator*s first act after he
wa(es up. 1e has no light to see his way out, and so DI reali:ed that to light my way out I
would have to burn every paper in the brief case.F <otice what he burns and in what order+
first, the high school diploma, then !lifton*s doll, then the anonymous letter written by
3rother 0ac(, then the slip of paper on which 0ac( had written his 3rotherhood name. These
DT) 6I(/ )=T )8/?S ),8 3*S=#4IT@.G Invisi)le 'an was published in #@&B, at the height of the
influence of Arench e,istentialist writing in the United States. The concept of absurdity, central to e,istentialists
li(e 0ean"/aul Sartre and Albert !amus, certainly influenced llison strongly. In this passage, the narrator comes
to what might be called an e,istential affirmation. 1e reali:es that life is absurd, that the organi:ations to which
he has given himself are meaningless, but that the individual can live, can affirm his own e,istence in the face of
that absurdity. 'e can live and choose to be an authentic self whether the universe has meaning or not. =ou
might wish to read some e,istentialist literature, such as !amus* The Stranger, Sartre*s No E8it and Nausea, and
e,plore its influence on this novel, especially on this chapter and the &rologue and Epilogue.
are his white identities, all of which must be burned away, destroyed, before he can Dlight his
wayF out of the dar(ness of the cave.
The chapter ends with an agoni:ing dream in which the narrator is castrated by merson,
0ac(, 3ledsoe, <orton and 2as, who laugh at him as he reali:es that this is the price of
freedom. This is what it has cost him to see reality. <ow he is free of illusion, but he cannot
go bac( to the real world. 1e must stay in the cave. D1ere, at least, I could try to thin( things
out in peace, or, if not in peace, in 4uiet. I would ta(e up residence underground. The end was
in the beginning.F
The &rologue and Epilogue are harder to deal with than the rest of the boo(, because in the
sense of Dstory,F nothing happens. In one sense, the story line is at an end. 3ut in an important
sense the novel isn*t over, if you thin( of things happening inside people*s minds as well as
e,ternally. The most important things that happen to individuals are sometimes the interior
things, the changes that ta(e place within. That is what happens in the pilogue. The story in
Invisi)le 'an is summed up by the narrator when he says, in the pilogue*s first paragraph,
DI*m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole " or showed me the hole I was in....F That*s
an effective metaphor. The hole he falls in at the end of !hapter B& is where his life led him.
3ut people can change. The 6erman philosopher Ariedrich <iet:sche said, DThe sna(e that
does not shed its s(in will perish.F 9uring the course of writing the novel 5the story of
Invisi)le 'an8, the narrator learns that he must shed his figurative s(in. 1e must give up his
old identitiesH then, after he has had time to get used to who he really is, he must stop
hibernating. 0ust as the bear comes out of his cave in the spring, )ust as the sna(e returns to
the world after he has grown his new s(in, the narrator must give up his invisibility and re)oin
the world+ DThe hibernation is over. I must sha(e off the old s(in and come up for breath,F he
says " using three metaphors at once.
3ut, you might as(, what does coming up and re)oining the world meanK 1e tells you. 1e will
become involved in the world with his new (nowledge. ven if it hurts, he will be part of the
T"/ *#I/B23S/ 384 ITS 2)8T/8TS The briefcase is the only ob)ect the narrator ta(es into the cave
from his former life. 1e burns all the papers, but still in the briefcase is Gary*s bro(en ban( and its coins along
with Tarp*s leg chain. These two ob)ects are part of his blac( heritage, a part that will always be with him.
/erhaps these cannot or should not be left behind. 'hat do you thin(K 'hat about the briefcase itselfK 'hat
might it representK
world because Deven an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.F Staying in the
cave is li(e dying. If you stay too long, then you can never come up. So he will, he says, as
the novel ends, come up and play a role in a world he now understands is better because it is
DAmerica is woven of many strands,F he reminds you, and Dour fate is to become one, and yet
many.F That is why 2as is wrong and 3rother 0ac( is wrong and 3ledsoe is wrong and
merson and <orton are wrong, because they deny the individual his right to be one and be
different and still be part of the many. That is llison*s final thought, and that is one thing that
the narrator learns through his )ourney underground. That is what he will attempt to teach
others. D/erhaps,F the novel ends, Don the lower fre4uencies I spea( for you.F And he has,
indeed, spo(en for many in the last thirty years.
T"/ 2#ITI2S
2/8T#36 T"/+/S
'ell, there are certain themes, symbols and images which are based on fol( material. Aor
e,ample, there is the old saying amongst <egroes+ If you*re blac(, stay bac(H if you*re brown,
stic( aroundH if you*re white, you*re right. And there is the )o(e <egroes tell on themselves
about their being so blac( they can*t be seen in the dar(. In my boo( this sort of thing was
merged with the meanings which blac(ness and light have long had in 'estern mythology+
evil and goodness, ignorance and (nowledge, and so on. In my novel the narrator*s
development is one through blac(ness to lightH that is, from ignorance to enlightenment+
invisibility to visibility. 1e leaves the South and goes <orthH this, as you will notice in
reading <egro fol(tales, is always the road to freedom" the movement upward. =ou have the
same thing again when he leaves his underground cave for the open.
52alph llison, DThe Art of Aiction+ An Interview,F #@&&8
T"/ S@+*)6IS+ )B (ISI)8
2alph llison, in Invisi)le 'an, relies heavily on the symbolism of vision+ light, color,
perception, sight, insight. These, his master symbols, are organically related to the dualism of
blac( and white, the all"absorbing and bafflingly comple, problem of identity. 1ow does the
<egro see himself and how do others see himK 9o they notice him at allK 9o they really see
him as he is or do they behold a stereotype, a ghostly caricature, a traditionally accepted
mythK 'hat we get in this novel, creatively elaborated, is the drama of symbolic action, the
language of the eyes, the incredibly comple, and subtle symbolism of vision. All this is
structurally bound up with the underlying theme of transformation. All this is imaginatively
and, for the most part, successfully wor(ed out in terms of fiction.
5!harles I. 6lic(sberg, DThe Symbolism of 7ision,F #@&C8
T"/ 83##3T)# 3S 3#TIST
A profitable method of dealing with Invisi)le 'an is to see the action as a series of initiations
in which the hero passes through several stages and groups of identification. The changes of
identity are accompanied by somewhat formal rituals resembling the primitive*s rites of
passage. The primitive recogni:es that man changes his identity as he passes from one stage
or group to another and accompanies this transition by rituals that are essentially symbolic
representations of birth, purification and regeneration in nature. llison*s narrative is a series
of such initiatory e,periences set within a cyclical framewor( of the mystic initiation of the
artist. The rites of passage ta(e the hero through several stages in which he acts out his
various and conflicting sub"personalities. 'hen he has won his freedom he is reborn as the
artist, the only actor in our society whose DendF is a search beneath the label for what is
5llin 1orowit:, DThe 2ebirth of the Artist,F #@%C8
/66IS)8?S 4/7I2TI)8 )B T"/ 2)++=8ISTS
If Native Son is marred by the ideological delusions of the thirties, Invisi)le 'an is marred,
less grossly, by those of the fifties. The middle section of llison*s novel, dealing with the
1arlem !ommunists, does not ring 4uite true, in the way a good portion of the writings on
this theme during the post"war years does not ring 4uite true. llison ma(es his Stalinist
figures so vicious and stupid that one cannot understand how they could ever have attracted
him or any other <egro. That the party leadership manipulated members with deliberate
cynicism is beyond doubt, but this cynicism was surely more comple, and guarded than
llison shows it to be. <o party leader would ever tell a prominent <egro !ommunist, as one
of them does in Invisi)le 'an+ D=ou were not hired Mas a functionaryN to thin(F even if that
were what he felt. Such passages are almost as damaging as the propagandist outbursts in
Native Son.
5Irving 1owe, A 2orld 'ore Attractive, #@%?8
T"/ 7#)T3G)8IST 3S =8I(/#S36 +38
I hesitate to call 2alph llison*s Invisi)le 'an 5#@&B8 a <egro novel, though of course it is
written by a <egro and is centrally concerned with the e,periences of a <egro. The
appellation is not so much inaccurate as it is misleading. A novelist treating the invisibility
and phantasmagoria of the <egro*s life in this DdemocracyF is, if he tells the truth, necessarily
writing a very special (ind of boo(. =et if his novel is interesting only because of its
specialness, he has not violated the surface of his sub)ectH he has not, after all, been serious.
9espite the differences in their e,ternal concerns, llison has more in common as a novelist
with 0oyce, Gelville, !amus, Laf(a, 'est, and Aaul(ner than he does with other serious
<egro writers li(e 0ames 3aldwin and 2ichard 'right. To concentrate on the idiom of a
serious novel, no matter how distinctive its peculiarities, is to depreciate it, to minimi:e the
universality of its implications. Though the protagonist of Invisible Gan is a southern <egro,
he is, in llison*s rendering, profoundly all of us.
50onathan 3aumbach, The Landscape of Night!are, #@%&8
T"/ 4/SIG8 )B T"/ 76)T
The plot structure of Invisi)le 'an is schematic. The novel uses a cumulative plot 5in G. !.
3radbroo(*s illuminating terminology8, developing the same basic episode over and over in
an emotional crescendo+ the protagonist struggles idealistically to live by the commandments
of his immediate social group, then is undone by the hypocrisy built into the social structure
and is plunged into despair. This happens in four large movements+ #8 the struggle into
college, the failure with <orton and e,pulsion from the DparadiseF of the collegeH B8 )ob"
hunting in <ew =or(, merson*s disillusioning lecture and the battle and e,plosion at Eiberty
/aintsH ?8 the DresurrectionF or reconstruction of the protagonist, his plunge into radical
activism and his purge by the 3rotherhoodH C8 the meeting with 2inehart, the beginning of the
riots and the protagonist*s confrontation and defeat of 2as, ending in the flight underground.
ach episode is a development to a clima, followed by a peripeteia. The novel*s prologue and
epilogue simply frame this series of clima,es and reversals and interpret the emotional
collapse of the invisible man in the present tense.
5'illiam 0. Schafer, D2alph llison and the 3irth of the Anti"1ero,Y #@%$8
T"/ S@+*)6IS+ )B 83+/S
!haracters* names, and the club names, and the names of factories, places and institutions
even the names of things, li(e the Sambo doll can be e,plored indefinitely in this novel. The
3rotherhood has its parties at a place called the !hthonian !lub, which is a classical reference
comparable to that of the Sybils. The !hthonian realm belonged to the underground gods and
spiritsH and true power for llison is an underground influence as we learn from seeing
3ledsoe and 3roc(way and 3rother 0ac( in action, as well as the invisible man writing in his
hole. 'here does 2as get his name, with its vocal nearness to DraceFK 1e gives it to himself,
as the invisible man gives us the name we must call him by if we are to (now him for what he
5Thomas A. 7ogler, DInvisible Gan+ Somebody*s /rotest <ovel,Y #@-.8
T"/ 83##3T)#?S )4@SS/@ T) S/6B"))4
The odyssey which the narrator, with the aid of #,?%@ light bulbs, loo(s bac( on ta(es place
on many levels. 1is travelling is geographic, social, historical and philosophical. In an early
dream he finds inside his brief"case an envelope which contains an endless recession of
smaller envelopes, the last of which contains the simple message DLeep This <igger"3oy
2unning.F It is only at the end when he finally burns all the contents of his real brief"case that
he can start to control his own momentum. Up to that point his movements are really
controlled from without, )ust li(e the people in the <ew =or( streets who to him seem to wal(
as though they were directed by Dsome unseen control.F The pattern of his life is one of
constraint and evictionH he is alternately cramped and dispossessed. This is true of his
e,perience in the college, the factory, the hospital, the /arty. 'hat he discovers is that every
institution is bent on processing and programming the individual in a certain wayH yet if a man
does not have a place in any of the social structures the danger is that he might fall into chaos.
5Tony Tanner, DThe Gusic of Invisibility,F #@-?8
T"/ ,IS4)+ )B *632> B)6> /A7/#I/82/
Invisi)le 'an is not a historical novel, of course, but it deals with the past as a burden and as
a stepping stone to the future. The hero discovers that history moves not li(e an arrow or an
ob)ective, scientific argument, but li(e a boomerang+ swiftly, cyclically, and dangerously. 1e
sees that when he is not conscious of the past, he is liable to be slammed in the head with it
again when it circles bac(. As the novel unfolds, the Invisible Gan learns that by accepting
and evaluating all parts of his e,perience, smooth and ragged, loved and unloved, he is able to
Dloo( around cornersF into the future+ At the beginning of the novel, the Invisible Gan
presents himself as a (ind of Afro"American 0onathan, a DgreenF yo(el pushed into the
clownhouse of American society. 1e starts out ignorant of his society, his past, himself. 3y
the end of the boo( he accepts his southern blac( fol( past and sees that ordinary blac(s li(e
his grandfather, Trueblood, Gary, Tarp, 9upre, the unnamed boys in the subway, and himself
are of ultimate value, no matter what the 3ledsoes and 0ac(s say. 0arred to consciousness by
fol(lore 5among other things8, the Invisible Gan reali:es that the tested wisdom e,pressed in
spirituals, blues, do:ens, and stories is a vital part of his e,perience. At last he comprehends
that whatever he might do to be Dso blac( and blue,F he is, simply, who he is.
52obert 6. O*Geally, The !raft of 2alph llison, #@$.8
2#ITI236 ,)#>S
3aumbach, 0onathan. The Landscape of Night!are. <ew =or(+ <ew =or( University
/ress, #@%&.
3one, 2obert. Anger and $e+ond. <ew =or(+ 1arper O 2ow, #@%%.
6ibson, 9onald 3., ed. ive $lack 2riters. <ew =or(+ <ew =or( University /ress, #@-..
6lic(sberg, !harles I. DThe Symbolism of 7ision.F Southwest %eview ?@ 5Summer #@&C8,
pp. B&@"%&.
1ersey, 0ohn, ed. %alph Ellison7 A Collection of Critical Essa+s. nglewood !liffs, <.0.+
/rentice"1all, #@-..
1orowit:, llin. DThe 2ebirth of the Artist.F In 2ichard Lostelanet:, ed. "n
Conte!porar+ Literature. <ew =or(+ Avon 3oo(s, #@%C.
1orowit:, Aloyd 2. D2alph llison*s Godern 7ersion of 3rer 3ear and 3rer 2abbit in
Invisible Gan.F 'idcontinent A!erican Studies 4ournal I7 5B8 5#@%?8+ B#"B-.
1owe, Irving. A 2orld 'ore Attractive. <ew =or(+ 1ori:on /ress, #@%?.
Laiser, rnest. D<egro Images in American 'riting.F reedo!wa+s - 5Spring #@%-8, pp.
Llein, Garcus. After Alienation. !leveland and <ew =or(+ 'orld /ublishing !o., #@%C.
<eal, Earry. Dllison*s Qoot Suit.F 3lac( 'orld B. 5B8 59ecember #@-.8, pp. ?#"&..
Olderman, 2aymond. D2alph llison*s 3lues and Invisible Gan.F 2isconsin Studies in
Literature - 5#@%%8+ #CB"&-.
O*Geally, 2obert 6. The Craft of %alph Ellison. !ambridge, Gass.+ 1arvard University
/ress, #@$..
ZZZZZ. D2alph llison*s Invisible <ovel.F The New %epu)lic 50anuary #-, #@$#8, pp. B%"
2eilly, 0ohn G., ed. Twentieth Centur+ Interpretations of Invisi)le 'an. nglewood
!liffs, <.0.+ /rentice"1all, #@-..
2ovit, arl 1. D2alph llison and the American !omic Tradition.F 2isconsin Studies in
Conte!porar+ Literature # 5Aall #@%.8, pp. ?C"CB.
Schafer, 'illiam 0. D2alph llison and the 3irth of the Anti"1ero.F Criti=ue #. 5#@%$8+
Tanner, Tony. In Cit+ of 2ords7 A!erican iction, #@&."#@-.. <ew =or(+ 1arper O
2ow, #@-#.
7ogler, Thomas A. DInvisible Gan+ Somebody*s /rotest <ovel.F Iowa %eview # 5Spring
#@-.8, pp. %C"$B.
II. 9 "3##I/T *//2"/# ST),/?S =826/ T)+?S 23*I8
T"/ 3=T")# 384 "/# TI+/S
Isabella 0ones 3eecher was furious. It was bad enough that Southerners persisted in enslaving
people, but now they were forcing <ortherners to do their dirty wor(. The Augitive Slave Eaw
passed as part of the !ompromise of #$&. re4uired residents of nonslave states to cooperate in
returning runaway slaves to the South. In 3oston, where Isabella lived with her husband, the
2everend dward 3eecher, everyone was tal(ing about the awful new law. 3lac( and white
abolitionists had met at historic Aaneuil 1all to pledge that no fugitive slave would ever be
ta(en from Gassachusetts.
The 3eechers had been strongly antislavery for years. Thin(ing about what she could do to
protest this new outrage, Isabella 3eecher sent a letter to her sister"in"law, 1arriet 3eecher
Stowe, a housewife with si, children who occasionally wrote for maga:ines. DIf I could use a
pen as you can,F she wrote, DI would write something that would ma(e this whole nation feel
what an accursed thing slavery is.F As !harles Stowe tells the story, his mother read the letter
aloud to her children in their parlor in 3runswic(, Gaine. She rose from her chair and Dwith
an e,pression on her face that stamped itself on the mind of her child, said+ II will write
something. I will if I live.*F The DsomethingF was 0ncle To!/s Ca)in-
Stowe intended to write a tale of slavery in three or four episodes, and she arranged for
publication in the <ational ra, an antislavery paper that had printed some of her earlier wor(.
As it happened, she wrote considerably more. The serial ran from 0une #$&# to April #$&B.
2eaders couldn*t get enough of it, and protested to the editors on the rare occasions when
Stowe missed a wee(*s installment. 'hen 0ncle To!/s Ca)in# or, Life A!ong the Lowl+, was
published in boo( form in Garch #$&B, the first &... copies were bought in two days. 3y the
end of the year, more than ?..,... copies had been sold. 0ncle To!/s Ca)in was a runaway
In some ways, 1arriet 3eecher Stowe seemed li(e an unli(ely person to produce such a
phenomenon" an e,tremely popular boo( on an e,tremely serious issue. She turned out
maga:ine s(etches, it*s true, to ma(e e,tra money, since she had si, children, including a set
of twins, and her husband didn*t earn much of a living. /rior to writing 0ncle To!/s Ca)in
she had published a collection of <ew ngland local color pieces. Are4uently overwhelmed
by family responsibilities, she once wrote her husband, who was away on business, that she
was Dsic( of the smell of sour mil( and sour meat, and sour everything.F 3ut in other ways,
Stowe was ideally placed to write about the great issue of her time. She was born in #$##, in
Eitchfield, !onnecticut, into one of the first families of American religion. 1er father, Eyman
3eecher, had a considerable reputation as a /rotestant preacher when she was growing up.
