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How Mr. Norton Personifies the Paternalistic Ethos

by Sean Lowe

 

            Invisible Man serves as criticism of insidiously subtle racist whites of the mid twentieth century.  These people felt blacks were incapable of self-reliance.  Although they did not outright express their views, they felt blacks needed not only the helping hand, but also the controlling hand of whites.   Mr. Norton personifies this paternalistic ethos in his dialogues and motives.

            Norton’s attitude towards Invisible Man and Invisible Man’s attitude towards Mr. Norton establish him as a father figure.  When Norton talks to Invisible Man, his tone is that of a superior vested with Invisible Man’s welfare.  He tells Invisible Man, “Whatever you become, and even if you fail, you are my fate.  And you must write me and tell me the outcome” (44).   This ostensible concern gives Norton a paternal quality, and emphasizes his role as a paternalistic black controller.  Invisible Man views Norton as a kind of great white father.  After the Golden Day incident, Invisible Man “wanted to stop the car and talk with Mr. Norton, to beg his pardon for what he had seen; to plead and show him tears, unashamed tears like those of a child before his parent…” (99). According to the doctor at the Golden Day, Norton “for all [his] power, [is] not a man to [the narrator], but a God, a force” (95).  Thus, Invisible Man’s attitude alone seems to place Norton as a superior father figure.

Norton is paternalistic not only in manner but also in motive because he essentially wants to control the students’ lives.  Norton indirectly expresses this paternal attitude as he continually states that African-Americans are part of his destiny.  He says the reason he supports the school is “because I felt even as a young man that your people were somehow closely connected with my destiny…That what happened to you was connected with what would happen to me…” (41). Noticeably, Norton never gives blacks’ a destiny of their own.  To Norton, their future is a mere extension of his future.  By subsuming black’s destiny under his own, Norton implies that he has some right to determine their future.  Norton provides for the students’ needs by funding the school, but is paternalistic because he simultaneously feels he can control their future.

Norton uses this control to repress blacks.  Norton’s “great dream” (38) is to help blacks in areas other than the pursuit of civil liberties.  Norton is for “forty years a bearer of the white man’s burden, and for sixty a symbol of the Great Traditions” (37).  The Great Traditions represent conservative values, and conservatives of Norton’s time felt superior to blacks.   Norton carries the white’s burden to help the blacks while still retaining these racist attitudes.  He wants to “teach others to rise up as he wished them to, teach them to be thrifty, decent, upright citizens, contributing to the welfare of all, shunning all but the straight and narrow path that he and the founder had stretched before us” (99).  Considering the school’s Booker T. Washington philosophy of “wait indefinitely for equal liberty,” the “narrow path that [Norton] and the founder had stretched before [the blacks]” (99) apparently does not lead to complete liberty.   Norton founded the school to create what the doctor at the Golden Day calls, “A walking zombie… [that has] learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity” (94).  This humanity is one’s yearning for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Thus, according to the doctor, Norton does not want free thinking, liberal warriors for equality, but automatons that reaffirm white supremacy.  Invisible Man is certainly being sarcastic when he says, “I believed in [Norton’s] own goodness and kindness in extending the hand of his benevolence to helping us poor, ignorant people out of the mire and darkness” (99).  In truth, Norton may hope the blacks receive more education and economic wellbeing but stops short of wishing equality upon them.  Ironically, Norton states that the blacks are his “ pleasant fate” (40).  Considering the racist motives of the college, however, blacks’ fate is not, in fact, pleasant, which Invisible Man intuitively observes, saying, “I had always thought of [fate] as something painful” (40).  This fate is painful because Norton wants blacks to live a fate that is digestible to him, a fate absent of social equality.

Norton uses blacks as faceless means to spread his influence and achievement.  Norton does not care about individual blacks, which is evident when he fails to ask for Invisible Man’s name.  Rather, Norton wants the black masses to succeed so that he can have more marks on what the doctor calls “the scorecard of [his] achievement” (95).  Norton says, “Through you and your fellow students I become, let us say, three hundred teachers, seven hundred trained mechanics, eight hundred skilled farmers, and so on.  That way I can observe in terms of living personalities to what extent my money, my time and my hopes have been fruitfully invested” (45).  Thus, to Norton, the students are a warped means of self-affirmation.  He seems to view them not so much as human beings, but as a project or investment which can be measured by success/failure.  Norton views Invisible Man as only “a black amorphous thing” (95) useful insofar as he brings him glory.  His other motive in building the school is to “construct a living memorial to [his] daughter” (45).  Again, Norton does not want success for the black students themselves, but for other, selfish ends.  Norton is indeed paternal, but like some parents, he only wants his children to succeed to make him look good.

Mr. Norton initially appears benevolent, but this appearance is quickly dispelled through his dialogue with Invisible Man.  He wants to help blacks only if it helps him, and he does not want to help them to a point of equality.   Norton wants to foster, but always check the free choice of blacks, and therefore he personifies the paternalistic ethos.  He will help blacks stand on their feet, but letting them walk in whatever direction they want is simply not one of “the Great Traditions” Norton symbolizes.

This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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