The narrator recalls the beauty of his college campus. He says he thinks of it often in his hole. He gives a florid description of flowers, dorms, the moonlights, and other aspects of the scene. He remembers the central statue of the college’s Founder. In his pose, the Founder seems to be lifting a veil, but the narrator is “unable to decide whether the veil is being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place.”
For the narrator, the college seems nearly magical, a place where he can advance himself and earn a place at the top of black society. The Founder, resembling the real-world Booker T. Washington, is the hero of the school’s model, but it is unclear if the school itself fights against or preserves white interests.
The narrator remembers that in the beauty of the college in the spring, when millionaire benefactors from the North would come to visit and inspect the campus. They would come and look and leave checks when they left, a product of the “alchemy of moonlight.”
The narrator hints that part of the school’s “magic” is that white donors support it. It is the money of these millionaires that allow the school to look picturesque, but it is also unclear why they are interested in supporting the school.
The narrator remembers chauffeuring for one of these millionaires in his junior year, a man named Mr. Norton. He is an old and aristocratic man from Boston, one of the college’s original founders. The narrator is eager to please Mr. Norton, and apologizes for every small mistake. With time to kill before his next meeting, Mr. Norton tells the narrator to drive anywhere he pleases.
When the narrator is introduced to Mr. Norton, Mr. Norton seems almost larger than life. Mr. Norton is a man who is responsible for creating the college, the place where the narrator believes his dreams will be fulfilled. In his gratitude, he is willing to do anything for Mr. Norton.
Mr. Norton recounts the early days of the college, telling the narrator that he only helped assist the Founder’s vision. He tells the narrator that the college and its students are part of his “pleasant fate.” The narrator turns the car down an unfamiliar road, an area that Mr. Norton says he doesn’t recognize.
Mr. Norton’s stories of the Founder make Mr. Norton seem almost mythical to the narrator. In his naïveté, the narrator is also leading Mr. Norton off of the familiar paths to which he is accustomed.
The narrator asks Mr. Norton why he became interested in the school. Mr. Norton tells him that he feels connected to the destiny of the black race. Mr. Norton tells the narrator that he is part of Mr. Norton’s fate, and that whatever he choses to do will become part of Mr. Norton’s legacy.
It is revealed that Mr. Norton donates to the college because of an abstract sense of destiny. Mr. Norton is interested in students like the narrator because their success will increase his own legacy and power. His generosity is really selfishness.
Mr. Norton then explains a second reason, telling the narrator that he once had a daughter. He exalts his daughter’s beauty, saying that “to look upon her was to drink and drink and drink again.” He shows the narrator a miniature portrait of his daughter, and the narrator agrees that she is beautiful. Mr. Norton recounts that she became ill and died in Italy, and that his philanthropic work is all done in her memory.
Mr. Norton’s attachment to his daughter is very strong, and the language he uses to describe her beauty is sexualized. It is subtly implied that there is something out of the ordinary in Mr. Norton’s love for his daughter, an unconscious attachment that causes his philanthropy.
Mr. Norton tells the narrator “you are my fate.” He asks the narrator to promise to tell him what he becomes. The narrator finds the conversation to be a little crazy, but agrees to someday tell Mr. Norton his fate. Mr. Norton continues to talk about the destiny of “the race,” saying that the Founder had the power of a king or a god because he influenced so many lives.
Mr. Norton’s obsessive repetition of “fate” underscores how misguided and fanciful his idea of the college is. He knows nothing about the narrator. To accept Mr. Norton’s idea of fate would make the narrator “invisible,” lost in another man’s idea of the world and of him, the narrator.
The narrator drives the car into an unfamiliar territory near campus. Mr. Norton admits not recognizing the area, which is mostly populated by poor shacks. At Mr. Norton’s command, the narrator stops in front of a dingy log cabin. The narrator is suddenly sorry that he drove to this area, as he recognizes that the cabin belongs to Jim Trueblood, “a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community.” Once a well-liked singer of spirituals, Trueblood is now reviled up at the college.
It becomes clear that Mr. Norton’s knowledge of the college is slim, as the area becomes completely unrecognizable to him just a few miles from campus. Outside the bubble of the college, the harsh conditions of the post-slavery south are apparent. Trueblood is similarly a sign of social ills that the wishful thinkers of the college would wish to obscure in order to keep the millionaire's money flowing.
The narrator tells Mr. Norton that the cabin is from “slavery times,” which confuses and disturbs Mr. Norton. Outside the cabin, there are two pregnant women washing their clothes. The narrator tries to steer Mr. Norton away from the women, but Mr. Norton insists on trying to talk to them. The narrator tells Mr. Norton that Trueblood is hated at the college but won’t explain why. Noticing that there are two pregnant women but only one husband, Mr. Norton asks for an explanation. Reluctantly, the narrator explains that Trueblood has impregnated both his wife and his daughter.