The early nineteenth century was a time of upheaval in American /rotestantism. !harles
6randison Ainney developed a new (ind of revival preaching that swept <ew =or( State. 1is
doctrine that sin could be avoided led many of his converts into reform movements as well as
into church. Although Eyman 3eecher differed from Ainney on some points" he was much
closer to the mainstream of the /resbyterian !hurch" 3eecher, too, was a stirring revival
preacher. And he, too, was drawn to reform, especially to the temperance movement 5the
movement to reduce alcohol consumption8. Goving from Eitchfield to 3oston when 1arriet
was in her teens, 3eecher campaigned against what he considered the overly liberal
3eecher communicated his interests to his children. 1is si, sons became ministers, some of
them distinguished, and three of his four daughters, barred from that career, became
reformers. 1arriet was four when her mother died, and she was raised by aunts and a
stepmother. She was a lonely, serious child, and her father*s high theological standards
sometimes burdened her. 'hen she told him at age fourteen that she had ta(en 0esus as her
savior, he encouraged her to loo( deep within herself to ma(e certain that she was really
saved. Ei(e many educated young women of her day, she began teaching at the same age in a
school run by her older sister !atharine. ventually 1arriet and her younger brother, 1enry
'ard 3eecher, came to believe in a 6od more loving and accessible than their father*s.
In #$?B Eyman 3eecher became president of Eane Theological Seminary in !incinnati, Ohio.
3ut trouble soon erupted. In #$?C, Theodore 'eld, a convert of Ainney*s, came to the school
to study for the ministry. 'eld had become an abolitionist, and in a series of stormy
discussions he turned most of his fellow students against 3eecher*s view that sending blac(s
to colonies in Africa was the answer to the problem of slavery. A large group of students left
Eane for newly established Oberlin !ollege, and neither 3eecher nor Eane Seminary ever
4uite recovered. The Eane debates were part of the birth pangs of the American abolitionist
movement. As early as the eighteenth century, some Americans had opposed slavery. In the
years after the American 2evolution, slavery was banned in <orthern states, and the
!onstitution abolished the slave trade from Africa as of #$.$. 3eyond that, organi:ed
opposition was confined to groups li(e the >ua(ers 5members of the Society of Ariends8, who
disapprove of slavery on religious grounds. 5>ua(ers hold that the divine Inner Eight resides
in every human, regardless of race or se,.8 In #$#- some distinguished political leaders
founded the American !oloni:ation Society, whose goal was to raise money to buy slaves
from their owners and send them to Africa. 3ut that movement failed, in large part because
the free blac(s of the <orth viewed themselves as Americans and had no desire to settle on a
continent they had never seen.
In the #$?.s, however, American attitudes toward slavery underwent a revolution. In #$?. the
merchant Arthur Tappan formed an antislavery organi:ation. The ne,t year 'illiam Eloyd
6arrison, a 3oston )ournalist, began to publish The Eiberator, a militant antislavery
newspaper whose first supporters and subscribers were <orthern free blac(s. In #$??,
following the abolition of slavery in the 3ritish empire, 6arrison and the Tappan group )oined
to form the American Antislavery Society 5AASS8. Throughout the #$?.s, they organi:ed
rallies, conventions, and revivals over the <orth. Some people responded to the abolitionist
view of slavery as a sin because of what they*d heard at Ainney*s revivals, but the
abolitionists were not generally popular. Spea(ers were mobbed and occasionally murdered
5as was dward 3eecher*s friend li)ah Eove)oy in #$?-8 and printing presses were burned.
3ut the persistent agitation convinced many Americans, regardless of how they felt about
abolition or the abolitionists, that slavery was an issue that could not be ignored.
In #$C. the movement split into two branches, when a group withdrew from the AASS to
form the American and Aoreign Anti"Slavery Society. 6arrison*s group saw the abolition of
slavery as part of a fundamental reform of American societyH more conservative abolitionists
believed that slavery alone was the problem. Abolitionists differed, too, on such 4uestions as
the role of women in the movement. 6arrisonians favored full participation by women, while
conservatives wanted to avoid embracing stands that would alienate <orthern public opinion.
Aollowers of 6arrison agreed with him that slavery had to be abolished by changing public
opinion rather than by wor(ing through the U.S. !ongressH his opponents used conventional
political methods. 3esides the abolitionists, a growing number of <ortherners in the #$C.s
and #$&.s came to oppose the e,pansion of slavery to the territories that were entering the
Union as states. They disli(ed slavery, but did not necessarily believe that it could or should
be ended in the South. These people were called antislavery rather than abolitionist, and
1arriet 3eecher Stowe could be characteri:ed as one of them.
The fight against slavery attracted the energies of a number of American women, who soon
discovered that within that movement for liberation they were second"class citi:ens. 'omen
had to fight for the right to spea( at abolitionist meetings, to hold office in organi:ations, and
to be seated as delegates at conventions. 59ebates about their proper place in the movement
had contributed to the split in #$C..8 In #$C$, a group of women who had been e,cluded from
the 'orld Anti"Slavery !onvention eight years earlier met at Seneca Aalls, <.=., to proclaim
that, in words that recalled the 9eclaration of Independence, Dall men and women are created
e4ual.F Gost early leaders of the American women*s movement of the nineteenth century
were abolitionists 5)ust as most leaders of the American women*s movement that began in the
#@%.s emerged from the civil rights movement8.
1arriet 3eecher Stowe had a ringside seat for the religious and political agitation of her day.
In #$?% she married !alvin Stowe, a /rofessor at Eane Seminary. In addition to her e,posure
to religious and moral reform currents through her father, and to abolitionism through her
connection with Eane, Stowe remained close to her sister !atharine, at whose school in
!incinnati she had taught before her marriage. !atharine 3eecher was not a feminist in the
mold of the women*s rights activists who met in the path"brea(ing convention at Seneca Aalls,
in #$C$. She believed that men and women lived in separate worlds, and she wor(ed to
increase the power of women in their sphere, the home, rather than in the world at large.
!atharine 3eecher saw childrearing and home management as sciences worthy of respect, and
she wrote many boo(s 5one, The American 'oman*s 1ome, in collaboration with 1arriet in
#$%@8 to that effect. Ei(e many reformers the sisters believed that women had a higher
morality than men, and that it was their duty to raise the rest of society to women*s level. The
feminists of the late twentieth century are the descendants of li:abeth !ady Stanton and the
women of Seneca Aalls, not of !atharine 3eecher, and they argue over whether !atharine and
her sisters were feminists. 'hether or not they were feminists in today*s terms, both were
dedicated to improving the lot of women.
In !incinnati, 1arriet 3eecher Stowe had a closer view of slavery than she would have had
bac( in !onnecticut. Eocated on the Ohio 2iver across from the slave state of Lentuc(y, the
city was filled with former slaves and slaveholders. In conversations with blac( women who
wor(ed as servants in her home, Stowe heard many stories of slave life that found their way
into 0ncle To!/s Ca)in. In #$?@ the Stowes hired a servant who had been brought to Ohio by
her mistress, and was therefore technically free. Eearning several months later that the young
woman*s former master was loo(ing for her, !alvin Stowe and 1enry 'ard 3eecher too( her
to a safe house in the country in the dead of night. This episode showed up years later in the
novel as li:a*s rescue by Senator 3ird. In its last chapter Stowe attempts to prove the
capability of blac( people by listing the free blac(s of !incinnati with whom her husband had
dealings. /art of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in was based on Stowe*s reading of abolitionist boo(s and
pamphlets and slave narratives, some of which were ghostwritten by abolitionists. 3ut at least
some of the boo( came from her own observations of blac( !incinnatians with personal
e,perience of slavery.
In writing about slavery Stowe went beyond what was acceptable for a woman novelist in the
United States. Other women writers of her day wrote decorous tales of domestic life under
names li(e DAanny AernF and D6race 6reenwood.F Ei(e them, Stowe focused on female
characters and values. 3ut unli(e them, she wrote under her own name about the most
pressing issue of the time. She wrote as did many male American authors, but not female
writers in dialect rather than refined prose. And the dialect was spo(en by sympathetic blac(
charactersP <o wonder one reader called her a Dfoul"mouthed hag.F Stowe got around the
point by insisting that she wasn*t really the author of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in. DThe Eord himself
wrote it, and I was but the humblest of instruments in 1is hand,F she said. Ei(e much of what
1arriet 3eecher Stowe said, that statement contains two messages+ DI*m not much, I*m )ust
writing this down for 6od,F on the one hand, and on the other DEisten to me, 6od spea(s
through my voice.F A nineteenth"century woman was not supposed to be proud of her ability,
e,cept as a mother. Stowe found a way of disclaiming responsibility for her success and
glorifying it at the same time.
2ight from the start, people either loved or hated 0ncle To!/s Ca)in, which appeared in boo(
form in #$&B. nthusiastic letters poured in to Stowe from around the country and the world.
The American poets 1enry 'adsworth Eongfellow and 0ohn 6reenleaf 'hittier wrote
congratulatory letters. 2alph 'aldo merson noted in his )ournal that everyone read it,
including Dthe lady, the coo(, and the chambermaid.F Arom abroad came praise from the
2ussian writer Eeo Tolstoy, the Arench novelist 6eorge Sand, and the 6erman poet 1einrich
1eine. Although abolitionists were not satisfied with Uncle Tom*s !abin because it endorsed
sending free blac(s to Africa, leaders of the movement li(e 'illiam Eloyd 6arrison and
Thomas 'entworth 1igginson told Stowe they were glad she had written it.
A stage version of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in written by !harles '. Taylor appeared shortly after
the novel was published, and a few years later 6eorge E. Ai(en produced the version that was
fre4uently performed in the late nineteenth century. Gillions of Americans saw the play" even
more than read the novel but as the years passed, the drama had less to do with either Stowe
or her original story. The play, performed by white actors in blac(face, stressed the comic and
melodramatic parts of the novel. 3y the #$-.s, it was, according to one observer, Dhalf a
minstrel show and half a circus.F 3y #$$. some productions included live bloodhounds
chasing li:a across the ice.
In addition to its impressive sales" precise records were not (ept in the nineteenth century, but
the boo( is thought to have sold more than two million copies in nglish and in translation"
the influence of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in was astonishing. As a friend of Stowe*s told her, DI
thought I was a thorough"going abolitionist before, but your boo( has awa(ened so strong a
feeling of indignation and of compassion that I never seem to have had any feeling on this
sub)ect until now.F 3ecause 0ncle To!/s Ca)in appealed to the emotions of nineteenth"
century readers through pitiful scenes of children torn away from their mothers and
melodramatic plot devices, it made many people thin( of slaves as people for the first time.
The influence of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in is reflected in the story 5probably apocryphal8 that
/resident Eincoln greeted Stowe in #$%? by saying, DSo this is the little lady who made this
big war.F ven if Eincoln was e,aggerating the boo(*s influence, 0ncle To!/s Ca)in did
contribute to the climate of opinion in the <orth that made the continued e,istence of slavery
Gany Southerners claimed that 0ncle To!/s Ca)in gave a misleading picture of slavery.
Stowe, who had tried to ma(e the boo( accurate and fair to the South Grs. Shelby, 6eorge
Shelby, and Augustine and va St. !lare are e,tremely sympathetic characters, and the
boo(*s villain, Simon Eegree, is from <ew ngland was stung by these attac(s. 0ncle
To!/s Ca)in, as you*ll see, is full of Stowe*s little lectures about the truthfulness and source
of various details. The year after it was published, Stowe produced A >e+ to 0ncle To!/s
Ca)in, which answered the critics point by point and supplied further documentation for her
stories. In #$&% she wrote another novel about slavery, 1red7 A Tale of the Great 1is!al
Today, the debate about the accuracy of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in has largely been resolved in
Stowe*s favor. 2ecent historians li(e 1erbert 6utman 5in The $lack a!il+ in Slaver+ and
reedo!, #-&."#@B&8 and ugene 6. 6enovese 5in %oll, 4ordan, %oll8 paint a picture of
slavery that is not appreciably different from the one in Stowe*s novel. Ei(e Stowe, modern
historians ac(nowledge that slave"owners* treatment of their property varied enormously, and
that masters as cruel as Simon Eegree were rare. 3ut most of them would agree with Stowe
that the possibility of being sold to a Simon Eegree weighed heavily on the minds of slaves.
The description in 0ncle To!/s Ca)in of life on the Shelby plantation is largely accurate for
an operation of its type, according to what we now (now about slavery. In the relationship
between li:a and Grs. Shelby and between Uncle Tom and his wife Aunt !hloe and young
6eorge Shelby, Stowe shows the warm mutual feeling that could develop between slaves and
masters. In the characters of Sam and Andy, she demonstrates the pattern of slave behavior
that contemporary historians, li(e slaves, call Dputting on ol* Gassa.F She shows the way
slaves shared information about life on the plantation. She points to the e,istence of a slave
community, and shows that religion was important in maintaining both group feeling and an
individual sense of worth and hope. 1owever, she doesn*t seem to have (nown much about
blac( musicH she has Tom sing standard Gethodist hymns much more often than the slave
sorrow songs, or spirituals. 1er portrayal of the St. !lare household shows some of the
differences between plantation slavery and slavery in the cities. In Adolph and 2osa, she
shows how some house servants identified with the social style of their owners, and saw
themselves as a cut above the other slaves.
Although Stowe*s depiction of slavery is accurate in its general outlines, it is not correct in
every detail. Gany of Stowe*s inaccuracies show up in her efforts to ma(e blac( characters
appealing to white readers. Aor e,ample, it is true that babies were sometimes sold away from
their mothers. 5Since records of this sort were not (ept, it is impossible to generali:e with
statistical accuracy, e,cept about small specific populations that historians have been able to
study.8 And it is true that every slave mother lived with the threat of losing her child.
1owever, in 0ncle To!/s Ca)in, nearly all the blac( female characters lose, or 5li(e li:a8
are at ris( of losing, their children. This seems li(e an attempt to tug at the heartstrings of
<orthern female readers rather than provide an accurate description. Another way in which
Stowe attempted to engage her readers* sympathies was by ma(ing two of her leading
characters, 6eorge and li:a 1arris, light"s(inned enough to pass for white. Their color
serves the plot, since it ma(es it easier for 6eorge and li:a to escape. 3ut in their characters,
Stowe associates lightness of s(in with attractiveness, intelligence, and energy. 6eorge and
li:a are very much li(e white people, which may have engaged the sympathies of white
readers. Although there were no doubt some slaves li(e 6eorge and li:a, s(in color in fact is
not an indication of attractiveness or ability.
Some readers have ob)ected to what they see as Stowe*s use of racial stereotypes in 0ncle
To!/s Ca)in. 3lac( novelist 0ames 3aldwin, for e,ample, critici:ed the lin(ing of light s(in
with high intelligence in the characters of 6eorge and li:a. 1e also blasted the boo( for
praising blac( submissiveness in the character of Uncle Tom. Other blac( readers agree.
9uring the #@%.s blac(s who put too much energy into maintaining good relations with
whites were dismissed by militants as DUncle Toms.F In your reading of the boo(, you*ll have
to decide whether that interpretation is accurate.
3y the late nineteenth century 0ncle To!/s Ca)in had gone out of print in the United States,
although it was still read widely in urope and 2ussia. It was not reissued in the United States
until #@C$. It is possible that, in the years after the !ivil 'ar, Americans were tired of the
moral passion of the crusade against slavery and that by the late #@C.s, with the renewal of
the struggle for blac( civil rights, they were ready to embrace those passions again. The boo(
gained new popularity during the height of the civil rights movement in the #@%.s. 2eaders
are still drawn to the vividness of the characters of Uncle Tom, Simon Eegree, little va, and
Topsy, and to the e,citement of the story. 0ncle To!/s Ca)in gives modern readers a
reasonably accurate loo( at life under slavery, and it also provides an absolutely compelling
demonstration of how Americans, and especially American women, felt about slavery.
2eading 0ncle To!/s Ca)in today will help you understand what drew women to reform
movements in the nineteenth century, and why Americans fought the !ivil 'ar.
0ncle To!/s Ca)in changed 1arriet 3eecher Stowe*s life. Although she had negotiated a
poor royalty arrangement, she earned W#.,..., enough money to live comfortably. She
traveled fre4uently to urope, where both she and her boo( were highly esteemed. <othing
else she wrote attained the popularity of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in. Although she completed a fine
novel about life in <ew ngland, The 'inister/s 2ooing 5#$&@8, the noted critic dmund
'ilson had a point when he wrote, DIf there is something to be said for the author*s claim that
0ncle To!/s Ca)in was written by 6od, it is evident that the nine novels which followed it
were produced without divine intervention by 1arriet 3eecher Stowe herself.F After her
husband*s death, Stowe returned to 1artford, !onnecticut, where her house today is open to
visitors. She died there in #$@%.
T"/ 8)(/6
T"/ 76)T
Gr. Shelby, a (indly Lentuc(y plantation owner, is forced by debt to sell two of his slaves to
an unsavory trader named 1aley. Uncle Tom, the religious and good"hearted manager of the
plantation, understands why he must be sold. 1e says good"bye to his wife, Aunt !hloe, and
their children, and leaves with 1aley for the slave mar(et in <ew Orleans. The other slave
mar(ed for sale is 1arry, a four"year"old. 1is mother, Grs. Shelby*s servant, li:a, overhears
the news and runs away with the little boy. She ma(es her way to the Ohio 2iver, the
boundary with the free state of Ohio. The early spring ice is brea(ing up, and she crosses the
river with her son in her arms by )umping from ca(e to ca(e.
