Chapter 9 Summary:
Starting out to Mr. Emerson office, the narrator has high hopes. He walks along outside and is joined by a zoot-suiter who speaks to him in jive. Though he understands it little, he is entertained nonetheless. As he sits down to breakfast at a diner, he reflects on the manner he must enact, one of vague seriousness to keep people guessing as they did with Bledsoe. He settles on omnipresence as the secret, thinking of how Bledsoe is always in his students' minds.
Entering Emerson's office, the narrator is deeply impressed by the luxuriousness of it, remarking that it must be an importing firm. A man surprises him and takes the letter from him. A few moments later, he invites him into an office and asks him questions. The narrator is put on edge when asked if he would consider attending another college and if he had opened the letters. The man babbles about Harlem clubs and his father, finally returning to the point in vague terms, asking the narrator to trust him. The narrator gets very angry and wants to given his opportunity to meet with Emerson. The man reveals that Emerson is his father and shows him the letter from Bledsoe, which states that the narrator will never be enrolled at the college again, and asks the employers to assist Bledsoe in keeping the narrator from trying to return. The reasons given to the contacts is that the narrator has gone astray and presents a danger to the delicate situation of the college.
Dazed, the narrator goes to leave but is asked by Emerson's son to keep the letter's contents a secret. The narrator agrees knowing that no one would believe him. The son mentions a job opening at Liberty Paints and wishes him luck. The narrator cannot help but feel betrayed and compares himself to a robin picked clean. Deciding to go back to the college and kill Bledsoe for playing him like a fool, he resolves to get any job immediately to fund his revenge. He is told to report to the paint plant the next day.
The narrator meets with a zoot-suiter the next morning when he sets off for his meeting.He is also involved in the race that Grandfather refers to and the narrator is subject to but is resolved to take it at his own pace. He significantly makes the point that he will not be run into the grave and hopes to coast downhill as much as possible. He is resisting the dominating factors of society against him but the narrator insists that one should keep to one path. The man's speech though is much more rapid than his travel and the narrator cannot keep up with it. All the narrator knows is that he likes the sound and speed of it. He remembers it from childhood but cannot remember it. Racing faster than the man, talking slower, lost to the memories of their shared past, the narrator has been culturally erased. He belongs to no community and accordingly everything the man says and does hits the narrator off balance. He cannot even decide whether he feels "pride or disgust" towards the man after he leaves.
The room he enters of Mr. Emerson's office is like a museum filled with colors, relics, and tropical animals. The aviary of birds sits near a bay window and when the narrator is left to himself in the main office, he wishes he could examine it but is worried that t may seem unbusinesslike. The birds are noticed after a period of silence they begin to rapidly flap their wings. It is described as savage. Ellison purposely makes the office both colorful and primitive. The birds flash with life for a moment, singing a tune and flapping their colorful wings. But the surge stops and the narrator is too scared to go see. The symmetry of the situations is striking. In the white mans' office he is taking a colored object and caging it. The birds can look upon New York from the window and can stretch their wings for an instant, but then are again confined. The narrator stands frozen across the room, admiring them as through a window but is kept by fear of the same white man to move any closer, thus being caged in himself. Any diversion or flash of life he might show could result in his expulsion, so he sits quietly in his cage and waits for his interview to let him fly around the room for a moment.
The facial and bodily expressions of the man who interviews him are detailed extensively by Ellison. After every comment he makes, he either looks pained and twists his body in some way or must hold back a scream. At one point he asks the narrator whether he cares to look beyond the face of matters and the mistake the narrator makes is his response that he does not care about the other things beyond the surface. Unable to understand even beyond the face of the man's comment, the narrator is shocked to learn that the man is Emerson's son, though his torment and pointed comments lead to something being strange. More importantly, he warns the narrator not to be blinded by the truth, an idea which keeps recurring in the text. The birds scream with fear as the narrator leaves the office, again acting as the parallel of his situation. The birds are set to reflect the sentiments he comes to in a minute. Bringing up another bird, the narrator realizes they have used him and picked him clean, like the robin in his song. They have kept him caged and running like some colorful toy or pet for their amusement.
Chapter 10 Summary:
Arriving at the plant, the narrator is sent to Mr. Kimbro who will be his boss. Mr. Kimbro, is very brusque and demanding, putting the narrator immediately on the job with very few instructions and the order not to ask questions. The narrator's first job is with the pure white paint that the company is known for. When the narrator mixes the wrong ingredient into the paint because he is afraid to ask Kimbro, the paint turns a dull gray underneath the white. Kimbro notices the difference and he is fired from the job and sent to another boss, Mr. Brockway. Brockway has a position in the basement as a sort of engineer, his education being years of experience at the plant, making the guts of the paint. Brockway is paranoid that the narrator is trying to take his job and is thus quite irritable toward him, asking him many questions about his past. He gives him a job checking the gauges on paint tanks and then is asked to shovel a mysterious brown pile into the machine. They get along agreeably enough for awhile; Brockway tells him stories of the boss begging him to come back to work and how he came up with the plant motto.
The peace ends after the narrator returns from retrieving his lunch. In the locker room he runs into what he thinks is a union meeting, where men who call each other brothers stare at him suspiciously and question whether they can trust him. Finally they allow him to get to his locker, by which point he has lost his appetite. He explains his delay to Brockway who explodes in anger at his participation in a union. Brockway physically attacks him, refusing to listen to the narrator's explanation. The narrator feels the tension snap inside him and fights off Mr. Brockway, knocking his teeth out. However, because of their inattention to the gauges in the room, the pressure goes over the allotted mark and Brockway laughing runs from the room as the narrator attempts to pull the valves back under control. He fails and the tanks burst. The narrator is covered in white paint and knocked unconscious.
