The narrator wakes in a hospital to see a man—a doctor—with what appears to be a bright third eye glowing in the center of his forehead. The narrator finds himself wearing a white pair of overalls. The doctor gives him something to swallow, and he loses consciousness again. Later, he wakes on a cot to see the third eye burning into his own eye. The doctor asks him for his name, but the narrator can only think about his pain. The “pink-faced” doctors begin using electrical shock treatment on him. The narrator cannot remember why he is in the hospital. He hears machines humming in the background and music that sounds like the cry of a woman in pain.
The doctors argue about how to proceed with the narrator: one wants to continue with the electrical shocks, while another believes that such means are rather primitive and argues that they wouldn’t use electrical shocks on someone with a Harvard or New England background. The first doctor declares that electric shock will have the effect of a lobotomy (a surgical procedure that involves severing nerve fibers in the brain to alleviate certain mental disorders) and adds that both the narrator and society will be the better for this procedure. Someone suggests castration, but the doctor in charge chooses to continue with the electric shocks. As the shocks hit the narrator, someone muses that he is dancing, noting that “they [black people] really do have rhythm.”
The doctors ask the narrator a question, but he cannot understand the words. They write their question down on a card:
The doctors then write:
The narrator learns that he is in the factory hospital. The doctors tell him that he is cured and should dress and sign some papers in order to receive his compensation check. The director of the hospital urges him to find a quieter, easier job, since he is not ready for the difficulties of factory work. The narrator asks whether the director knows Mr. Norton or Dr. Bledsoe, joking that they are old friends of his.
The narrator leaves the hospital feeling as though an “alien personality” has taken hold of him. Roaming around in a trancelike stupor, he realizes that he has overcome his fear of important men like the trustees and Bledsoe. He wanders into the subway and sees a platinum blonde woman biting a red apple as the train heads for Harlem.
The narrator’s experiences in the hospital mark an important transition in Invisible Man, as the narrator experiences a figurative rebirth. Ellison fills this chapter with imagery equating the narrator with a newborn child—he wakes with no memory, an inability to understand speech, and a wholly unformed identity. The background music and noise made by the machines combine to sound like a woman moaning in pain, evoking the cries of a woman in labor. This rebirth, however, involves no parents: the narrator faces the doctors alone. The conspicuous lack of mother or father recalls the veteran’s advice that the narrator should be his own father—that is, create his own identity rather than accept an identity imposed on him from the outside. This rebirth scene signals the transformation of the narrator’s character as he moves into a different phase of his life. Having lost his job at the plant—his last remaining connection to the college—he can now remake his identity.
The narrator’s relationship with the hospital doctors dramatizes the consequences of invisibility and blindness as they are portrayed throughout the novel. Because the narrator has temporarily lost the ability to speak, his doctors are unable to learn anything about his identity, and because he has amnesia, he himself knows very little about who he is. As the scene progresses and the white doctors continue to fail to ascertain any information about their black patient, they increasingly fall back on racial stereotypes, collapsing him into a caricature, a kind of dancing Sambo doll like the ones that Tod Clifton sells in Chapter
The references to Southern folk culture in this chapter hearken back to earlier references of the same type, though they now have a different effect on the narrator. In Chapter
The idea of castration echoes the accidental sterilization of the Founder, another nameless black man who has been transformed into a stereotype. It also underscores white America’s hidden obsession with black sexuality, which we see in Mr. Norton’s bizarre curiosity about Jim Trueblood’s incest. As evidenced in Chapter
At the end of this chapter, the narrator’s invisibility has made him freer, even if it has not fully liberated him. As he sets out in New York, the narrator employs the veteran’s advice to hide himself by being in the open, to achieve a greater measure of freedom, to define his own identity, to become his own father, so to speak. The narrator’s ability to speak irreverently of men like Bledsoe and Norton demonstrates that he has overcome his blind devotion to the college and the ideology that rules it. Like the veteran, he no longer feels compelled to treat this slavish ideology with respect. Consequently, as he leaves the hospital, the narrator feels stronger, no longer afraid.