In Ohio, li:a is sheltered by a series of (ind people. At a >ua(er settlement, she is reunited
with her husband, 6eorge 1arris. 6eorge*s master abused him even though 6eorge was
intelligent and hard"wor(ing, and he had decided to escape. The recent passage of the
Augitive Slave Eaw re4uired citi:ens of free states to help return runaway slaves to their
owners. 6eorge and li:a find friends who are willing to help runaway slaves in spite of the
new law. 3ut they would not be safe, even in the <orth. In fact, they are followed by Gar(s
and Eo(er, slave"catchers in partnership with the trader, 1aley. 'ith Gar(s and Eo(er in hot
pursuit, the >ua(ers drive 6eorge, li:a, and their son toward Sandus(y, so that they can
catch a ferry for !anada, where slavery is forbidden and American laws do not apply.
Geanwhile, Uncle Tom is headed down the river, deeper into slavery. On the boat, he ma(es
friends with vangeline St. !lare little va a beautiful and religious white child. After
Tom rescues little va from near"drowning, va*s father, Augustine St. !lare, buys him. St.
!lare is charming and intelligent, an indulgent master, and life in the household is carefree. Its
other white members include Garie St. !lare, Augustine*s selfish, whiny wife, and Ophelia,
his cousin from 7ermont. Ophelia has )ust moved to <ew Orleans, and she and Augustine
argue long and hard about slavery, he defending it, she opposing it.
Augustine buys Topsy for Ophelia to raise in order to test her theories about education. Topsy
is bright and energetic but has no sense of right and wrong. Ophelia is almost ready to give up
on her when little va shows her how to reach Topsy. Tom and va study the 3ible together
and share a belief in a loving 6od. 3ut va becomes ill and dies. 1er death, and her e,ample,
transform the lives of many of the people around her. ven her father becomes more religious.
Unfortunately he is accidentally (illed before he can fulfill his promise to va to free Tom,
and Tom is sold again.
This time Tom is not so luc(y. 1e is bought by Simon Eegree, who owns an isolated
plantation on the 2ed 2iver. Eegree is cruel and sadistic, and his plantation is a living hell for
his slaves. They are wor(ed so hard they have no time to thin( or feel, and Eegree sets them
against each other. Gissing are the family ties of the Shelby plantation in Lentuc(y or the
gaiety of the St. !lare household in <ew Orleans. Tom almost loses his faith in 6od, but
recovers it and continues his wor( among the other slaves. 1e becomes friends with !assy, a
good but despairing woman who has been Eegree*s mistress. !assy arranges for her and
mmeline, the girl Eegree has chosen as his ne,t mistress, to escape, and she urges Tom to
)oin them. 1e will not, but he allows himself to be savagely beaten by Eegree rather than
reveal what he (nows about the women*s whereabouts.
The Shelby*s son, 6eorge, arrives at Eegree*s plantation to rescue Tom, but it is too late. Tom
is dying. 6eorge confronts Eegree and (noc(s him down. 1e buries Tom, and swears on his
grave that he will do everything he can to end slavery. On his way bac( to Lentuc(y, 6eorge
Shelby meets Gadame de Thou,, who turns out to be 6eorge 1arris* sister. It is also
discovered that !assy, who is on the same boat, is li:a*s mother. 6eorge Shelby goes home
and frees his slaves, telling them they owe their freedom to Uncle Tom. Gadame de Thou,,
!assy, and mmeline continue on to Gontreal, where 6eorge 1arris and li:a are now living
with 1arry and their baby daughter. The reunited family moves to Arance, where 6eorge
attends the university, and then to Africa, where he believes he can do the most good for his
T"/ 2"3#32T/#S
Uncle Tom*s !abin has many characters. The following discussion groups them by the
geographical area they*re principally associated with in the novel.
=826/ T)+ Uncle Tom manages the Shelby plantation. Strong, intelligent, capable, good,
and (ind, he is the most heroic figure in the novel that bears his name. The list of Tom*s
virtues is endless. 1e is a good father to his own children, especially the baby, /olly, and also
nurtures the children of his masters, 6eorge Shelby and va St. !lare. Arom Stowe*s
description of his voice, Dtender as a woman*s,F and his Dgentle, domestic heart,F you might
almost suspect that he is a woman disguised as a muscular blac( man.
Tom*s most important characteristic, from Stowe*s point of view, is his !hristian faith. The
3ible which 6eorge Shelby has taught him to read is alive for him, and he ma(es it live
for the people around him. 1e preaches at the service in his native Lentuc(y. And he ma(es
the people he encounters, blac( and white /rue, Augustine St. !lare, !assy feel and
believe in the love of 0esus. Tom doesn*t )ust tal( about religion, he lives it. Through his
e,ample, and then by his death, he ma(es converts.
2eligion is very simple for Tom. It means loving all of 6od*s creatures and serving 6od by
helping them. Tom feels real compassion for others, as he demonstrates when St. !lare drin(s
too much. 1e is always willing to help" by )umping into the Gississippi to save va or by
putting cotton in Eucy*s bag. Tom also feels responsible for other people. 1e refuses to
escape from the Shelby plantation with li:a, because he (nows that his sale will ma(e it
possible for Gr. Shelby to (eep running it, and to save the other slaves. 1e will not escape
from Eegree*s plantation with !assy and mmeline because he feels that he has wor( among
the slaves there, and he dies rather than betray them to Eegree. 6od has given Tom an
e,traordinary ability. 1e can forgive the evil done to him, even by the beastly Eegree. 1is
self"sacrificing love for others has been called motherly. It has also been called truly
Gany readers feel that the character of Uncle Tom seems too good to be true. Aor blac(
readers especially, Uncle Tom has become a symbol of blac( accommodation and defeat.
9uring the civil rights movement of the #@%.s, blac(s who were seen as too cautious, too
unwilling to alienate whites, were called DUncle Toms.F The most famous attac( on the
character of Uncle Tom came from a blac( novelist and intellectual, 0ames 3aldwin. 'riting
in #@C@, 3aldwin deplored the fact that DTom,... MStowe*sN only blac( man, has been robbed
of his humanity and divested of his se,.F Gany modern readers agree with 3aldwin. Others
argue that you have to see Tom in Stowe*s terms, not our own. Aor her, Tom was a hero, and
his decision to suffer rather than to fight or flee was not the result of cowardice but his only
moral choice. Stowe believed" and fre4uently announced in the novel" that blac(s were
morally superior to whites, and that their acceptance of their oppression would earn them a
place in heaven.
The debate over the character of Uncle Tom resembles in some ways the evolution of the
American civil rights movement that began in the #@&.s. 9uring the movement*s early days,
civil rights leaders adopted a moral tone. 9emonstrators (nelt in prayer while they were
attac(ed by police with dogs or hoses. The idea was to demonstrate the (ind of moral
superiority and forgiveness that Uncle Tom showed Simon Eegree. As time passed, however,
some people in the civil rights movement found the religious stance demeaning. 3lac( people,
they said, had to fight bac( when they were attac(ed. They must meet violence with violence.
In the aftermath of the movement and as blac( people ma(e greater strides in American
society blac( power has come to mean much more than )ust spiritual nobility.
3=8T 2"6)/ Aunt !hloe, Uncle Tom*s wife, is fat, warm, and )olly. She is a good
house(eeper and a superb coo(, and )ustly proud of her s(ill. She loves Tom, and urges him to
escape to !anada rather than to go South with 1aley. After Tom is sold, she convinces the
Shelbys to hire her out to a ba(er in Eouisville and to use her wages to buy Tom*s freedom.
She is heartbro(en to learn of his death.
+)S/- 7/T/- 384 7)66@ Gose, /ete, and /olly, the children of Uncle Tom and Aunt
!hloe, are playful and rambunctious. /olly is Tom*s special favorite, and she loves to bury
her tiny hands in his hair.
/6I:3 "3##IS li:a 1arris is raised by her mistress, Grs. Shelby, to be pious and good.
9escribed as light"s(inned and pretty, li:a dearly loves her husband, 6eorge 1arris, and
their little boy, 1arry. 'hen she learns that 1arry is about to be sold, li:a carries him in her
arms to the Ohio 2iver, which she crosses on ca(es of ice. Although generally a modest and
retiring young woman, li:a becomes e,traordinarily brave because of her love for her son.
'hen her family has been reunited and is safely settled in !anada, li:a (eeps a good home
and gives birth to a daughter. At the novel*s end, she learns that !assy is her long"lost mother.
G/)#G/ "3##IS 6eorge 1arris, portrayed as a light"s(inned and intelligent slave,
belongs to a man named 1arris. 1e is married to li:a, who lives on the Shelby plantation,
and they have a son, 1arry. 'hen 1arris withdraws 6eorge from the factory where he has
been wor(ing and where he has invented a machine and urges him to move in with
another woman, 6eorge runs away. 1e eventually escapes to Gontreal, !anada, where he
wor(s in a machinist*s shop and tries to improve himself by reading. 'hen his long"lost sister
reappears and offers him money, 6eorge as(s for an education. After studying in Arance for
four years, he decides to move to Africa with his family, where he believes he can accomplish
the most for blac(s.
6eorge is in some respects the opposite of Uncle Tom. Although he respects his wife*s
religion, he himself is not a !hristian. 1e is not opposed to violence and vows that he will not
be ta(en alive by the slave"catchers. 6eorge believes that he is as strong and as intelligent as
white men, and therefore deserves the same rights. 1e claims that America is not his country
because the promises contained in its 9eclaration of Independence and !onstitution do not
apply to him.
3y the novel*s end, 6eorge calls himself a !hristian. 3y moving to Africa, he removes
himself from the slave"owners he could never forgive in the United States. Although he
agrees with Stowe*s position in the end, 6eorge never embraces the instinctive !hristianity of
Uncle Tom. =ou see less of 6eorge 1arris than of Uncle Tom, and he is a less significant
character in the novel. 3ut you may find him easier to understand and to respect than Uncle
"3##@ 384 6ITT6/ /6I:3 1arry and little li:a are the children of 6eorge and li:a
1arris. 1arry, born a slave on the Shelby /lantation, is bright and cute, and sings and dances
for Gr. Shelby and 1aley. 1e is so beautiful that he is disguised as a girl in order to escape
into !anada. Once there, he does very well in school. Eittle li:a is born free in !anada.
S3+ 384 384@ Sam and Andy, slaves on the Shelby plantation, provide comic relief
through their mispronunciations and deliberate mishaps. Andy, who li(es to ma(e speeches, is
meant to satiri:e politicians. 3ut Sam and Andy ma(e an important contribution to the novel*s
plot" their clowning allows li:a to escape across the Ohio 2iver.
+#. S"/6*@ Gr. Shelby, the owner of a Lentuc(y plantation, generally treats his slaves
well, but he decides to sell two of them, Uncle Tom and little 1arry, to pay off a debt.
Although he regrets the sale, Shelby feels he has no other choice. 1is wife disagrees. 9o you
thin( she*s rightK
+#S. S"/6*@ Grs. Shelby, a (ind, religious woman, tries to raise the family*s slaves with
!hristian values. She attempts to convince her husband not to sell Tom and 1arry, and she
helps li:a escape. 'arm"hearted Grs. Shelby treats her slaves li(e people, crying with Aunt
!hloe when Uncle Tom leaves and consoling her when they learn he is dead.
G/)#G/ S"/6*@ 6eorge Shelby, the son of Gr. and Grs. Shelby, is thirteen years old
when the novel begins, and eighteen when it ends. 1e li(es to spend time with Uncle Tom and
Aunt !hloe, bas(ing in their (indness and attention. 1e teaches Uncle Tom to read and write,
and reads the 3ible at the slaves* religious meeting. On Uncle Tom*s grave, he swears to do
whatever he can to fight against slavery, and he begins by freeing the slaves on his own
6eorge is one of the few characters who changes during the course of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in, as
he develops from a good"hearted but somewhat self"centered boy into a noble and effective
man. Stowe probably wished other slave"owners would follow 6eorge*s e,ample.
"36/@- T)+ 6)>/#- 384 +3#>S 1aley, Tom Eo(er, and Gar(s are among the worst
villains in the novel slave"traders. 3ut Stowe 5and a number of characters in the boo(8
points out that slave"traders couldn*t stay in business if nice people didn*t buy slaves. 1aley
sets the plot of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in in motion by insisting that Gr. Shelby sell him Tom and
little 1arry. 1aley curses, smo(es, drin(s, and dresses badly. 1e claims to be humane because
he is not completely cruel to the slaves he buys. 3ut you can see that he*s a nasty person. 1e
doesn*t believe slaves have feelings, so he doesn*t thin( twice about separating a mother and
child li(e li:a and little 1arry, or about the woman who )umps off the steamboat on the
Ohio 2iver after he sells her baby. 1aley can*t understand why these things (eep happening
to him. Tom Eo(er and Gar(s are crude fellows, who ma(e their living catching escaped
slaves. =ou often see them in taverns. Tom Eo(er is shot by 6eorge 1arris, but the 1arrises
and the >ua(ers forgive him, and he is nursed bac( to health in the >ua(er settlement. 1e
gives the >ua(ers the information that helps 6eorge and li:a disguise themselves so they
can elude Gar(s at the Sandus(y ferry.
+#. 384 +#S. *I#4 Gr. and Grs. 3ird live in Ohio with their three children. Tiny Grs.
3ird is a wonderful house(eeper and mother. Gr. 3ird, a senator, has )ust voted for the
Augitive Slave Eaw. Grs. 3ird tries to convince him that he is wrong, and that one must allow
the heart to guide the head. The appearance of li:a on their doorstep ma(es him reali:e that
he isn*t capable of turning in a fugitive. One of the 3irds* children has recently died, and their
loss ma(es them more sympathetic to li:a.
#32"/6 "366I43@- SI+/)8 "366I43@- #=T" ST/4+38- 4)#23S- 384
7"I8/3S B6/T2"/# These >ua(ers practice their religious beliefs in their daily lives.
They ris( fines by helping escaped slaves. 2achel 1alliday and 2uth Stedman are motherly
and sympatheticH Simeon and /hineas are 4uietly brave. They ta(e good care of 6eorge and
li:a and ma(e it possible for them to escape to !anada. 9orcas nurses Tom Eo(er bac( to
health after 6eorge 1arris shoots him. She doesn*t 4uite convert him to her beliefs, but she
does get him to give up slave"catching.
8/, )#6/38S
3=G=STI8/ ST. 263#/ Augustine St. !lare, Tom*s second master, is handsome,
worldly, and charming. 1e indulges his slaves in his elegant <ew Orleans house and debates
the issue of slavery with his cousin from 7ermont. Gost of all, St. !lare hates hypocrisy.
3elieving that slavery is wrong, he left the plantation he inherited with his twin brother
because he didn*t really want to be a slavemaster. St. !lare thin(s blac( people will
eventually gain their freedom, but he isn*t sure how it will come about. In the meantime, he
rails with e4ual fervor against Southern ministers who claim slavery is supported by the 3ible,
and <ortherners who critici:e slavery but won*t let blac( children into their schools.
Although he is not religious, Augustine has good 4ualities. As she did with Tom, Stowe calls
Augustine womanishH his elegance and love of finery ma(e him seem effeminate. Augustine
loves his little daughter, va, and is devastated by her death. 1e is moved by Tom*s religious
belief, and seems to respond to it when he is (illed. Augustine treasures the memory of his
saintly mother, who is clearly the source of his compassion, and he cries out her name when
he dies. =et for all St. !lare*s decency and charm, he has not provided for his slaves in his
will, and they are sold when he dies. Augustine St. !lare seems in some ways to be 1arriet
3eecher Stowe*s favorite character, and many readers are fond of him as well. 1ave you ever
(nown anyone li(e him charming and cynical on the surface, yet good underneathK 9oes he
seem realistic to youK 6iven his beliefs, why do you thin( St. !lare doesn*t free his slavesK
/(38G/6I8/ ST. 263#/ vangeline St. !lare is a beautiful child, spiritually as well as
physically. She is filled with goodness and love. 1er (indness to those around her, especially
the slaves, brightens their lives, and leads some of them to embrace the !hristianity she so
instinctively radiates. va is responsible for St. !lare*s purchase of Uncle Tom, and Tom
becomes her special friend. The two spend hours poring over the 3ible and discussing
religion. The blac( slave and the little blonde girl are (indred spirits. 3ut va whose name
suggests the vangelist becomes ill and dies. On her deathbed, she distributes loc(s of her
hair and loving wishes to everyone around her. Is little va a real childK 9o you thin( she
ever got angry or fell down and tore her dressK Aew of Stowe*s ma)or characters have much
interior life, but to many readers little va seems to be the least realistic of all, a symbol with
blonde curls rather than an actual person.
+3#I/ ST. 263#/ Garie St. !lare is a beautiful but spoiled woman who ignores
everyone*s feelings but her own and ta(es advantage of her servants. A hypochondriac,
constantly claiming to have headaches, she cannot understand either her husband or their
daughter. She doesn*t pay much attention to either of them, e,cept to complain. 3ecause
Garie can*t act for anyone but herself, she fails to prevent Uncle Tom*s sale to Simon Eegree.
)7"/6I3 Ophelia St. !lare comes from 7ermont to manage her cousin Augustine*s <ew
Orleans household. 1er thrifty <ew ngland ways contrast with the easy"going St. !lare
style. One of Ophelia*s functions in the novel is to contrast the <orth and the South. An
abolitionist, Ophelia finds slavery Dperfectly horrible,F and she rails against it in her running
debate with Augustine. Although she hates slavery, she doesn*t li(e slaves very much either.
Augustine is 4uic( to point this out, and she agrees. 1er e,perience with Topsy nearly causes
her to give up on the young slave. 3ut little va*s e,ample shows Ophelia how to love Topsy,
and her love produces the positive results that scolding Topsy never could have achieved.
Aorceful, efficient, and good, Ophelia ta(es Topsy bac( to 7ermont after St. !lare*s death.
1er letter to Grs. Shelby results eventually in 6eorge Shelby*s attempt to rescue Uncle Tom.
36B#/4 384 "/8#IC=/ ST. 263#/ Alfred St. !lare, Augustine*s dar(, forceful twin
brother, is a stern but decent slaveowner. The contrast between the twins contrasts their two
approaches to slavery. Similarly, dar(, handsome, proud, and angry 1enri4ue, Alfred*s son,
contrasts with his blonde, loving cousin va. 1enri4ue is cruel to his slave, 9odo, but va
reaches him with her love.