The narrator's entrance to the paint plant is ominous as he must cross a bridge in the fog, implying that he is unable to see out and around him, and then he descends into a swarm of workers, implying facelessness. As he emerges into the plant then it seems as if he is merging with it too, being sucked up, losing sight and identity. Paint as a substance suggests the property of coverage, of hiding the material beneath the surface with a new, suffocating coat. By joining a plant which produces this covering substance, he becomes one of the tools of its creation. Ironically the companies name is Liberty Paints. Similarly his first task there is to make the pure white paint that the company is renown for. He mistakenly taints the purity and is fired. He is incapable of fulfilling their standards of whiteness. Hyprocrtitically, Kimbro allows a batch of impure white paint samples to be sent out anyhow. The narrator is inadequate but cannot figure out how he is supposed to act. His attempts though to cover reality are flawed.
Foreseeing later events, the narrator is sent down into the basement of the plant for his next task. He is in charge of keeping the gauges on tanks at an even keel, but at the end of the day, fails in this respect too. Brockway, his paranoid boss, invests in the narratives habit of interlocked storytelling. In explaining how the owner could not do without him and begged him to return to work when he had planned on retiring, Brockway, admits that he is at home underground, controlling the power he can get his hands on and being left alone by most of society. This echo rings deeply with that of the Prologue. He also tells of how he thought up the paint's motto. The narrator makes the connection to his own thinking that white is right. With this parallel to the vet doctor and Dr. Bledsoe, the danger inherent in producing the white paint takes on a broader meaning. That it explodes in his face is symbolic of his inability to control the pressures simply by watching a gauge or trying to fit himself into the boundaries designed by a dominant order of society.
The union meeting which the narrator walks into when he goes to get his lunch predicts the Brotherhood he will join later in the novel. However at this point, he is alarmed by the use of the term "Brother" and is quickly targeted as an enemy and an outsider. He feels stripped by the experience and is again frozen in his tracks. His fate is decided without his voice being allowed and he loses his appetite. The anger he feels even though he does not care to be a part of the group gives precedent for how easily he will be absorbed into the Brotherhood. It gives him structure and acceptance. In a plant priding itself on whitening and coverage, the narrator feels naked.He is turned on next by Brockway because of his hatred for unions. It does not matter that the narrator did not belong. He is torn on two sides, between defending himself at the union meeting and then to Brockway. As he and Brockway fight, the narrator knocks Brockway's teeth out before realizing that the man had bit him. Physically eaten away and consumed by the factory, the frantic pull he feels in all directions erupts in his face. In the end of the chapter, the paint does its job. He is covered and whitened.
Chapter 11 Summary:
The narrator wakes up to see doctors leaning over examining him. He is wearing new overalls and is given things to swallow. The doctors speak of him being stunned and needing to keep him under observation for a few days.Unable to provide his name, the doctors take another X-ray which the narrator is not quite capable of understanding in his state. He feels covered by nodes as someone in an electric chair. His mind is completely blank. He swims in and out of consciousness for what seems like days until he is again approached by questioning doctors. They argue over the better treatment, one feeling that surgery was best while the other supports his own machine which performs lobotomies without surgery. They discuss castration and his psychology as well. An electric current sent through him causes him to dance and he overhears comments about how blacks have rhythm but is not able to maintain a sense of anger. He is unable to differentiate between the world inside and outside of his eyelids.
Feeling lonely and bewildered, a man appears who thrusts cards in is face asking his name. He is unable to answer this or the subsequent cards asking for his mother's name and children's characters. Thrown into the role of a child, he is angered and lies mentally debating over his own identity. Finally, the doctors and a nurse release him from the tubes and machines and usher him into the director without allowing him to ask questions. The director notes that the narrator has been cured though the narrator never really knows from what. He is also told that he can no longer work at the plant but will receive ample compensation. The director blends in his mind with Mr. Norton and he asks if he knows the old man. Still feeling part of some scheme that Bledsoe and Norton have going against him, he begins to laugh but the director does not understand. The narrator leaves and wanders out around the plant, feeling strangely disconnected from his mind and body.
The narrator moves from being covered in white paint to being encased in a white, rigid chair. He is stared at and examined at the hospital like an object. In addition, he is wearing new clothes -- strange white overalls. He has a bitter taste in his mouth. For all intents and purposes, the narrator has become a science experiment. He is encased in a white world that he has tried to control for his own means but could not. At one point, he notices that he has been moved to a box with its lid open and is surrounded by machines. He is unable to maintain consciousness on his own, saying he fights against the waves of sleep but to no avail. The doctors feel they have been successful when the narrator admits that he cannot feel his head. He has been dispossessed and disembodied. The doctors argue over whether to cut him open or de-brain him through a non-surgical lobotomy. They discuss castration. He is a toy they play with as they look to change his personality and reconstruct a new man. He tries to hang onto his self and his past, yet is unsuccessful for the most part. For example, he hears songs from his youth but they are interrupted by pain. He open his eyes from the dreams and can only see glass and metal bearing down upon him. He becomes incapable of distinguishing between his body and the machines.
The future foreshadowed when he crosses the bridge has been fulfilled. He forgets his own name and his mother's name. They next ask if he remembers children's fictional characters and he is conscious of his state to the extent that he can realize that he has become a fictional character. In this world, he is their doll. His mind is so altered that he cannot defend himself. However, due to the trauma he undergoes in their white world, he is better able to comprehend its hypocrisy when he is released. He is not too far off the mark when he asks the hospital director if he knows Mr. Norton or Dr. Bledsoe. The narrator has become the robin of his song and is fully picked clean.