The narrator finds himself in a white chair in a hospital setting, wearing white overalls. He is given medicine and hears voices talking about his condition. He hears that he will be kept under observation for a few days. The doctors ask the narrator questions, but he can barely respond. In the sterile environment, the narrator’s mind seems “blank.” The scene recedes from the narrator.
In the hospital setting, whiteness is equated with cleanness and health. The narrator has a great deal of difficulty collecting his thoughts after the explosion at the paint factory, an indication that after his failed experience he is even more severed from his past life and himself.
When the narrator’s mind clears again, he finds himself strapped down inside a “glass and nickel box.” The narrator believes he hears sounds like music coming from far away but can’t identify them. He thinks of silly songs from his childhood. He also hears what sounds like doctor’s voices.
When the narrator finds himself in the box, he has become more of a specimen in an experiment than a patient. The white, sterilized space confuses him, allowing his mind to wander back to the familiarity of childhood.
A doctor with thick glasses asks the narrator how he’s feeling. The narrator replies that he doesn’t have enough room in the box. The narrator overhears that the box is designed to treat him instead of surgery, replacing the effects of a lobotomy. The doctors talk about the societal benefit of the treatment, and also wonder if the machine will work differently on a black man.
There is something unreal about the hospital facility, which is never described in realistic terms. The doctors don’t treat the narrator like a human, and their speech seems informed by eugenics, the idea that certain races are biologically inferior to others.
The doctors continue to discuss the best way to treat the narrator, and one doctor suggests castration. The doctors eventually agree to treat the narrator with huge electric shocks. The narrator is shocked so hard that his body writhes. Seeing this, a doctor remarks, “They really do have rhythm, don’t they?”
The doctors, supposedly members of an ethical profession, quickly reveal that they are cruel and careless. They shock the narrator to try to “cure” him, though his only “illness” is his blackness.
The narrator realizes he should be angry at this cruel treatment, but he only feels distant. After the treatment, the narrator can barely move inside the box. He feels the world as a series of indistinct sensations. He realizes that voices are trying to speak with him, but he cannot understand or answer them.
The narrator’s mind has been potentially damaged by shock treatment, and he is unable to summon the anger that guided him earlier. Having lost his last opportunity, he feels no need to speak with the doctors.
When the narrator regains semi-consciousness, he sees two doctors above him arguing heatedly. A man approaches the box with a card that reads “WHAT IS YOUR NAME?” The question jolts the narrator, who realizes that he can no longer remember his name. The man asks him again, but he is incapable of answering. A series of similar written questions follow, and the narrator realizes he can’t think of his mother’s name either.
After the torture of modern medicine, the narrator is given a strange psychotherapy. The narrator realizes that the question of his name is no longer meaningful to him: he no longer feels like the person who previously held his name. He has become estranged from his own past experience.
After several questions of identity that the narrator cannot answer, one of the doctors writes “WHO WAS BUCKEYE THE RABBIT?” The question, appealing to black southern folklore, makes the narrator angry, but also it helps him focus his identity. He begins to associate himself with Buckeye the Rabbit. The doctors also ask about Brer Rabbit, another variation of the same folktale figure.
The narrator is unable to think coherently about his own identity, but the doctor’s question has a twofold effect. It is reflective of the narrator’s invisibility, as the doctors simply wish to recognize him through an obvious piece of black culture. However, it is also a piece of the narrator’s past that he has long ignored.
The narrator realizes that the question of his identity is a kind of game or “combat” that he’s playing with the doctors. He still cannot answer who he is. He thinks of trying to escape from the hospital machine, but realizes that it’s impossible. He thinks to himself “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
The “combat” the narrator recognizes is a tension between the role the doctors expect him to play and the identity he wishes to define for himself. The narrator knows that blackness is part of his identity, but is still unsure how.
Two doctors and a nurse remove the lid of the hospital machine and tell the narrator to get out. He is informed that he is in the “factory hospital.” The nurse helps the narrator climb out of the machine, after which doctors examine him. They remark that he is unusually strong, and end the exam by telling the narrator that he’s “cured.”
It is revealed that the hospital is actually attached to the factory, illustrating the way in which seemingly independent enterprises are part of a total system. The same factory that was responsible for the narrator’s injury has “cured” him of it.
The narrator dresses and is taken down an elevator to a reception room. He is told that the director of the factory will see him shortly. The director treats the narrator impersonally, asking what his name is but then looking at the narrator’s medical chart before the narrator can answer. The director tells the narrator that he’s cured. When the narrator tells the director that he’ll be happy to get back to work, the director tells the narrator that he is being released, as he is “not ready for the rigors of industry.”
The narrator’s meeting with the director of the factory is a bureaucratic formality, in which the director is far more interested in the factory’s potential liability than in how the narrator is actually feeling. By releasing the narrator, the factory is protecting its own interests, shielding itself from a potentially disgruntled employee.
The director tells the narrator to find a new job, something less strenuous. He also tells the narrator that he will receive compensation for his injuries if he will sign a paper absolving the factory of liability. The director tells the narrator that occupational hazards are part of growing up.
The factory’s compensation is intended to dissuade the narrator from thinking about (or suing for) the workplace accident. The director indicates that the injury was educational, part of growing up, which signals that the narrator should expect to be harmed by the factory system and the world in general.
Unexpectedly, the narrator asks the director if he knows Mr. Norton. The director tries to ignore the question, but the narrator asks him again. The director finally replies that he does not know him. The narrator jokes that Mr. Norton and Dr. Bledsoe are old friends of his. He is surprised by his new way of speaking to the director, and realizes that he is no longer afraid. Feeling very different, the narrator takes the train back to Harlem.
By asking the director questions about Mr. Norton and Bledsoe, the narrator breaks the formality of the meeting. The narrator is coming closer to the position of someone like the ex-doctor, who is not afraid to say what he thinks to a white superior because the superior has nothing to offer him.