T)7S@ Ignorant but energetic, Topsy is brought by Augustine into the St. !lare household to
see whether the high"principled Ophelia is actually capable of managing a slave. Topsy, who
can*t tell the difference between right and wrong, tries Ophelia*s patience. 2aised without
parents 5or belief in 6od DI spect I grow*d,F Topsy says8, she finds it hard to form ties with
other people. She senses that Ophelia cannot accept her because she is blac(. Eittle va*s love
for Topsy begins to change the girl*s heart, and it eventually softens Ophelia as well. Ophelia
secures Topsy*s freedom, and after St. !lare*s death they move to 7ermont, where Topsy
)oins the church and eventually becomes a missionary. 'hy do you thin( so many readers of
0ncle To!/s Ca)in cite Topsy as their favorite characterK
34)67"/- #)S3- 038/- 4I83"- 384 +3++@ The well"treated slaves in the St.
!lare household seem to be divided into two groups. Some, such as Adolphe, 2osa, and 0ane,
are light"s(inned servants who borrow the St. !lare family*s airs as well as much of its
wardrobe. Others, such as 9inah the coo(, and Gammy, are dar("s(inned, hardwor(ing, and
7#=/ A worn"out, hard"drin(ing woman, /rue is beaten to death by her owners. Tom
discovers the cause of her misery li(e so many other slave women, she has lost her children
to the slave"trader.
#/4 #I(/#
SI+)8 6/G#// Simon Eegree is the owner of a plantation on the 2ed 2iver in Eouisiana.
Sadistic and cruel, he brea(s his slaves in body and soul and wor(s them to death. Eegree has
no real human ties. 1e has se,ual relations with slave women whom he buys for that purpose,
and his main companions are the barbaric Sambo and >uimbo. Eegree is interested in
growing as much cotton as he can, as his bet with several other plantation owners indicates,
but he also seems to en)oy abusing his slaves, particularly Uncle Tom. Simon Eegree comes
from <ew ngland, where he was raised by a loving and 6od"fearing mother. At one time,
the forces of good and evil struggled in his soul, but evil has long since won out. Stowe uses
Eegree*s memories of his mother to e,plain why he is so superstitious a wea(ness on which
the plot depends. <ot only does Eegree drin( and swear" important sins in Stowe*s eyes he
displays a deeper evil as well. 1er descriptions of the creepy, rotting plantation and the
hanging moss, the wild carousing of Eegree and his lieutenants, suggest that Eegree may be
the devil himself. Eegree reinforces this suspicion when he urges Tom to D)oin my church.F
23SS@ !assy, the daughter of a wealthy white man and a slave woman, is sheltered and
convent"educated. The death of her father results in her sale to a man who becomes her lover,
and whom she adores. 3ut after some years, he sells her and her children to pay a gambling
debt. !assy is driven half"mad by the loss of her son and daughter, and searches in vain for
them. She is owned by a series of masters. 3y one of them she has a son, whom she (ills with
an overdose of opium rather than face the pain of losing another child to slavery. 'hen you
meet !assy at Eegree*s plantation, she has been his mistress for several years. The two fight
constantly, and he has )ust sent her bac( to wor( in the fields, where her wor( is better than
anyone else*s. The superstitious Eegree fears her, calling her a Dshe"devil.F !assy*s emotional
instability strengthens this impression, but !assy also understands Eegree well, and she
manipulates him to achieve her ends. ventually she uses her hold over Eegree to enable
herself and mmeline to escape. !assy is good"hearted, as you see from her (indness to
mmeline and to Tom 5whom she cares for after he is whipped8. 3ut the loss of her children
and her e,perience as the mistress of men she doesn*t love have hardened her. !assy
continually tells mmeline to submit to Eegree because there is no hope, and she tells Tom
that his faith is in vain" 6od is nowhere on the Eegree plantation. =et, because of Tom*s
!hrist"li(e influence, she learns to hope again. At Tom*s deathbed, she cries for the first time
in years and embraces religion. She escapes and eventually is reunited with her daughter" who
turns out to be li:a 1arris" and her son.
S=S38- /++/6I8/- 384 6=2@ Susan, mmeline, and Eucy are sold in the <ew
Orleans slave mar(et with Uncle Tom and the rest of the St. !lare family slaves. Susan and
mmeline, a religious mother and daughter, are heartbro(en when they are separated and
sold. Eegree buys mmeline to be his mistress, but she resists him. 1er innocent sense of
right and wrong contrasts with !assy*s worldly wisdom. Aor e,ample, mmeline thin(s it*s
wrong for !assy to steal money from Eegree*s )ac(et poc(et, but this money pays their
steamboat fare <orth. mmeline marries a crew member on the ship that carries the 1arris
family, Gadame de Thou,, and !assy to Arance. Eucy is purchased by Eegree as a mistress
for his second"in"command, Sambo, although she had a husband and children in <ew
Orleans. Eucy finds it difficult to wor( in the fields, and Tom helps her by secretly putting
cotton into her bag so that she will be able to turn in the re4uired amount of cotton each day.
S3+*) 384 C=I+*) Sambo and >uimbo are Simon Eegree*s blac( lieutenants. 3rutal
and ignorant, they lord it over the other slaves. Eegree manipulates them so that they fight
with each other too. 3oth Sambo and >uimbo whip and otherwise abuse Tom, but they are
converted by him in the end.
+343+/ 4/ T")=A A DArench ladyF whom !assy and 6eorge Shelby meet on their trip
up the Gississippi 2iver, Gadame de Thou, turns out to be 6eorge 1arris* long"lost sister,
mily. Sold as a girl at the <ew Orleans slave mar(et, she was bought by a man who freed
her, married her, and brought her to the 'est Indies. <ow a wealthy widow, she travels with
her daughter in search of her brother. 'ith 6eorge Shelby*s help, she trac(s him down in
Gontreal and offers to share her fortune with him. Gadame de Thou, accompanies the
1arrises first to Arance and then to Africa.
Gost of the action in 0ncle To!/s Ca)in occurs at three locations+ the Shelby plantation in
Lentuc(y 5both the Dbig houseF and Uncle Tom*s cabin8, the St. !lare house in <ew Orleans,
and Simon Eegree*s plantation on the 2ed 2iver in Eouisiana. The slave system operated
differently in each place, and the three locales together will give you an idea of the variety of
slavery in the United States. There are also a number of less important settings the 3ird
home in Ohio, the >ua(er settlement, a Gississippi 2iver steamboat, the St. !lare summer
house on Ea(e /ontchartrain, and 6eorge and li:a*s Gontreal apartment. Gost of these
places are described realistically, with the e,ception of Eegree*s plantation, which sounds li(e
the outs(irts of hell. In general, Stowe is not especially interested in physical description,
although she pays more attention to characters* appearance than to setting. She is more
concerned with interiors than with e,teriors, and she devotes more attention to a table laid for
tea than to a forest. Indeed, most of the action of the novel ta(es place indoors.
The following are themes of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in-
1. T"/ /(I6 )B S63(/#@ Stowe*s aim in writing 0ncle To!/s Ca)in was to
convince Americans that slavery was evil, and she hammers her point home on almost
every page. Stowe shows not only the horrors that slaves endure the separation of
husbands and wives and mothers and children, overwor(, physical punishment but
also the effect of slavery on the characters of the masters, li(e Alfred St. !lare and his
son, 1enri4ue. The worst thing about slavery, as Stowe points out, is that it destroys
the family. Slave mothers who have lost their children appear in almost every chapter.
In addition, slavery destroys the soul. Several characters /rue, !assy, and to some
e,tent, 6eorge 1arris have been so embittered by their e,perience that they no
longer believe in 6od. ven Tom has to struggle to maintain his faith. Although she
indicts slavery as evil, Stowe also has harsh words for the <ortherners who are
unwilling to accept blac( people. She cannot decide how slavery should be abolished,
e,cept by the actions of individual slave"owners li(e 6eorge Shelby. 3ut she fears that
if slavery continues, America will be severely punished by 6od.
5. +)T"/#"))4 384 B/+36/ (36=/S Gany of the characters in 0ncle
To!/s Ca)in are mothers, and most of the blac( mothers have been separated from
their children. Stowe appeals to the mothers among her readers to have sympathy for
slave women. Gotherhood, she both implies and states e,plicitly, teaches women to
care about others as well as their own families. The beliefs and 4ualities that Stowe
values most (indness, generosity, gentleness were associated with women in the
nineteenth century. 5They were also all identified with !hristianity.8 Stowe portrays
women as being morally superior to men. 'omen li(e Grs. Shelby and Grs. 3ird try
to convince their husbands of what is right. 5They must persuade gently, however, and
never fight against their husbands.8 The male heroes of the novel Uncle Tom and
Augustine St. !lare are both e,plicitly described as womanly, and 6eorge Shelby is
portrayed as being close to his mother. If 1arriet 3eecher Stowe ran the world, men
would be much more li(e women. Although Stowe places female values at the center
of her novel, how much power do the women characters in Uncle Tom*s !abin really
haveK 'omen in the novel certainly help each other reliably, but some readers have
pointed out that Grs. 3ird and Grs. Shelby aren*t able to convince their husbands to
do what is right. The only woman who really has power over a man, they point out, is
!assy, and she holds it because Eegree fears she is half"cra:y. 5'hen !assy is
reunited with her daughter" when she becomes a whole woman again" her mental state
improves.8 One reader has pointed out that li:a cannot even enter !anada, the land of
freedom, as a woman. She must cut her hair and disguise herself as a man to ta(e
active steps toward gaining her freedom.
9. T"/ 83T=#/ )B 2"#ISTI38IT@ D'hat a thing it is to be a !hristianPF Uncle
Tom e,claims as he dies. Tom*s religious faith is his outstanding characteristic. Stowe
demonstrates the effect Tom*s beliefs have both on his life and on those of the people
around him. As practiced by Tom and little va, !hristianity means love and
forgiveness for all people. Tom adds self"sacrifice to this formula. 1e is willing to be
sold and eventually to die for the good of others. Stowe distinguishes !hristianity both
from the nonreligious attitudes of characters li(e 6eorge 1arris and !assy, who are
bitter and potentially violent, and from the false !hristianity of ministers who follow
popular fashions, li(e D9r. 3.F whose church Garie St. !lare attends. The !hristian
values of love and self"sacrifice resemble closely the feelings of mothers. Some
readers feel that 1arriet 3eecher Stowe e4uates being a good mother with being a
good !hristian.
'. T"/ I+7)#T382/ )B ")+/ =ou can see Stowe*s interest in homes in her
descriptions of domestic interiors. Aor Stowe, home was the most important place on
earth, the place where people learn to love each other and to love 6od. In 0ncle
To!/s Ca)in, Stowe contrasts good homes" the Shelby plantation, the 3irds*, the
1allidays*, the 1arris* Gontreal apartment" with bad homes li(e the St. !lares* 5where
the (itchen is in chaos and money is wasted8, and Eegree*s crumbling plantation. Aor
most of the novel, after they leave Lentuc(y, neither Tom nor 6eorge and li:a have a
real home. This is one of the evils of slaveryblac( people are never at home because
they always dread being sold. In another sense, home means heaven in 0ncle To!/s
Ca)in. The dying St. !lare tells his doctor that his mind is coming home, at last, and
the dying Tom lets 6eorge Shelby (now that the Eord is ta(ing him home, to a better
place than Lentuc(y. Although blac(s may be homeless on earth, heaven is their
eternal home, )ust as it is for whites. 5Stowe suggests they have a greater claim to
heaven than whites.8
5. T"/ I84I(I4=36 384 S)2I/T@ 'hat responsibility do individuals have to the
people around themK 1ow can you live morally if your society is corruptK Aor Stowe,
slavery was an evil that poisoned personal relationships. ven in its mildest form, on
the Shelby plantation or in the St. !lare home, slavery substituted money for love as
the foundation of human relations. 3ecause of slavery, good men li(e Gr. Shelby and
Augustine St. !lare became responsible for the destruction of families and the se,ual
e,ploitation of young women. In its harsher forms, as on the Eegree plantation,
slavery was murderous and soul"destroying, a compact with the devil.
The characters in 0ncle To!/s Ca)in respond differently to the troublesome
4uestion of individual morality in a corrupt society. The purest characters, Uncle Tom
and little va, transcend their society, applying a !hristian morality of love and
forgiveness to the people around them and turning the other chee( to evil.
3oth Tom and little va feel responsibility for the community of slaves. va simply
treats slaves with affection and (indness, although in her society this isn*t simple to
do. Tom has a more serious responsibility. In allowing himself to be sold by Shelby
rather than escaping, in refusing to )oin !assy and mmeline in their escape from
Eegree*s plantation, and in concealing the women*s whereabouts, Tom sacrifices his
comfort and finally his life for the good of others.
Unli(e Tom, va, and the >ua(ers, whose social conduct stems from their religious
beliefs, another set of characters draw their morality from their emotions, treating the
world as their family. Grs. Shelby and Grs. 3ird e,tend their motherly goodness from
their children to their communities. Grs. Shelby treats her family*s slaves (indly, and
Grs. 3ird responds warmly to fugitive slaves. Ophelia, perhaps because she is not a
mother, acts responsibly, but not warmly.
Augustine St. !lare also attempts to care for the people around him. 3ut he is not a
good father, either to va or to his slave family. 1e is loving, but too indulgent.
Thus, his slaves put on airs that will cause them trouble after his death. In addition,
they are sold because he is not responsible enough to provide for them in his will.
!an one man or woman change societyK Stowe doesn*t thin( so. She urges her
readers to behave morally" to help fugitive slaves, for e,ample. At the end of the boo(,
she tells them to always act so that they feel right. 3ut she doesn*t seem to have any
idea of how to eliminate slavery, e,cept through the actions of individuals li(e 6eorge
<either does Stowe seem interested in social movements or religious institutions.
She doesn*t thin( highly of abolitionists+ the character of Ophelia and Augustine*s
story about his father*s brother show that abolitionists don*t li(e blac( people or treat
them well in the <orth. She doesn*t approve of the church, since her characters,
especially Augustine, critici:e it fre4uently for condoning slavery. It seems to Stowe
that people can*t act responsibly in groups. Individual morality 5family feeling8 and
individual saintliness 5sacrifice8 are the only ways to live responsibly in society.
Gany readers thin( 1arriet 3eecher Stowe*s writing style is the greatest wea(ness of 0ncle
To!/s Ca)in. =ou may sometimes find the long sentences a little hard to ta(e. Aor e,ample+
Grs. 3ird, loo(ing the very picture of delight, was superintending the arrangements of
the table, ever and anon mingling admonitory remar(s to a number of frolicsome
)uveniles, who were effervescing in all those modes of untold gambol and mischief
that have astonished mothers since the flood.
2eaders also ob)ect to the stilted language+
An eternal, ine,orable lapse of moments is ever hurrying the day of the evil to an
eternal night, and the night of the )ust to an eternal day. 'e have wal(ed with our
humble friend thus far in the valley of slaveryH first through flowery fields of ease and
indulgence, then through heart"brea(ing separations from all that man holds dear.
Again, we have waited with him in a sunny island, where generous hands concealed
his chains with flowers....
Others are upset by fre4uent 4uotations from sentimental poetry+
It is a beautiful belief, T That ever round our head T Are hovering, on angel wings, T
The spirits of the dead.
Still others are bothered by Stowe*s sentimentality+
Ah, EegreeP that golden tress was charmedH each hair had in it a spell of terror and
remorse for thee, and was used by a mightier power to bind thy cruel hands from
inflicting uttermost evil on the helplessP
Ainally, fre4uent invocations of DGotherP GotherPF as characters are wounded or die, stri(e
many readers as artificial.
Stowe*s characters are always tal(ing. Sometimes they give you information, as when 6eorge
1arris tells li:a that their marriage is not legally binding, which she must surely (now. On
other occasions, they argue the issue of slavery. <ot only Augustine St. !lare and Ophelia do
this, but also the steamboat passengers.
Stowe ma(es some effort to distinguish the speech of her characters. The slaves spea( in
dialect e,cept for mulattoes li(e li:a and 6eorge 1arris and characters li(e Tom Eo(er
and Gar(s tal( in a rough river slang. The >ua(ers use slightly old"fashioned language, with
many Dthee*sF and Dthou*sFH while most of the speech of the white characters is formal and
Aew readers would claim that 0ncle To!/s Ca)in is beautifully written. The author*s son,
!harles Stowe, called the novel Dan outburst of deep feelingF and e,plained that Dthe writer
no more thought of style or literary e,cellence than the mother who rushes into the street and
cries for help to save her children from a burning house....F =et the novel has enormous
power. 0ncle To!/s Ca)in may be a tear)er(er, but it succeeds. Gany readers find their eyes
filling up as li:a climbs up the Ohio riverban(, or 6eorge Shelby pledges to do Dwhat one
man canF to fight slavery. Stowe wanted to convince people that slavery was wrong, to
engage their emotions. 1er overheated style accomplishes that, perhaps better than more
controlled writing would have been able to. It is hard not to respond when Stowe as(s you, If
it were your 1arry, mother, or your 'illie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal
trader, tomorrow morning... how fast could you wal(K 1ow many miles could you ma(e in
those few brief hours... the little sleepy head on your shoulder, the small soft arms trustingly
holding on to your nec(K 2eaders argue over the style of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in is it simply
awful, or is it crude but effectiveK 9oes Stowe write more feelingly about some sub)ects, or
some characters, than about othersK
7)I8T )B (I/,
The story of Uncle Tom is presented by an omniscient narrator who tells you everything the
characters say and do" and what she thin(s about it. Stowe*s opinions are clear from her
chapter titles as well as from her descriptions of the characters* wardrobes, taste in interior
decoration, and degree of neatness. If these broad hints are not enough, Stowe addresses you,
in aside after aside, telling you what you should thin( and feel about what you are reading.
There is no 4uestion as there is in some novels that the voice of the narrator belongs to the
author. In the last chapter, she reveals that she has based several characters on anecdotes she
heard from her brother and her husband.
0ncle To!/s Ca)in contains a few autobiographical incidents. Ei(e the 3irds, for e,ample,
the Stowes had blac( servants, helped fugitives, and lost a child. <one of the characters,
however, represents 1arriet 3eecher Stowe. Augustine St. !lare probably comes closer to
e,pressing Stowe*s ideas about slavery than any other character, but the novel is not told from
his point of view.
