When the narrator exits the subway into Harlem, he is suddenly overcome by weakness. Barely able to walk, he nearly collapses.
The narrator is still weak from his experience at the hospital, an indication that he has not been cared for properly.
A large black woman named Mary Rambo asks the narrator what’s wrong. He replies that he’s just weak, and tells her he’s staying at Men’s House. Mary Rambo tells him that Men’s House is nowhere to stay for a man in his condition, and with the help of another man named Ralston the narrator is taken to stay at Mary Rambo’s house. Mary is apparently well known in Harlem for helping those in need. Mary puts the barely-conscious narrator to bed.
Mary Rambo is an example of the goodness that can come from cooperation in the black community. Mary is happy to take the narrator home to nurse him to health, as she believes that all black people should look out for one another. Her belief in community is a source of strength for the narrator.
The narrator awakens in Mary Rambo’s house. Mary is across from the bed, reading the paper. Mary tells the narrator that he can leave after he’s had some soup, and that she could tell that he came from a hospital. The narrator says that he didn’t want to trouble anybody.
The narrator is still in the position of thinking of himself as a complete individual, isolated from the concerns of the greater community. Mary, by insisting on helping him, reminds him of the strength of community bonds.
Mary asks the narrator both why he came to New York and what he intends to become. The narrator tells her that he used to want to be an “educator,” but that now he doesn’t know. Mary tells him to make sure to do something that is a “credit to the race.” She tells him that the young black people are the ones who have to change society. Finally, she tells the narrator not to become corrupted by New York, and that he can always come back if he wants to rent a room.
The narrator’s desire to become an educator is merely the leftovers of his past dream. The narrator has only learned about himself through negatives: he sees the examples of paths (like Bledsoe's) that he does not want to follow, but he does not know how to define what he actually is or wants to be.
Feeling somewhat better, the narrator returns to Men’s House. The lobby of the building seems different to the narrator, full of men who are “caught up in illusions.” He feels contempt for the collection of college boys, washed-up preachers, and well-dressed nobodies. Knowing that the men will disdain him when they learn that his dream of college is over, he realizes that he can no longer stay at Men’s House.
Upon his return to Men’s House, the narrator comes to feel that it is symbolic of his past hopes of easy success, as well as the illusions of others who have come to New York seeking meaning or salvation. He knows that the path he has to take is radically different.
In the lobby, the narrator hears a man holding forth whom he mistakes for Dr. Bledsoe. Instinctively, he empties a spittoon over the man’s head. The narrator immediately realizes that the man is not Bledsoe, but is in fact a prominent Baptist preacher. The narrator runs out of the lobby before anyone can catch him. Later, he pays a porter to slip his things out of the building. The “amused” porter tells him that he has been banned for “ninety nine years and a day.”
By attacking the supposed Dr. Bledsoe, the narrator illustrates his desire to act more aggressively against the hypocrisy of the system that has wronged him. The act also burns his bridges with Men’s House, ensuring that he will have to find his own way, separate from all the other puffed-up young men.
The narrator moves into Mary Rambo’s house, which he finds pleasant except for Mary’s constant talk about “leadership and responsibility.” The compensation money from the factory quickly runs out, and the narrator must look for work again. Despite his lack of funds, Mary doesn’t criticize the narrator, feeding him as well as ever at dinner.
Although the narrator respects Mary, he has some reservations about her community-oriented worldview. He recognizes that there is strength in her sense of togetherness, but he also wants to be recognized as his own person.
When the narrator isn’t looking for work, he begins to read obsessively at the library. He also wanders the city late at night when he has a little money. Mary is his only friend in New York, a force of stability in his life. She also makes the narrator feel as if something is expected from him, some future contribution of leadership. The narrator passes the time this way until the winter.
The narrator is entering a new period in his life. He has taken the responsibility of education upon himself instead of depending on answers from others. He does not know what he will do yet, but he is beginning to discover that he is someone different than the person who simply wanted to become Bledsoe’s assistant.
The narrator remarks that his time in New York had already changed him, filling him with a voice of anger and revenge. The narrator compares his new feelings of hot anger to the “ice cap” of his old way of thinking. He remarks that slowly but surely, the ice is beginning to melt. He remembers how much he wished to return to college, but also knows that his dream has been severed in one “snap!”
For his entire life, the narrator has been trained to respect the order of the white-controlled system. Now that that world has definitively failed him, he begins to consciously recognize the injustices present in that system. The result is a deep-seated anger that will drive him to action.
The narrator hears all the contradictory voices of the past swirling in his head. He is suddenly filled with the desire to make speeches. As he walks through the city, words he can barely control spill from his lips. One day, he notices that winter has come.
The key to the narrator’s future begins to open in his desire to make speeches, a sign that he is beginning to find his true role from the ashes of his past as a debater.