B)#+ 384 ST#=2T=#/
0ncle To!/s Ca)in consists of forty"five chapters of varying lengths. ach recounts an
incident or discussion. The flow of the narrative is somewhat choppy and repetitious,
probably because each chapter originally appeared as a wee(ly installment in the <ational ra
The structure of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in is relatively simple for a novel that contains so many
characters. The boo( begins and ends with an escape li:a*s at the opening, !assy and
mmeline*s at the close. The novel is structured around two )ourneys, one 56eorge and
li:a*s8 north toward freedom, the other 5Tom*s8 south toward more oppressive slavery and
death. 9escriptions of the two )ourneys alternate, although characters are followed for several
chapters. Ginor characters and subplots echo the ma)or themes of maternal loss, the
importance of home, and the evil of slavery.
In addition, suspenseful or serious episodes li(e li:a*s flight or the lengthy debates
between Ophelia and Augustine about slavery are interrupted by comic interludes li(e Sam
and Andy*s escapades or Topsy*s description of how she D)est growed.F Only in the final,
grim, third of the boo( does the comic element disappear. These alternating patterns were
typical in the fiction of Stowe*s time.
The novel is also structured around physical locations. It consists of three main sections"
Lentuc(y, <ew Orleans, and the 2ed 2iver, the sites of the plantations of Tom*s three
owners. The first section 5Lentuc(y8 depicts the happy domestic life of slaves under a (ind
master, li:a and 6eorge*s flight, and the courageous Ohioans who help them on their way.
The second section 5<ew Orleans8 introduces Augustine St. !lare and little va, and you get
to (now Uncle Tom in a way you haven*t before. This section contains most of the
intellectual content of the boo(" the discussions of religion 5Uncle Tom and va8 and of
slavery 5Augustine and Ophelia8. The third section 5the 2ed 2iver8, much dar(er in tone,
shows the worst aspects of slavery. Uncle Tom is sorely tried, but he eventually triumphs.
ach section of the novel contains a clima,. In the first section, it is li:a*s escape. In the
second, it is the deaths of va and Augustine. The clima, of the third section is Uncle Tom*s
death. If Stowe had been writing a play, she might have brought down the curtain after
chapter C#, where Uncle Tom dies and 6eorge Shelby (noc(s Eegree to the ground and then
vows to devote his life to fighting slavery. Instead, Stowe spends the ne,t four chapters
resolving her subplots and lecturing about the novel*s authenticity. The boo( ends on a
dramatic note, however, as Stowe imagines what will happen to this country if slavery is not
T"/ ST)#@
2"37T/# 1.
I8 ,"I2" T"/ #/34/# IS I8T#)4=2/4 T) 3 +38 )B "=+38IT@
In the opening scene of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in, Gr. Shelby and 1aley, a slave"trader, discuss
which of Gr. Shelby*s slaves 1aley will buy. 3ecause 1aley holds notes Gr. Shelby has
signed, Gr. Shelby is in 1aley*s debt. Gr. Shelby wants to pay off his obligations by selling a
pious slave named Tom, who manages his farm. 1aley ac(nowledges that religion can be Da
valeyable thing in a nigger,F meaning that it raises a slave*s price, but he insists he wants
another slave as well as Tom. 0ust then a beautiful, light"s(inned, four"year old slave boy
bursts into the room. At Shelby*s re4uest, he sings and dances for the men.
Gr. Shelby calls him Dsteady, honest, capable.F Tom is a !hristian, he tells 1aley, who got
religion at a camp meeting" an open"air revival. Since then, he has trusted Tom with large
sums of money. Once he sent Tom on business to !incinnati, across the Ohio 2iver in the free
state of Ohio. Tom could have used Shelby*s money to continue north to !anada" part of the
3ritish mpire, where slavery was abolished in #$??. 3ut Tom, proud of his master*s trust,
This is your first introduction to Uncle Tom.
returned home. 2emember this episode when you read the last chapter of the novel, where
Tom has a chance to escape from Simon Eegree*s plantation. 1aley as(s for the boy in
addition to Tom to complete the deal.
Although Gr. Shelby seems to be a better man than 1aley 5at least, Stowe tells you, Dhe had
the appearances of a gentlemanF which may mean that he really isn*t one either8, you can
see that he has many failings. Aor one thing, he speculated himself into debt. Aor another, he
is willing to sell a trusted slave li(e Tom to 1aley, despite his poor opinion of the slave"
trader. /eople li(e 1aley couldn*t continue in business unless gentlemen li(e Gr. Shelby sold
them slaves.
And although Gr. Shelby*s values are not 4uite the same as 1aley*s Gr. Shelby, you*ll see,
believes that blac(s have feelings he does treat little 1arry li(e a pet, calling him D0im
!rowF and encouraging him to do tric(s. In addition, Gr. Shelby seems to measure Tom*s
piety in dollars, )ust as 1aley does it*s Shelby who first suggests that Tom is more valuable
because he*s a !hristian.
li:a, one of the house servants, comes loo(ing for little 1arry, who is her son. 1aving
overheard part of the conversation between Gr. Shelby and 1aley, she tearfully begs Grs.
Shelby not to sell the child. Grs. Shelby, a (ind"hearted and religious woman who (nows
nothing of her husband*s business, assures li:a that the boy will never be sold.
+#. S"/6*@ 384 T"/ S63(/&T#34/# Stowe lets you (now from the start that 1aley, the slave"
trader, is a villain. 1e can*t be called a gentleman, she announces in the second paragraph, and she doesn*t give
him the title of DGr.F 1e has coarse features, dresses gaudily, wears too many rings, and spea(s
ungrammatically. =et the worst thing about him is what Stowe shows you rather than tells you he puts a cash
value on the most important human 4ualities. Although he boasts of his humanity the source of the chapter*s
title he only means that it*s more profitable not to be totally cruel.
T"/ /(I6S )B S63(/#@ In her first chapter, Stowe points to some of the worst aspects of slavery. She
ac(nowledges that slaves in Lentuc(y were not so badly off this balanced view angered the abolitionists.
Lentuc(y farmers planted a variety of crops rather than )ust cotton, resulting in easier wor( in the fields. And
Lentuc(y masters tended to be (inder to their slaves 5Gr. Shelby says he spoils his8 than were masters further
south. <evertheless, it is clear that slaves are never safe, even in Lentuc(y. Aor slaves there and in the rest of the
upper South 5including 7irginia and Garyland8 being sold down the river south along the Gississippi was a
constant fear. ven good masters li(e Gr. Shelby could fall into debt and have to sell their slaves to a trader. All
that protected slaves was chance and the character of their owners. This chapter also reveals some of the dreadful
things that can happen to slaves. Eittle children li(e 1arry can be sold away from their mothers. 1aley e,plains
to Gr. Shelby that slave mothers sometimes fuss when their children are ta(en from them, but that they can
easily be distracted. 1e doesn*t believe blac( mothers have the same feelings for their babies as their white
counterparts. In addition, 1aley*s response to li:a suggests another evil of slavery. 1e loo(s her up and down
so openly that she blushes. Eight"s(inned women li(e li:a, who were considered pretty by white men, were
fre4uently sold for large sums of money to white men who used them se,ually. Eittle 1arry, 1aley e,plains,
would go to a dealer who raised young, handsome, light"s(inned blac( boys to be waiters and butlers. The young
male slaves, li(e the young women, were seen as a commodity" li(e pedigreed dogs" rather than as people.
<otice that Grs. Shelby is more high"minded and religious than her husband. Shelby is an average man, not
2"37T/# 5.
T"/ +)T"/#
Grs. Shelby had made sure that li:a had not been se,ually e,ploited, as so many pretty slave
girls were. li:a had married 6eorge 1arris, an intelligent and light"s(inned man from a
neighboring plantation.
6eorge 1arris was Dhired outF by his owner to a nearby factory. Under the hiring"out system
more common in Southern cities than in the countryside a slave wor(ed, usually as a
s(illed craftsperson, for the owner of a business. 1is or her wages belonged to his master.
Thus, in some cities, slaves wor(ed as carpenters or unloaded boats. Eater in 0ncle To!/s
Ca)in, Tom*s wife, Aunt !hloe, ta(es a )ob with a ba(er in Eouisville. 3y hiring out slaves, a
master could sometimes ma(e more money from an especially capable slave than he could by
(eeping him or her in the fields. 6eorge wor(ed hard and the factory owner thought highly of
him. 6eorge even invented a machine that made the wor( go more 4uic(ly. On a visit to the
factory, 6eorge*s owner was furious to see 6eorge so successful and proud it made him
conscious, Stowe says, of his own inferiority. 1e decided to return 6eorge to the fields.
2"37T/# 9.
especially pious, who leaves 4uestions of morality to his wife. 1e also leaves her most of the responsibility for
ta(ing care of the slaves. 1ow much power does Grs. Shelby really have, and how will she use itK =ou*ll find
out in the ne,t few chapters. As the novel unfolds, you*ll also discover whether the relationship between the
Shelbys is typical of a Southern slave"owner and his wife.
#32I36 ST/#/)T@7/S Some blac( readers have critici:ed Stowe for ma(ing two of her main characters,
li:a and 6eorge, light"s(inned. 9oing so, they say, reveals a racist preference for blac(s who have some white
parentage. Stowe remar(s that light"s(inned women li(e li:a are often especially pretty and refined. This is one
stereotype that white people have often held about blac(s. As you read 0ncle To!/s Ca)in, watch for others.
The lightness of li:a*s and 6eorge*s s(in eventually contributes to the plot. 3ecause they are light enough to
pass for white, it is easier for them to escape. 9o you thin( that*s the only reason Stowe described them that
T"/ #/36IS+ )B UNCLE TOMS CABIN Stowe ta(es pains in this chapter, and throughout the novel, to
assure you that her story is true. Eiving for years in !incinnati, )ust across the Ohio 2iver from Lentuc(y, Stowe
met many former slaves. She also read former slaves* descriptions of their e,periences. She tells you that she
based li:a on a young woman she had met in Lentuc(y. In a footnote she adds that a Lentuc(y slave really did
invent a machine li(e the one she credits to 6eorge 1arris. The last chapter of 0ncle To!/s Ca)in is filled with
such assurances. Some Southerners claimed that 0ncle To!/s Ca)in presented an inaccurate picture of slavery.
In response, Stowe published The >e+ to 0ncle To!/s Ca)in 5#$&?8 a collection of stories and documents to
prove the novel*s accuracy. This is Stowe*s first indication that a character is based on a real person or that a
practice really is common, but it certainly won*t be her last.
T"/ "=S*384 384 B3T"/#
6eorge 1arris visits his wife, li:a, to tell her that he has decided to attempt to escape to
!anada, where he will wor( to buy li:a*s and little 1arry*s freedom from the Shelbys.
6eorge*s description of how his master torments him shows you more about the evils of
slavery. <ot only has the master ta(en 6eorge out of the factory, but he piles on so much
wor( that 6eorge has no time to himself, even at night. The master also drowned the dog
li:a gave 6eorge for a present.
'orst of all, he ordered 6eorge to move in with another slave woman, and threatened to sell
him down the river if he refused. li:a protests that she and 6eorge were married by a
minister, Das much as if you*d been a white man.F 3ut 6eorge reminds her that slave
marriages are not protected by law. The discussion between 6eorge and li:a reveals two
views of slavery. 6eorge sees slavery as wrong because it denies the e4uality of all men.
D'hat right has he to meKF 6eorge as(s. DI*m a man as much as he is.F Gost abolitionists,
who thought slavery should be ended immediately, shared this view.
li:a, however, ta(es a different approach. DI always thought that I must obey my master and
mistress, or I couldn*t be a !hristian,F she tells 6eorge. li:a sees slaves and masters as part
of the same family. She owes the same obedience to her master as a child does to its father, as
part of her religious duty. Some slaves, as well as slaveholders, shared li:a*s view. The other
half of this e4uation was that masters had responsibilities to their slaves.
6eorge and li:a*s differing perspectives on slavery represent two distinct ways of loo(ing at
the world. 6eorge sees people as e4ual, free to move about and to enter into relationships with
anyone they choose. In li:a*s view, people are born into relationships with each other. Some
will always have more power, some less. li:a is a !hristian, and 6eorge seems not to be. 3ut
you could also say that 6eorge*s vision of life is more modern and li:a*s more old"
2ather than betray their marriage, 6eorge plans to escape, and he tells li:a that he will not
be ta(en alive. DThe husband and wife were parted,F Stowe recounts, letting you (now that
she considers 6eorge and li:a as husband and wife, even if the law doesn*t. 1ere is another
sin of slavery" it tears husbands and wives from each other.
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38 /(/8I8G I8 =826/ T)+?S 23*I8
Uncle Tom and his wife, Aunt !hloe, live with their small sons, Gose and /ete, and their
baby daughter, /olly, in a log cabin not far from the Shelbys* Dbig house.F After Aunt !hloe
prepares the Shelbys* evening meal, she returns home to coo( for her own family.
6eorge, the Shelbys* thirteen"year"old son, comes to Uncle Tom*s cabin for supper. 1e li(es
Aunt !hloe*s coo(ing and the way both !hloe and Tom fuss over him. 'hile Aunt !hloe
fi,es the meal, boasting about her s(ills, 6eorge teaches Tom how to write. The scene is
e,tremely domestic, with Aunt !hloe ba(ing pound ca(e, the little boys wrestling with each
other, and Uncle Tom carrying the baby around on his shoulders while she buries her hands in
his hair. Stowe wants you to recogni:e them as a happy family.
The description of Uncle Tom*s home is the first e,tended description of domestic life in the
boo(. It*s especially important because this chapter is one source of the novel*s title. 'hat is
there in Uncle Tom*s cabin that is so central to the boo(*s meaningK The cabin, clean and
well"organi:ed, is surrounded by flowers and a garden full of fruits and vegetables. Although
the furnishings are not elegant the table legs are sha(y and the pattern on the teacups is too
gaudy they are comfortable.
Aunt !hloe is a superb coo( and manager. She is easy and affectionate with her husband and
children. Uncle Tom, too, loves his family. 1e is full of D(indness and benevolence.F 3ut
more than Aunt !hloe, he has another interest, religion. The cabin is also the site of prayer"
meetings for the slaves.
3T ")+/ ,IT" =826/ T)+ 384 3=8T 2"6)/ 1arriet 3eecher Stowe was e,tremely interested in
the way people lived. 'ith her sister, !atharine 3eecher, she would later write The A!erican 2o!an/s 3o!e,
or &rinciples of 1o!estic Science 5#$%@8. 0ncle To!/s Ca)in is filled with careful descriptions of home and
family life. 2ead them carefully, and watch for the connection between how people manage their (itchens and
how they manage their souls.
Uncle Tom*s cabin, then, celebrates !hristian family life. It is filled with good coo(ing and
house(eeping, the love of husband, wife, and children as well as the love of learning and of
After serving dinner to 6eorge and Tom, !hloe feeds herself and her children 5whom she and
Tom seem to ignore in favor of 6eorge for most of the evening8. Aollowing the meal, slaves
from the Shelbys* and several neighboring plantations arrive for a Dmeeting.F The slaves
e,change news, listen while 6eorge reads the 3ible, and sing hymns. Uncle Tom is the
DpatriarchF and Da sort of minister,F the spiritual center of the group. 'hile the meeting
progresses, Gr. Shelby and 1aley draw up the final payments for Tom*s sale. The peace of
Uncle Tom*s cabin will soon be shattered.
Although Aunt !hloe and Uncle Tom are e,tremely good people, they are also childli(e.
'hen Aunt !hloe comments admiringly on 6eorge*s reading ability D1ow easy white fol(s
al*us does thingsPF, she is not currying favor with the master*s son. She really means it.
9escribing the religious singing in the cabin, Stowe e,plains that Dthe negro mind,
impassioned and imaginative, always attaches itself to hymns and e,pressions of a vivid and
pictorial nature.F In the #$&.s, people who opposed slavery didn*t necessarily see blac(s and
whites as e4uals. Stowe*s views were not uncommon among <orthern antislavery men and
2"37T/# 5
S"),I8G T"/ B//6I8GS )B 6I(I8G 7#)7/#T@ )8 2"38GI8G ),8/#S
Grs. Shelby is horrified to learn that her husband has sold Tom and little 1arry. She pleads
with him to (eep them, but Gr. Shelby, somewhat selfrighteously, e,plains that he has no
other choice. Grs. Shelby*s response to the news of the sale echoes the theme that slavery
destroys the family+ DI have taught them the duties of the family, of parent and child, and
#32I36 ST/#/)T@7/S (2)8T.) Unli(e 6eorge and li:a, who are light"s(inned enough to pass for
white, Uncle Tom and Aunt !hloe are described as 4uite blac(, Dtruly African.F 3ut the two couples differ in
more than the color of their s(in. 'hile 6eorge is proud and fierce, Uncle Tom displays a Dhumble simplicityF
along with his self"respect. 'hile li:a is delicate and sensitive, Aunt !hloe is fat, warm, and )olly. !hloe and
Tom spea( in dialect, while li:a and 6eorge use standard nglish. Stowe*s light"s(inned blac(s, in other
words, resemble white people, while the dar(er ones resemble racial stereotypes of blac(s. Stowe po(es gentle
fun at Aunt !hloe and her surroundings. She seems to be amused by Aunt !hloe*s pride in her e,cellence as a
coo(, and most readers are amused by her description here. The picture of 6eorge 'ashington hanging on the
wall Dwould certainly have astonished that hero,F and the pattern of the cups is Dbrilliant.F
husband and wifeH and how can I bear to have this open ac(nowledgment that we care for no
tie, no duty, no relation, however sacred, compared with moneyKF Stowe as(s you to identify
with the slaves on the basis of your own family feelings. Uncle Tom*s tears on hearing the
news are D)ust such tears, sir, as you dropped into the coffin where lay your first"born sonH
such tears, woman, as you shed when you heard the cries of your dying babe.F Grs. Shelby is
a good woman, one who never really approved of slavery but tried to ma(e the best of it that
she could. As you read 0ncle To!/s Ca)in, you*ll meet other such slaveholders. 'hat is
Stowe*s attitude toward Southerners in generalK 'hat does she thin( of <ortherners
particularly abolitionistsK This scene offers several important clues.
li:a, overhearing the Shelbys* conversation, decides to ta(e 1arry away. /ic(ing up her
sleeping son, she leaves the Shelbys* house, and ma(es her way to Uncle Tom*s cabin. Aunt
!hloe urges Tom to flee with li:a, but he refuses. According to li:a*s account of what she
heard, Gr. Shelby claimed that he had a choice between selling two slaves to 1aley or losing
the entire plantation. Tom sees his sale as protecting the rest of the slaves, and he*s willing to
ma(e the sacrifice. li:a disappears into the dar(ness.
2"37T/# 6.
The ne,t morning the Shelbys discover that li:a is gone. Gr. Shelby sees her escape as a
blight on his honor, but Grs. Shelby is delighted to thin( that li:a may save her child. 'hen
1aley arrives to collect his property, Gr. Shelby offers to aid him in catching li:a and 1arry.
3ut Sam and Andy, the two slaves sent to saddle Gr. Shelby*s horses, have figured out that
Grs. Shelby wants li:a to escape. 'hile pretending to help, they arrange for everything to
go wrong. Sam slips a beechnut under the saddle of 1aley*s horse, so the animal buc(s when
he is mounted. Sam and Andy manage to drive all the animals into a fren:y under the prete,t
of attempting to catch the runaway. The horses cannot be ridden until they have cooled down
and the hunt for li:a has been delayed for a few precious hours.
D7=TTI8? )8 )6? +3SS3G Slaves usually (new a great deal about what their masters were up to. In this
chapter, Gr. and Grs. Shelby are surrounded by a slave communications networ(. Andy brings Gr. Shelby his
shaving water and overhears their conversation about li:a*s escape. Slave children watch 1aley*s approach
from the front porch. li:a herself was able to rescue her son from 1aley because she listened in on the Shelbys.
3y closely observing what happened in the big house, and by communicating this intelligence to one another,
slaves were often able to protect themselves. This episode also reveals another feature of slave life. Sam and
Andy demonstrate what was sometimes called Dputtin* on ol* Gassa.F 'hile pretending to do what they were
told, they actually did )ust the opposite. In this case, Sam and Andy reali:ed that Grs. Shelby, if not her husband,
2"37T/# 7.
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!arrying 1arry in her arms, li:a hurries through the night toward the Ohio 2iver. 3ecause
she and the child were both light"s(inned, people who saw them did not immediately
conclude that they were runaway slaves. In the late afternoon, li:a arrives in a river town,
only to learn that the ferry is not running. 3ecause it is early spring, the ice is beginning to
brea( up. She and 1arry stop to rest in a tavern.
The force that drives li:a, Stowe tells you, is Dmaternal love.F The women she meets along
the way the farm woman from whom she buys dinner, or the woman at the tavern help her
because they are mothers, too. Aor e,ample, li:a tells the woman at the river that she needs
to cross immediately because her child is sic(, and the other*s Dmotherly sympathies were
much aroused.F Stowe also appeals to the reader*s parental feelings+ DIf it were your 1arry,
mother, or your 'illie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader... how fast could
you wal(KF li:a is helped up the ban( on the Ohio side of the river by a man whom she
recogni:es and to whom she appeals in the same way+ DOh, Gr. Symmes, you*ve got a little
boyPF 3ut the people who most reliably help li:a are women. They do so because
motherhood has taught them compassion for other mothers and their children. As Stowe wrote
to her youngest son, twenty"five years later, DI well remember the winter you were a baby and
I was writing 0ncle To!/s Ca)in... I remember many a night weeping over you as you lay
sleeping beside me and I thought of the slave mothers whose babes were torn from them.F
1ow do the men and women in Uncle Tom*s !abin differ in their approach to slavery and to
conduct in generalK 1ow do men in the novel learn to be goodK 'hich characters are
sympathetic and which villainousK =ou*ll need to deal with all of these 4uestions as you
continue to read 0ncle To!/s Ca)in.
wanted to buy time for li:a*s escape. 3ut this method could be used to achieve the slaves* ends as well as the
masters*. 'or(ing slowly, brea(ing e4uipment, having DaccidentsF slaves could e,ercise some control over
what happened on the plantation. Sam and Andy*s escapades offer some comic relief in the dramatic story of
li:a*s flight to freedom. They are familiar characters in literature thin( of such Sha(espearean comedies as A
'idsu!!er Night/s 1rea! and As You Like It, for e,ample simple country people whose pretensions amuse
us, but who nevertheless e,press important truths. 'hat is unusual here is that these characters are blac( slaves.
Stowe e,plicitly compares Sam*s self"interested posturing to that of white politicians in 'ashington. 'hen Sam
tells Andy that Dbobservation ma(es all de difference in niggers,F he is ignoring the fact that Andy told him how
Grs. Shelby really felt. =et Sam is right slaves constantly observed their masters.
3ac( at the Shelbys*, the (itchen staff prepares the noon meal for 1aley in the same spirit that
Sam and Andy readied the horses. Accidents (eep happening, Aunt !hloe refuses to be
rushed, and the meal proceeds e,tremely slowly. 'hen the search party finally sets off, Sam
and Andy cleverly steer 1aley down a deadend dirt road, gaining a few more hours for li:a.
As they arrive at the tavern in which li:a is waiting, Sam spies her and causes a commotion
that alerts li:a to the danger.
'ith 1arry in her arms, li:a runs desperately to the river. As 1aley, Sam, and Andy watch,
she )umps from ca(e to ca(e of ice until she finally reaches the Ohio shore. The man who
helps her up the ban( is a neighbor of the Shelbys* who admires li:a*s courage. 1e feels" as
many people did after the passage of the Augitive Slave Eaw" that DI don*t see no (ind of
Icasion for me to be hunter and catcher for other fol(s, neither.F Stowe cannot help
emphasi:ing the point+ DSo spo(e this poor, heathenish Lentuc(ian, who had not been
instructed in his constitutional relations, and conse4uently was betrayed into acting in a sort of
!hristiani:ed manner.F The Augitive Slave Eaw, in other words, violates fundamental
!hristian impulses.
As li:a ma(es her way toward freedom, Uncle Tom prepares himself to move deeper into
slavery. 'hen Aunt !hloe curses slave"traders, Uncle Tom instructs her to D/ray for them
that Ispitefully use you.F Tom claims a spiritual superiority over 1aley, telling !hloe that he
would rather be sold ten thousand times over than to have to answer to 6od for 1aley*s sins.
Gr. Shelby, calling him Dboy,F gives Tom the rest of the day off before he must leave with
1aley. 1is wife promises to buy Tom bac( as soon as possible.
2"37T/# 8.
/6I:3?S /S237/
In the tavern on the Lentuc(y side of the river, 1aley encounters Tom Eo(er and Gar(s.
9rin(ing, smo(ing, and conversing in a rough river dialect, Eo(er and Gar(s agree to chase
li:a and 1arry. They will return the boy to 1aley and sell the woman themselves in <ew
Orleans. 9iscussing 1aley*s e,perience, the men complain that slave women cause great
inconvenience by caring so much about their children. 1aley tells the story of a young woman
who drowned herself and the child in her arms rather than give the baby to 1aley, who had
traded him for a barrel of whis(ey. The men*s conversation reminds you of what is obvious
slavery tears babies from their mothers, and slave"traders are profoundly evil. In another
swipe at the Augitive Slave Eaw, Stowe suggests sardonically that if the whole country has
become a slave mar(et, the trader and catcher may form a new aristocracy.
Sam and Andy return to the Shelby plantation with news of li:a*s escape. After a moc(
scolding from Gr. Shelby and a good dinner from Aunt !hloe, Sam entertains the other slaves
with the story of li:a*s feat. Once again, Sam*s comic behavior brea(s the tension of li:a*s
life"and"death struggle.
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I8 ,"I2" IT 377/3#S T"3T 3 S/83T)# IS *=T 3 +38
Senator and Grs. 3ird ta(e tea in their co:y parlor as their children play around them. Ei(e
Uncle Tom*s cabin, the 3irds* home is a well"(ept domestic haven. 3ut the Senator and his
wife are arguing about the Augitive Slave Eaw, for which he has )ust voted. Tiny and gentle,
focused on her family, Grs. 3ird is the Dtrue womanF of the nineteenth"century women*s
maga:ines. 3ut Grs. 3ird cannot imagine turning Dhomeless, houseless creaturesF away from
her door. DI don*t (now anything about politics,F she tells her husband, Dbut I can read my
3ible and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the na(ed, and comfort the desolate.F
The Senator insists that !hristian duty lies in substituting public for private concerns and
obeying the law.
S63(/ S)8GS Sam*s remar( to Grs. Shelby that li:a*s Dclar Icross 0ordan... in the land o* !anaanF
supports his claim that 6od supervised her escape and may remind you of the singing at the prayer"meeting in
Uncle Tom*s cabin in chapter C. Stowe, in her best schoolmarm manner, announced that Dthe <egro mind,
impassioned and imaginative, always attaches itself to hymns and e,pressions of a vivid and pictorial nature.F
3ut despite herself, she recogni:ed the power of the image in the spiritual 5or, as slaves sometimes called this
type of hymn, sorrow song8, when she described li:a*s first glance at the Ohio 2iver, Dwhich lay, li(e 0ordan,
between her and the !anaan of her liberty....F Stowe tells you that Tom sings Dabout the <ew 0erusalem and
bright angels, and the land of !anaanF to little vaH one of the first signs of va*s impending death is that she
tells Tom that she*s seen the sights he sings about. Gany of the songs Tom sings later in the boo( are standard
Gethodist hymns 5which, despite his usual dialect speech, he sings in standard nglish8. In his last days on the
Eegree plantation, he tortures his master with lines li(e DEet cares li(e a wild deluge come, T And storms of
sorrow fallF and sings, with perfect diction, a hymn recogni:ed as DAma:ing 6race.F Stowe shows you almost
nothing of life in the slave 4uarters. 3ecause her (nowledge of that life, and of the music that grew out of it,
must have been limited, slave songs play only a small role in 0ncle To!/s Ca)in. <evertheless, they give you
some sense of the power of blac( religion and its role in humani:ing the slaves* lives.
T"/ B=GITI(/ S63(/ 63, 384 T"/ 2)+7#)+IS/ )B 1850 The Augitive Slave Eaw that
Senator and Grs. 3ird are discussing is an Ohio version of the national law that prompted 1arriet 3eecher Stowe
to write Uncle Tom*s !abin. It was part of a pac(age of legislation (nown as the !ompromise of #$&.. At the
close of the Ge,ican 'ar in #$C$, the United States sei:ed an enormous amount of land, stretching from the
6reat /lains to the /acific. 3ut !ongress had to decide whether the states and territories carved out of it would
be admitted to the Union as slave or free. Southerners, led by Senator 0ohn !. !alhoun of South !arolina,
claimed that the people of the new territories ought to ma(e up their own minds. <ortherners insisted that slavery
The 3irds* argument is interrupted by li:a*s appearance. Aor all his political argument,
Senator 3ird*s heart goes out to her. li:a enlists their sympathy by as(ing if they have ever
lost a child. In fact they have, recently, and the entire family dissolves in tears. Senator 3ird
even suggests that his wife give 1arry the dead boy*s clothing, and he himself brings li:a, in
the middle of the night, to the home of 0ohn 7an Trompe a former slaveholder who now
shelters fugitives. D=our heart is better than your head,F Grs. 3ird tells her husband.
Senator 3ird*s responses when he sees little 1arry wearing Dhis lost boy*s little well"(nown
capF or to Da closet, the opening of which has been to you li(e the opening again of a little
graveF sound silly to us as modern readers. 3ut nineteenth"century America was a dangerous
place for children, and many of Stowe*s readers (new firsthand what she was tal(ing about.
Stowe herself lost her infant son !harley during a cholera epidemic in #$C@. The strong
feelings of maternal loss that appear again and again in Uncle Tom*s !abin may originate in
Stowe*s own e,perience.
2"37T/# 10.
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As !hloe tearfully pac(s Tom*s clothing and Grs. Shelby sobs in the corner, 1aley comes to
ta(e Tom away. =oung 6eorge, who has been away from home for several days, catches up
with them on the road and promises to redeem Tom as soon as he can. Spea(ing in a voice Das
tender as a woman*s,F Tom urges 6eorge to D(eep close to yer mother.F 9riving the point
should be banned in all former Ge,ican territories. That debate, ten years before the start of the !ivil 'ar,
almost tore the country apart. Then Senator 1enry !lay of Lentuc(y stepped forward with a compromise.
!alifornia would be admitted as a free state, while <ew Ge,ico and Utah, which also included the current states
of !olorado and Ari:ona, would be organi:ed as territories without restrictions on slavery. Te,as would give up
claims to some land in <ew Ge,ico, and in return the United States would assume Te,as* debt. The slave trade
although not slavery itself would be abolished in the 9istrict of !olumbia. Ainally, the Augitive Slave Eaw of
#-@., which was almost never enforced, would be greatly strengthened. If someone swore that another person
was his escaped slave, this would be sufficient to establish ownership. Augitive slaves would be returned to their
masters, and those who helped the runaway slaves would be liable for fines of up to W#,... and si, months in
prison. <obody really li(ed the !ompromise of #$&.. Southerners thought it didn*t give them enough in return
for allowing another vote against them 5!alifornia*s8 in !ongressH <ortherners, as you have seen, hated the
Augitive Slave Eaw. 3ut the !ompromise passed. In the end, the !ompromise of #$&. may have made it harder
instead of easier to save the Union. The Augitive Slave Eaw did more to rouse <ortherners* anger than it did to
return blac(s to the South. 3y #$&C, when Lansas and <ebras(a applied for territorial status, the 4uestion of
slavery in the 'est had to be decided all over again.
D3 6ITT6/ G#3(/G Stowe has fre4uently urged her readers to identify with li:a on the basis of their
feelings for their own children. In this chapter, she intensifies the theme+ mothers whose children have died
should see li:a, as Grs. 3ird does, as a mother Dmore heartbro(en and sorrowful than I am.F
home, Stowe says that blac( people Dare not naturally daring and enterprising, but home"
loving and affectionate.F Uncle Tom has Dthe full, the gentle, domestic heartF typical of Dhis
unhappy race.F
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A DSpanish"loo(ing gentlemanF appears at a Lentuc(y tavern and ta(es a room. Of course, it
is 6eorge 1arris in disguise. 2ecogni:ing Gr. 'ilson, the owner of the factory where he
wor(ed, 6eorge invites him in for a private tal(. Gr. 'ilson sympathi:es with 6eorge, but
warns him that he is brea(ing the law of his country. DGr. 'ilson, you have a country,F
6eorge cries, Dbut what country have I...K 'hat laws are there for usKF 1e recalls listening to
Aourth"of"0uly speeches that 4uote the 9eclaration of Independence. D!an*t a fellow thin(,
that hears such thingsKF he demands.
6eorge*s story, as he tells it to Gr. 'ilson, is familiar. 1is father was a white slaveholderH his
mother and sisters were sold at auction after his father*s death. 1e spea(s of them, and of his
wife, with great affection and respect. 1e tells Gr. 'ilson that he intends to go to !anada.
Ei(e Senator 3ird, Gr. 'ilson*s feelings prove stronger than his beliefs, and he promises to
send a message to li:a.
2"37T/# 15.
S/6/2T I82I4/8T )B 63,B=6 T#34/
1aley ta(es Tom to 'ashington, Lentuc(y, where he buys more slaves. At an auction, Tom
sees more families being torn apart. Then 1aley, Tom, and the newly bought slaves grieving
for their wives, mothers, sisters, and children board a steamboat for the )ourney south.
The white passengers on the boat argue about the human cargo. One woman claims that
slavery commits Doutrages on the feelings and affectionsF li(e separating families. Another
responds that blac(s do not have the same feelings as whites. Two ministers enter the 4uarrel.
One cites the biblical verse, D!ursed be !anaanH a servant of servants shall he be,F in defense
of slavery. The other states that the relevant biblical citation is the golden rule treat others
the way you would be treated and that it argues against slavery.
In one of the river towns, 1aley buys a young woman and her infant son. 1aley sells the baby
when the young woman leaves him for a moment to try to catch sight of her husband as they
doc( in Eouisville. 1eartbro(en, she then drowns herself. This echoes the story 1aley told
Gar(s and Eo(er in the tavern the day li:a escaped. It proves that the white passenger who
asserted that slave mothers have no feelings for their children was totally mista(en.
2"37T/# 19.
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li:a has reached a >ua(er village. 1ere, as at the 3irds*, goodness is e4uated with domestic
order. The tablecloth glistens, the tea (ettle hums, and 2achel 1alliday passes the ca(e with
Dmotherliness.F 2uth Stedman, another of the >ua(er women who cares for li:a, e,plains
that DIf I didn*t love 0ohn Mher husbandN and the baby, I should not (now how to feel for her.F
6eorge 1arris arrives at the settlement, and the family is reunited. In the past, 6eorge has
viewed !hristianity as submission to slavery. In this domestic heaven, however, he begins to
S63(/#@ 384 T"/ 2"=#2" American religious denominations were torn by the struggle over slavery.
Some, li(e the 3aptists, eventually split into two denominations, <orth and South. 1arriet 3eecher Stowe (new
firsthand the religious debate over slavery, since some of it had been conducted in her own home. Eyman
3eecher, Stowe*s father, opposed slavery. 3ut unli(e some other !ongregational ministers, he did not support
immediate abolition. In #$?C, most of the students became abolitionists and withdrew in protest from Eane
Theological Seminary, which 3eecher ran. 1arriet 3eecher Stowe was not a thoroughgoing abolitionist li(e
Theodore 'eld, one of the ministers who left Eane but she strongly believed that slavery was un"!hristian.
0ncle To!/s Ca)in contains many statements to that effect+ from Grs. 3ird and Grs. Shelby, among others, as
well as in Stowe*s own voice. /artly at issue, for her, was the nature of !hristianity. Is feeling worth more than
doctrineK Are people saved through fear or through loveK Is the church as an institution more important than
personal religious beliefK As the daughter, sister, and wife of ministers, Stowe struggled all her life with these
4uestions. ventually she embraced a set of beliefs very different from her father*s. Toward the end of her life,
she became an piscopalian. As you read 0ncle To!/s Ca)in, as( yourself what !hristianity means to the
various characters. 'hat are !hristian valuesK 1ow should a !hristian behaveK In this chapter, for e,ample,
Tom comforts another slave by telling her about Da heart of love in the s(ies, of a pitying 0esus, and an eternal
home.F 1owever, Stowe remar(s sarcastically, if Tom had Donly been instructed by certain ministers of
!hristianity,F he might have seen the slave trade as Dthe vital support of an institution which some American
divines tell us has no evils....F
3 63,B=6 T#34/ The last paragraph of this chapter refers to the opposition of Dour great menF to the
foreign slave trade. !ongress ended the foreign slave trade in #$.$. After that, it was illegal to sell slaves from
Africa. In the prosperous years following the 'ar of #$#B, however, many slaves were sold from the upper
South 57irginia, Garyland, and Lentuc(y8 to the rapidly growing lower South 5Alabama, Gississippi, and
Eouisiana8. Thomas !lar(son 5#-%."#$C%8 and 'illiam 'ilberforce 5#-&@"#$??8 were 3ritish antislavery
activists who helped bring about the abolition of slavery in the 3ritish colonies in #$??. Stowe*s point is that the
DlawfulF domestic slave trade is pretty awful.
feel the love of 6od. DThis indeed was a home, home, a word that 6eorge had never yet
(nown a meaning forH and a belief in 6od... began to encircle his heart.F 3ecause 6eorge and
li:a are being pursued by Gar(s and Eo(er, the >ua(ers lead them to the ne,t settlement.
2"37T/# 1'.
One of the passengers on the trip down the Gississippi is an ethereal si,"year old girl, dressed
all in white and resembling Da sunbeam or a summer bree:e.F The beautiful and sensitive
child brings fruit and candy to the slaves on board, and Tom charms her by ma(ing her toys.
Tom Dwho had the soft, impressible nature of his (indly race, ever yearning toward the simple
and childli(eF thought that vangeline St. !lare, called va, was Dsomething almost divine.F
'hen va falls overboard, Tom rescues herH in gratitude, her father buys him. 1andsome,
charming, worldly Gr. St. !lare moc(s 1aley*s attempt to raise the price because Tom is so
pious. St. !lare )o(es that he may ma(e Tom the family chaplain, since there*s not much
religion in their home. In the end, Tom becomes his coachman.
2"37T/# 15.
)B T)+?S 8/, +3ST/#- 384 (3#I)=S )T"/# +3TT/#S
C=3>/#S I8 T"/ BIG"T 3G3I8ST S63(/#@ Gembers of the Society of Ariends, or >ua(ers,
arrived in 3oston in #%&%. Their belief in 6od as an Inner Eight in every man and woman and their democratic
lac( of ministers or church government made them as threatening to the /uritans of Gassachusetts as they had
been to their nglish counterparts. In #%$#, a >ua(er named 'illiam /enn established a meeting 5as the >ua(er
worship service is called8 in /hiladelphia. In /ennsylvania and the other mid"Atlantic colonies, the >ua(ers
began to thrive. 3ecause they believed that everyone, regardless of se, or race, shared the Inner Eight, it was
natural that >ua(ers would oppose slavery. In fact, the very first protest against slavery in America was
organi:ed by 6ermantown, /ennsylvania, >ua(ers in #%$$. Gany wealthy >ua(ers, however, were slaveholders.
Throughout the eighteenth century, >ua(er meetings in /ennsylvania, as well as in <ew =or( and <ew ngland,
struggled with the issue. 3y the #--.s, >ua(ers in <orth !arolina and 7irginia had vowed not to buy more
slaves, and <orthern >ua(ers had given up slaveholding. 5/ennsylvania abolished slavery in #-$..8 >ua(ers
started the first antislavery society in America, in #--&, and they dominated the early antislavery movement.
>ua(er Anthony 3ene:et started a school for blac( children in /hiladelphia in the #-$.s, and on his death his
entire estate went to fund blac( education. 9uring the nineteenth century, >ua(ers, li(e other opponents of
slavery, had to choose between abolitionism and milder forms of protest. A few >ua(er radicals became
prominent, among them Isaac 1opper of <ew =or(H Eucretia Gott of GassachusettsH Eevi !offin of IndianaH
poet 0ohn 6reenleaf 'hittierH lias 1ic(s, who led a >ua(er boycott of crops and goods produced by slave
laborH and Thomas 6arrett of 'ilmington, 9elaware, who helped B-.. slaves escape and was claimed by Stowe
as one of her models for Simeon 1alliday. Although >ua(ers were more inclined to favor a gradual end to
slavery than immediate abolition, almost all were ready to help an escaped slave with money, clothing, and
shelter. /hiladelphia >ua(ers defied the Society*s ban on reading novels in order to devour Uncle Tom*s !abin.
3ut their newspaper, the /hiladelphia Ariend, gave the boo( a bad review. It called the boo( inflammatory and
li(ely to stir up Southern resistanceH it was necessary, the reviewer said, to appeal to the South with love. Still,
many >ua(ers were proud to identify themselves as the DrealF 2achel or Simeon 1alliday
Augustine St. !lare*s family originated in !anada. 1is father married a Arench 1uguenot
5/rotestant8 named vangeline, and they settled in Eouisiana. 1is father*s brother settled in
7ermont, where Augustine lived with him for many years. Augustine had a Dsensitiveness of
character, more a(in to the softness of woman than the ordinary hardness of his own se,.F
9isappointed in love with a <orthern woman, Augustine married the vain, insensitive, and
spoiled Garie. After the birth of their daughter, named vangeline for Augustine*s mother,
Garie became a hypochondriac, constantly bedridden with Dsic( headaches.F Augustine had
traveled to 7ermont to persuade his cousin, Ophelia, to return to <ew Orleans and ta(e charge
of his household. A strong"minded, capable spinster of forty"five, Ophelia loves order and
hates what she calls shiftlessness. Although she is the opposite of the la:y, carefree
Augustine, she loves her cousin dearly.
Stowe presents the St. !lare mansion through both Ophelia*s and Tom*s eyes. Tom finds it
beautiful 5DThe <egro, it must be remembered... has a passion for all that is splendid, rich,
and fancifulF8, while Ophelia thin(s it*s Drather old and heathenish.F The St. !lare family
servants are, for the most part, elegant and spoiled. Adolphe, the butler, borrows St. !lare*s
sophistication as well as most of his clothing. 3ut Gammy embraces va warmly, unli(e
va*s mother, who claims the girl is giving her a headache. Ophelia tells Augustine that she is
disgusted by the way va (isses the slaves.
2"37T/# 16.
T)+?S +IST#/SS 384 "/# )7I8I)8S
Selfish Garie St. !lare acts as if slaves have no feelings. She critici:es Gammy for sleeping
soundly at night" Gammy should wa(e up more readily to care for her. She also faults
Gammy for ob)ecting to her separation from her own children, who live on Garie*s parents*
(/#+)8T 384 6)=ISI383 3y placing a branch of the St. !lare family in 7ermont and having
Augustine spend part of his boyhood there Stowe points out that <ortherners and Southerners are literally
brothers. Augustine*s e,perience enables him to compare <orthern and Southern attitudes toward slavery. In
addition, Ophelia displays both the strengths and limitations of <ortherners in the way they view the South.
Stowe, who grew up in !onnecticut, writes about <ew ngland villages with love. Of all the domestic settings
she has praised, this is the finest+ The large farm"house, with its clean"swept grassy yard, shaded by the dense
and massive foliage of the sugar"maple+... the air of order and stillness... <othing lost, or out of order... There are
no servants in the house, but the lady in the snowy cap, with the spectacles, who sits sewing every afternoon
among her daughters....
/itted against Garie*s selfish view of slavery are the views of Ophelia, Augustine, and va.
Ophelia ob)ects to slavery on principle. D9on*t you believe that the Eord made them one of
blood with usKF she as(s Garie. Eater she announces her belief that D=ou ought to educate
your slaves, and treat them li(e reasonable creatures.F 3ut, as Augustine points out, for all her
principles Ophelia doesn*t li(e blac( people. She cringes when she sees va playing with
Tom. D=ou M<orthernersN would not have them abusedH but you don*t want to have anything
to do with them yourselves,F Augustine tells his cousin. She admits that he has a point.
Augustine e,plains that he respects the argument that slavery is economically necessary to the
South, but that he distrusts religious )ustifications for slavery. 1e refuses to worship with
Garie, because the church Dcan bend and turn... to fit every croo(ed phase of selfish, worldly
society.F va, however, has the last word. She tells her father that she li(es slavery because
Dit ma(es so many more round you to love.F va, li(e Tom, is instinctively religious.
2"37T/# 17.
T"/ B#//+38?S 4/B/82/
6eorge, li:a, and 1arry, accompanied by another former slave, 0im Selden, who returned to
Lentuc(y to rescue his mother, prepare to leave the >ua(er settlement. The (indly >ua(ers
provide them with food, warm clothing for !anada, and the faith in 6od by which they live
their daily lives.
DIT?S ,/- +IST#/SS/S- T"3T 3#/ T"/ S63(/SG Garie St. !lare tells cousin Ophelia that Dit*s we,
mistresses, that are the slaves, down here.F Garie e,presses enormous self"pity, but her sentiments were
sometimes shared by real Southern women. In <ovember #$%# some ten years after 0ncle To!/s Ca)in
appeared Gary 3oy(in !hesnut contrasted the e,perience of Southern women with that of <ortherners li(e
1arriet 3eecher Stowe. !hesnut, the wife of a U.S. Senator who resigned to become a !onfederate general, uses
language that echoes Stowe*s description of the typical <ew ngland village. And some of her ideas resemble
Garie St. !lare*s+ On one side Grs. Stowe Mand other antislavery writersN... live in nice <ew ngland homes,
clean, sweet"smelling, shut up in libraries, writing boo(s which ease their hearts of their bitterness against us...
<ow consider what I have seen of my mother*s life, my grandmother*s, my mother"in"law*s.... They have the
same ideas of right and wrong, and high"bred, lovely, good, pious, doing their duty as they conceive it. They live
in <egro villages.... 3oo(ma(ing which leads you to a round of visits among crowned heads is an easier way to
be a saint than martyrdom down here, doing unpleasant duty among the <egroes....
T"/ =84/#G#)=84 #3I6#)34 The 1allidays and their friends are conductors on what was called the
Underground 2ailroad or Eiberty Eine, an informal networ( of <ortherners who helped escaped slaves reach
!anada. >ua(ers had been assisting slaves in this way as early as the #-$.s, and by the #$?.s the activity had
become more common. Southerners saw the Underground 2ailroad as a vast conspiracy, and some estimated that
as many as #..,... slaves were spirited off. In fact, modern historians thin( that fewer than #... slaves a year
Dfollowed the drin(ing gourdF 5the <orth Star8 to freedom. 3ut the Underground 2ailroad affected the morale of
slaves and masters out of proportion to the numbers who actually traveled it. !onducting on the Underground
2ailroad too( enormous courage, especially after the passage of the Augitive Slave Eaw of #$&.. /articipating in
the rescue of fugitive slaves was one of the few ways citi:ens could actively oppose slaveryH it was more
Their pursuers follow them closely. 6eorge, who has a pistol, resolves that li:a will be
returned to slavery over his dead body. /hineas, the >ua(er driver, is nonviolent but willing
to allow 6eorge and 0im to defend themselves and their families.
veryone hides behind the large roc( at the summit of a hill to await Gar(s, Tom Eo(er, and
the rest of the drun(en band of slave"catchers. 6eorge ma(es his stand+ D'e stand here as
free, under 6od*s s(y, as you are,F he challenges them. 5Stowe remar(s that a 1ungarian
youth defending freedom as 6eorge did would be considered a hero by most AmericansH a
fugitive slave doing the same thing was not.8 6eorge shoots Tom Eo(er, and /hineas pushes
him into a crevice between the roc(s, while the other slave"hunters run off. The others begin
to pity Eo(er 5who in his pain calls out his mother*s name8 and decide to ta(e him to the
>ua(er settlement for medical treatment.
2"37T/# 18.
+ISS )7"/6I3?S /A7/#I/82/S 384 )7I8I)8S
9inah, li(e Aunt !hloe, is an e,cellent coo(. 3ut while !hloe is orderly and methodical,
9inah is totally chaotic. Ophelia*s attempt to impose order on 9inah*s (itchen is comically
defeated by the coo(*s systematic confusion. Ophelia is appalled by the waste and disorder in
the St. !lare household, but Augustine doesn*t mind. 'hy save time or money, he as(s, when
there*s plenty of bothK 1e believes that slavery ma(es blac( people dishonest 5D!unning and
deception become necessary, inevitable habitsF8 and that they shouldn*t be punished for it.
9inah, he believes, should be )udged for her delicious dishes. St. !lare*s theory is illustrated
by most of the members of his household. Adolphe, 2osa, 0ane, and several of the other
household servants are frivolous and spoiled. They are preparing for a ball for the light"
s(inned, house"servant slave aristocracy of <ew Orleans. They ridicule dar("s(inned 9inah,
who has no use for them.
satisfying and seemed more effective than signing endless antislavery petitions. 0ohn 2an(in, a native of
Tennessee, moved to 2ipley, Ohio, on the ban(s of the Ohio 2iver, in the #$?.s. 1is Underground 2ailroad
station was probably (nown to 1arriet 3eecher Stowe in nearby !incinnati. Some historians believe that when
the DrealF li:a crossed the ice, it was 2an(in 5not DGr. Symmes,F the Shelbys* neighbor8 who helped her onto
the Ohio shore. The bravest Underground 2ailroad conductors, however, were the blac( men and women who
themselves ris(ed capture to help escaping slaves. The character 0im Selden, who returns from !anada to rescue
his mother, had real"life counterparts. One of them was 1arriet Tubman, who fled to /ennsylvania from
Garyland in #$C@. Starting in #$&., she made nineteen trips into the deep South to rescue slaves.
")=S/ S63(/S 384 BI/64 S63(/S Eegend has it that house slaves and field slaves were very
different from each other. 1ouse slaves were light"s(inned, sometimes educated, close to their masters, whose
values they shared, and contemptuous of the field slaves. Aield hands were supposed to be dar("s(inned,
This chapter e,amines the fundamental values of the ma)or characters in 0ncle To!/s Ca)in.
Augustine St. !lare wastes money and time. One night when he comes in drun(, Tom chides
him for not ta(ing better care of himself. Ophelia, his opposite, saves time and money. She
puts good management above human feelings. Aor Tom and va, however, the most
important consideration is love.
2"37T/# 1%.
+ISS )7"/6I3?S /A7/#I/82/S 384 )7I8I)8S (2)8TI8=/4)
The news of /rue*s death leads Ophelia and Augustine into another round of their continuing
debate about slavery. This time Augustine tal(s more openly and more seriously than he ever
has. Guch to his cousin*s surprise, Augustine tells her that slavery Dcomes from the devil.F It
is based on the power of the strong over the wea(+ D'hy, because my brother >uashy is
ignorant and wea(, and I am intelligent and strong because I (now how, and can do it, "
therefore, I may steal all he has, (eep it, and give him only such and so much as suits my
illiterate, and la:y. Ei(e most legends, this one contains some truth. 3ut li(e most generali:ations about areas as
varied as the American South and institutions as complicated as American blac( slavery, it also contains many
inaccuracies. The legend comes closest to fact in describing slavery in the cities, and in particular in the Sea
Island cotton, rice, and sugar"growing areas 5off the coast of South !arolina, 6eorgia, and Alorida8. Thus, the St.
!lare family slaves seem to fit this pattern. There*s only one problem with applying the house servant"field hand
distinction to 0ncle To!/s Ca)in virtually all the slaves in the novel are house servants. Although Stowe
fusses about the comparative s(in color of slaves, even the dar(er characters in 0ncle To!/s Ca)in !hloe and
Tom, Sam and Andy, 9inah and Gammy wor( inside the house. =ou practically never meet anyone in the
novel who wor(s in the fields. On Eegree*s plantation, of course, everyone but the current mistress pic(s cotton.
3ut the characters Stowe focuses on Tom, !assy, mmeline, and Eucy formerly wor(ed in houses, and all
but Tom are city"bred. Thus the differences between 9inah and Adolphe, for e,ample, resemble the house"field
distinction, but aren*t really part of it.
As ugene 9. 6enovese shows in %oll, 4ordan, %oll, wor(ing in the 3ig 1ouse had its costs as well as its
rewards. 1ouse servants had better food and 4uarters than field wor(ers. Their physical and often emotional
closeness to their masters sometimes made them feel more secure, although neither Tom nor the St. !lare
servants are protected by that intimacy. Aield hands, however, had more leisure time than house servants, who
were always at the bec( and call 5and always in the sight8 of whites. Aield hands also en)oyed a greater sense of
community. Aor these reasons some slaves, according to 6enovese, preferred wor(ing in the fields.
1ouse servants and field hands usually saw themselves as part of the same family. Airst, they often were
literally brothers and sisters. In addition, house servants often married field hands. And house servants, who
often overheard conversations among the whites, fre4uently warned field hands of an impending sale so that they
could escape. 5li:a does this in Uncle Tom*s !abin, although Tom is not a field hand.8 The former slaves whom
1arriet 3eecher Stowe met had probably been house servants. Gore s(illed and privileged than field hands, they
had more opportunities to flee. !loser to whites in manners and sometimes in appearance, house servants were
probably easier for her to identify with.
If Adolphe and the others illustrate one possible effect of slavery, old /rue represents another. /rue delivers
ba(ed goods for her master, but often uses the proceeds to get drun(. Ophelia, who always (nows what*s right
and wrong, scolds her. 3ut Tom, more compassionate, discovers why /rue drin(s. All her children were sold
away from her e,cept one, who died because her mistress wouldn*t let her ta(e care of it. Tom assures /rue that
0esus loves her and that she*ll find rest in heaven.
fancy. 'hatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable, for me, I may set >uashy to doing....
Tal( of the abuses of slaveryP... The thing itself is the essence of all abusePF 9oes Augustine
St. !lare*s description of slavery surprise youK Is it consistent with his characterK 9o you
thin( he spea(s for the authorK 1ow do his views differ from Ophelia*sK Augustine unfolds a
bit of family history for Ophelia. In so doing, he describes two sets of brothers" Ophelia*s
father and his ownH and his twin brother, Alfred, and himself. The two pairs of brothers
illustrate two distinct facts about slavery.
As Augustine tells his cousin, Ophelia*s father and his own were very similar men, Dupright,
energetic, and noble minded.F One settled in 7ermont, the other in Eouisiana. Augustine*s
father was a Dborn aristocrat,F who drove his slaves hard and believed them less than human.
1is overseer another 7ermonter treated the slaves cruelly. Augustine and his mother often
pleaded with his father to show mercy to the slaves. Ophelia*s father, on the other hand,
settled in 7ermont and )oined the church and the Abolition Society. 3ut, Augustine argues,
the 7ermonter has the same Doverbearing, dominant spirit as his Southern brother.F 1e owns
no slaves, but everyone in the village (nows that he loo(s down on them. DThough he has
fallen on democratic times, and embraced a democratic theory, he is to the heart an aristocrat,
as much as my father.F Augustine*s brother, Alfred, resembled his father and uncle. 3ut
Augustine was more li(e his mother. 5DShe was divinePF he oo:es. DOh, motherP motherPF8
Alfred had dar( eyes and hair, and an active temperament, while Augustine was blond, blue"
eyed, and dreamy.
'hen their father died, Augustine and Alfred divided the property, but Augustine hated
running a plantation. Augustine, whom Alfred called a Dwomanish sentimentalist,F moved to
<ew Orleans and lived off the family*s stoc(s. 1e too( with him only the old family house
servants, whom he treated (indly and did not overwor(. 3ut Alfred, Augustine notes, ta(es
care of his slaves even though he drives them hard. Augustine upholds his brother*s claim that
he treats his slaves better than nglish factory owners treat their wor(ers 5although that, he
adds, does not )ustify slavery8. 1owever, he foresees a day of rec(oning that will end the evil
of slavery forever.
DS"/ ,3S 4I(I8/G 1arriet 3eecher was only four years old when her mother died. Although her father
remarried, his first wife, 2o,anna, remained his favorite, and her memory lived on in the household. 1enry
'ard 3eecher, 1arriet*s younger brother, once wrote in a phrase that Augustine St. !lare would recogni:e
DGy mother is to me what the 7irgin Gary is to a devout !atholic.F
2"37T/# 50.
In order to test his cousin*s theories about education, Augustine buys Ophelia a slave child to
raise. The little girl, Topsy, is bright and energetic, but she has been badly treated and
fre4uently whipped by her masters. Stowe*s description of Topsy fits the racial stereotype.
The child is e,tremely blac(, filthy and ragged, and her hair is wor(ed into many braids. She
has a cunning e,pression, and sings and dances wildly.
Ophelia doesn*t want to ta(e the child on, but Augustine convinces her that it will be
missionary wor(. And Ophelia is shoc(ed by Topsy*s answers to her 4uestions. She doesn*t
remember her mother or father, and she denies that she was created by 6od DI spect I
grow*d.F Ophelia finds that Topsy cannot tell right from wrong. Topsy challenges Ophelia,
who cannot figure out how to teach her. Ophelia tries whipping, but Topsy has been whipped
before, and Ophelia soon finds that whipping is li(e a drug more and more is needed to
achieve the same effect. va*s (indness to Topsy ma(es more of an impression. ventually
Topsy learns to ma(e beds and not to steal, but she re4uires Ophelia*s constant attention.
2"37T/# 51.
Grs. Shelby, on learning that !hloe had heard from Tom 5Augustine wrote a letter for him8,
wants Gr. Shelby to buy him bac(. She offers to give music lessons to raise the money, but
Gr. Shelby won*t hear of it. !hloe as(s that she be hired out to a ba(er or as she calls it, a
DperfectionerF 5confectioner8 in Eouisville, and that her wages be used to redeem Tom. The
Shelbys agree to this plan. Two years have passed since Tom left Lentuc(y.
2"37T/# 55.
T)7S@ Topsy serves a number of functions in 0ncle To!/s Ca)in. Airst, as Augustine intended, she shows
<orthern readers that it is harder to educate a child born into slavery than they would li(e to thin(. Ophelia
learns, as Stowe intends you to also, that many theories may not be wor(able in reality. Topsy also provides
comic reliefH this chapter is one of the funniest in the novel. Ainally, Topsy provides a comparison with va.
DT"/ G#3SS ,IT"/#/T" T"/ B6),/# B34/T"G
Tom*s friendship with va deepens. She helps him to read the letter 6eorge Shelby sends in
response to his, full of news of his family. Tom and va also read the 3ible together,
especially 2evelations and /rophecies. 3ut Tom and Giss Ophelia are aware that va is
becoming wea(er. Augustine refuses to ac(nowledge it, though, and Garie is too self"
absorbed to care. va claims to see the new 0erusalem Tom sings about in the clouds. DI*m
going there,F she tells Tom, pointing heavenward.
2"37T/# 59.
The visit of Augustine*s brother Alfred with his son, 1enri4ue, to the St. !lare summer home
on Ea(e /ontchartrain provides an occasion for more contrasts and further debates. 1enri4ue,
dar( and handsome li(e his father, rides a blac( ponyH va, fair and blonde li(e her father,
rides a white one. 1enri4ue bullies his slave, 9odo, and accuses him of lyingH va is (ind to
him. 5The slave boy had been ta(en from his mother only wee(s before.8 'hile va lectures
her cousin about how to treat servants 5the 3ible tells us to love everyone, she tells him8, the
two brothers continue their discussion about slavery. Augustine maintains that having slaves
around hurts the character of Southern children. Alfred tends to agree and says that he will
have 1enri4ue educated in the <orth. Augustine anticipates an eventual slave uprising, while
Alfred maintains that Anglo"Sa,ons will always rule the world 5although as Augustine points
out, most slaves have some white ancestry8.
2"37T/# 5'.
3 2"I64 6I>/ /(3 D1as there ever been a child li(e vaKF Stowe as(s. D=es... but their names are
always on gravestones.F She claims that there are certain spiritual children who are not long for this world. =ou
may wonder, too, whether there has ever been a child li(e va. va seems too religious, too good, to be real. She
never fights or misbehaves or dirties her white dresses. To many readers, va seems to be a symbol rather than a
real character. !ompare Stowe*s description of va to those of other children Topsy, for e,ample, or Tom*s
sons Gose and /ete, or the children in the >ua(er settlement.
"3ITI In August #-@#, in the aftermath of the Arench 2evolution, blac( slaves and mulattoes 5persons of
mi,ed ancestry8 in the Arench 'est Indian colony of 1aiti rose against their masters. There were abuses on both
sides, and thousands of whites were (illed or forced into e,ile. The e,ample of 1aiti frightened white
Southerners, and made them, some historians believe, less li(ely to consider freeing their own slaves. Slave"
owners also used the e,ample of 1aiti to prove that slaves were inherently violent. Augustine St. !lare ma(es a
different point that people are only as good as their rulers ma(e them.
Aoreseeing her death, va begs her father to free their slaves, and especially Tom. Garie
refuses to ac(nowledge va*s sic(ness, because she is too absorbed by her own imagined
2"37T/# 55.
T"/ 6ITT6/ /(38G/6IST
Topsy has misbehaved once too often and Ophelia wants to be rid of her. Garie tells her that
she should have whipped the child. va ta(es a different approach, as(ing Topsy whether
she*s ever loved anyone. She hasn*t, Topsy replies, and no one has loved her. Ophelia would
love her if she were good, va e,plains. 3ut Topsy answers that Ophelia can*t stand to touch
her. va tells Topsy that she loves her and that 0esus does, too. She says that she is about to
die and would be pleased if Topsy behaved for her sa(e. Topsy cries and promises to try.
'atching her, Ophelia admits her pre)udice, but says she hadn*t (nown that Topsy was aware
of it. She calls va D!hrist"li(eF the source of the chapter*s title, for, li(e !hrist, little
vangeline is an evangelist.
2"37T/# 56.
Sensing that death is near, va bids good"bye to the family servants. She gives each a loc( of
hair, saying she loves them and has prayed for them, and that they must try to be !hristians.
Augustine as(s his daughter what it means to be a !hristian. DEoving !hrist most of all,F va
responds. On her deathbed, with Ophelia, Augustine, and Tom around her, va cries, DOh
love, " )oy, " peacePF
2"37T/# 57.
D6)(I8G 2"#IST +)ST )B 366G va*s definition of being !hristian might not be everyone*s, but it
does not sound strange to us. 1owever, such ideas were )ust beginning to be heard at the time that 1arriet
3eecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom*s !abin. The <ew ngland !alvinism that dominated the country*s religious
life during its first two centuries" and that Stowe*s father, Eyman 3eecher, still preached in its third century"
imposed more rigorous standards than simply Dloving !hrist most of all.F Aor old"fashioned !alvinists,
becoming !hristian was a life"long struggle, re4uiring prayer, good wor(s, and constant self"e,amination. The
(ind of !hristianity that va and Uncle Tom embody was a re)ection of Eyman 3eecher*s creed. American
/rotestantism was changing in the nineteenth century, becoming more accepting, forgiving, and accessible.
1arriet 3eecher Stowe was part of that shift.
DT"IS IS T"/ 63ST )B /3#T"G
The members of the St. !lare household react to va*s death. The slaves weep over her, and
Topsy feels especially bad because, as she says, va was the only one who ever loved her.
Ophelia promises that she will try to love Topsy, because she has learned something of
!hrist*s love from va. Tom tries to comfort his master, assuring Augustine that there is a
6od and that 0esus loves him. Although Augustine is touched by Tom*s faith, he himself is
not yet ready to believe.
2"37T/# 58.
verybody in the St. !lare household becomes better and more religious as a result of va*s
death. Topsy stops misbehaving and Ophelia is softer and more generous. She presses
Augustine to ma(e her Topsy*s legal owner, so that she can bring the girl north and free her.
Augustine is ma(ing arrangements to free Tom as well. 1e is somewhat hurt by Tom*s eager
anticipation of freedom. =ou could never live as comfortably as you do here, Augustine
argues. <o, Tom replies, but I would be free. Augustine spends more and more time with
Tom, praying, reading, and tal(ing about !hristianity. Tom believes that ta(ing care of 6od*s
DcrittursF is doing 1is wor(.
Augustine*s increasing interest in religion naturally leads him to thin( of slavery. A true
!hristian, he tells Ophelia, must fight against it. 1owever, he is not sure how to go about it.
1e mentions that 1ungarian nobles voluntarily freed their serfsH perhaps American masters
can be persuaded to do the same. 3ut Augustine wonders who will educate the newly freed
blac(s, and points to the pre)udice of <ortherners as being as oppressive as slavery itself.
Augustine goes to a cafe, where he is gravely wounded trying to separate two 4uarreling men.
'hen the doctor announces that his mind is wandering, Augustine disputes him+ Dit is coming
1OG, at lastPF 'ith a final cry of DGotherPF he dies.
The dictionary defines sentimental as Dindulging the sensibilities for their own sa(e,
artificially or affectedly tender, maw(ishly or superficially emotional... addressed to easily
swayed emotions.F 'ould you say, by this definition, that the death of Augustine St. !lare is
sentimentalK Is that an accurate description of the death of little vaK Actually, va has two
death scenes, if you count the giving away of the loc(s of her hair. 5Stowe claimed that
writing little va*s death scene so e,hausted her that she spent the ne,t two days in bed.8 1ow
can you tell when Stowe is writing sentimentallyK 9oes she use language differently at these
pointsK Is her treatment of certain sub)ects or certain characters more sentimental than othersK
'hen you use the word DsentimentalF to describe something, do you mean it as a criticismK
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Garie plans to sell the house and auction off the furniture and slaves. Ophelia, after trying
unsuccessfully to convince her to free Tom, writes to Grs. Shelby about what has happened.
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The slaves belonging to the St. !lare family, including Tom, are sold at auction. Also sold are
Susan and mmeline, a mother and daughter, respectively, who belonged to a good !hristian
woman. The man who buys Susan is unable to afford the daughter, who is sold to the man
who has bought Tom Simon Eegree. The money from the sale of Susan and mmeline goes
to a <ew =or( firm to whom the son of their owner was in debt. 9espite their uneasiness at
selling slavesH the !hristian gentlemen in <ew =or( could not pass up the opportunity to
ma(e money. Thus, as Stowe continually points out, the <orth as well as the South profits
from slavery.
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Eegree begins the trip up the 2ed 2iver to his plantation by showing his slaves that he*s the
boss. 1e sells Tom*s clothing and trun( to the boatmen, leaving Tom only one ragged suit.
Ainding Tom*s hymnboo(, Eegree tells him, DI*m your church nowPF Eegree shows Tom his
fist, which, he claims, has become hard as a roc( through D(noc(ing down niggers.F 1e
e,plains that he*s found it cheaper to use his slaves until they wear out.
One of Stowe*s brothers wor(ed for a time in <ew Orleans, where he heard a slave"owner boast, as Eegree
does, that his fist had become roc("hard from (noc(ing down his slaves. Stowe repeats this story in the novel*s
final chapter.
A passenger who overhears Eegree tells his companion, evidently a <ortherner, that Eegree
isn*t typical of Southern slaveowners" most of them are decent and humane. 3ut it*s decent
ones who are responsible for slavery, his friend responds. If the slaveholders were all li(e
Eegree, the system could not survive. 9o you agree with this analysisK
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Eegree*s plantation is a dar( place, indeed. ven the road approaching it sounds, as Stowe
describes it, as if it leads to hell. The wind blows Dmournfully,F the trees are Ddoleful,F hung
with Dfunereal blac(F moss. The stumps of trees rot in the water. Eegree bought his once"
beautiful plantation from a man who had gone ban(rupt. 3ut he uses it the way he uses his
slave only to ma(e money. Thus, the plantation, too, has a tragic air.
Although Eegree acts as the plantation*s overseer, he has two slave managers, Sambo and
>uimbo. 1e has trained them to be vicious, and he (eeps them fighting with each other so that
they will not turn on him. Eucy, one of the slaves he has )ust bought, will be Sambo*s woman,
although she left a husband and children in <ew Orleans. Eegree himself has designs on
mmeline. Tom hopes for a little shac( where he can be alone, but he must sleep on the floor
of a cabin with several other slaves. 2eading the 3ible by the fire after dinner, Tom tells some
slave women that 6od is Dhere, he*s everywhere,F but even Tom finds it hard to believe in
this blea( place.
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On his first day of wor( in the fields, Tom notices the women. Eucy is finding it hard to pic(
fast enough, so Tom puts some cotton from his bag into hers. Apparently people don*t help
each other this way on Eegree*s plantationH several slaves, including Sambo, warn Tom that
he will be whipped. 3ut !assy" described as a beautiful and light"s(inned woman, who pic(s
better and faster than anyone" puts cotton into Tom*s bag. The other slaves seem surprised to
see !assy in the field. They are a little in awe of her" and she won*t allow Sambo or >uimbo
to lay a hand on her.
Although Eegree bought Tom e,pecting to ma(e him an overseer, he recogni:es that Tom
isn*t mean enough to handle the )ob. 3ecause Tom had helped Eucy, he orders him to whip
her. Tom refuses because it isn*t right. Eegree is furious that a slave dare tell him about right
and wrong. 9on*t I own you, body and soulK he cries. Tom replies that his soul belongs to
6od, not Eegree. Then Sambo and >uimbo whip him.
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After the whipping, !assy tries to ma(e Tom comfortable. She reads the 3ible to him, as he
re4uests, but tries to convince him that there is no point in struggling against Eegree. The
plantation is isolated, she argues, and there are no white people around to testify against
Eegree in court. 5The word of blac(s was not accepted as testimony.8 DThere*s no law here, of
6od or man,F !assy e,plains. 3ut Tom tells her that he*s lost everything that matters to him,
and DI can*t lose heaven, too.F !assy tells Tom how she came to be Eegree*s mistress. The
daughter of a wealthy white man in <ew Orleans and a slave woman, she was educated in a
convent. 'hen her father died suddenly, however, she was sold. She loved the man who
bought her, and they had two children, although he would not marry her. 3ut he contracted
gambling debts and sold the three of them. 'hen 3utler, her new master, refused to help her
rescue her son from his new owners, she stabbed him and he sold her again. 1er ne,t owner
treated her (indly and tried to find her son and daughterH however, the son had vanished and
the daughter*s owners would not part with her. !assy had a child with this man, !aptain
Stuart, but she resolved not to raise another child and gave her little boy an overdose of
opium. !aptain Stuart later died in a cholera epidemic, and !assy was sold yet again.
ventually she ended up with Eegree. At the end of !assy*s story, Tom tries to spea( to her of
6od, but !assy cries, D1e isn*t herePF
*632> ,)+/8 384 ,"IT/ +/8 D+#S. ST),/ 4I4 8)T "IT T"/ S)#/ST S7)TG !assy*s
story of being bought by a white man who made her his mistress may sound familiar to you, for many of the
slave women in Uncle Tom*s !abin" especially young, pretty, light"s(inned ones" report the same e,perience.
9id white men fre4uently ta(e se,ual advantage of slave girls, or is this melodrama and e,aggerationK !ertainly
many of 1arriet 3eecher Stowe*s contemporaries believed that such relationships constituted one of the worst
abuses of slavery. Abolitionist Sarah 6rim(e, who came from a wealthy slave"holding South !arolina family,
wrote that Dwomen are bought and sold in our slave mar(ets, to gratify the brutal lust of those who bear the name
of !hristians.F Slave narratives" accounts written by escaped slaves, usually with the help of abolitionist editors
told similar stories. DEydia 3rentF e,plained in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl+
Aor years, my master has done his utmost to pollute my mind with foul images, and to destroy the pure
principles inculcated by my grandmother, and the good mistress of my childhood. The influences of
slavery had had the same effect on me that they had on other young girlsH they had made me
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!assy scolds Eegree for beating Tom, one of his most capable slaves, so that he won*t be able
to wor( during a busy season. Although Eegree owns !assy, she has some power over him.
1e believes that she Dhas the devil in her,F and !assy encourages this fear. Sambo brings
Eegree a charm, which he calls Da witch thingF that he*s found around Tom*s nec(. =ou
recogni:e the silver dollar that 6eorge Shelby gave Tom when they parted, and the loc( of
little va*s hair. As the hair winds around Eegree*s fingers, he screams and throws it into the
'hy is Eegree so frightenedK Stowe e,plains by telling you his life story. In <ew ngland,
Eegree has been raised by a loving, religious mother. 5It*s interesting that the most evil man in
Uncle Tom*s !abin is a <ortherner, not a Southerner, by birth.8 1e has become evil because
of his father*s influence, fallen in with bad company, and run away to sea. One night, while
partying with his friends, he received a letter telling him his mother was dead. It contained a
loc( of her hair, which frightened him because he felt reproached by her from beyond the
grave and feared he was going to hell. va*s hair has the same effect on him. /ale and
sweating, Eegree tells himself that he*s bewitched. 1e calls for Sambo and >uimbo, although
it is late at night, and the three drin( and dance.
'hy does 1arriet 3eecher Stowe ma(e so much of mothersK Some modern readers view this
as part of her sentimentality. They point to scenes li(e the one in which young Eegree, eager
to return to the wild life on his ship, throws his mother to the ground. They laugh at the way
prematurely (nowing, concern