The idea that black homes from before the Civil War could still exist shocks the ignorant Mr. Norton, who wishes to believe that his actions have fundamentally changed the conditions of the black community. The narrator tries to steer Mr. Norton away from Trueblood’s cabin, but it is clear that there is a whiff of scandal that attracts Mr. Norton.
Mr. Norton is stunned by this information, and asks repeatedly if the story is true. The narrator affirms it, and Mr. Norton is horrified to an unusual degree. Simultaneously, Trueblood himself appears from his cabin. Mr. Norton insists that he must speak with Trueblood. Ashamed but too afraid to disobey, the narrator follows Mr. Norton as he approaches Trueblood, who has a grisly wound on his face.
Mr. Norton’s reaction to the crime of a man he does not know is disproportionately strong, and Trueblood’s crime seems closely linked to Mr. Norton’s sexualized description of his own daughter. Mr. Norton is offended, but secretly he is also titillated.
Mr. Norton asks Trueblood if the story of his deed is true and remarks, “You did and are unharmed!” The narrator notices a trace of envy in his voice. Trueblood replies that he feels all right. Excited, Mr. Norton takes Trueblood into the shade and asks him how he is faring. Trueblood begins to tell his story.
By asking to speak with Trueblood, Mr. Norton uses the pretext of philanthropy to mask a voyeuristic desire to hear about Trueblood’s incest.
Trueblood remarks that before the impregnation no one would help him, but now curious people are more than ready to offer him aid. The college tried to pay to send Trueblood away from the campus, but Trueblood refused. When the whites of the area found out what Trueblood did, they listened intently to his story and offered him help as well. He now has more work than ever before.
Trueblood’s crime is an important signal of race relations: to the black community, he is a symbol of the backwards past. However, to whites, he is a symbol of black inferiority, and the local authorities are more than happy to listen to and publicize his story.
Trueblood begins by telling them that when they were at their poorest, he, his wife Kate, and their daughter Matty Lou all slept in the same bed together to fight off the cold. While worrying at night, Trueblood hears his daughter saying “Daddy.” Trueblood begins to weave a poetic tale, evoking his past memories. He wonders if Matty Lou is thinking about a boy he wants to discourage, and Matty Lou begins rubbing against him. He then tells Mr. Norton he fell into a dream.
Trueblood is a singer and storyteller, and as he begins to speak his character grows more complicated. The complex nature of his storytelling underlines that he is more than simply an ignorant criminal. His power of speech represents traditions and talents that are native to black culture and cannot be easily wiped away.
In his dream, Trueblood goes to see a man named Mr. Broadnax to buy some meat. Against protocol, he goes into the house, only to find no one inside. He walks into a white bedroom. The smell of women is rising, and Trueblood sees a white woman step out of a grandfather clock. Trueblood tries to escape through the clock but the woman is holding him back. He breaks her hold and runs into the clock.
Trueblood’s dream focuses on the appearance of a white woman. Similar to the white woman before the battle royal, the woman in Trueblood’s dream represents something taboo for a black man. The dream places Trueblood’s crime in dialogue with the history of white oppression.
In the dream, Trueblood runs down a tunnel until he begins to float. He sees a graveyard ahead, then a burst of electric light. Trueblood wakes up to find that he is having sex with Matty Lou, who is hitting him and shaking. Realizing that he is already inside her, Trueblood rationalizes that he enjoys the feeling and needs to see the event through. The narrator tries to interrupt the story, but Mr. Norton silences him.
Trueblood rationalizes his crime as something inescapable: he has already begun, so he might as well see his act through. Trueblood’s terrible crime is reflective of both his hopelessness and the power of a taboo desire that lies deep beneath the social norms of the community.
In the story, Trueblood’s wife Kate discovers the moment of incest and screams. Kate starts throwing objects at Trueblood and then grabs his shotgun. Trueblood pleads with her not to “spill blood,” and Kate attacks him instead with a hot iron. Trueblood resolves to take his punishment, but when Kate returns with an ax, Trueblood dodges the blow that nearly cuts off his head. He gets a nasty gash. Kate drops the axe and begins to vomit.
Kate’s reaction to the incest reinforces the grotesque nature of Trueblood’s action. Trueblood has broken one of the central conventions of society: the traditional roles in the family of parent and child. Trueblood first says that he will take Kate’s punishment of the ax, but ultimately his will to survive is too strong.
Trueblood, filled with dread, waits to be struck down by god but is not. Kate takes Matty Lou and the other children away from the house. Trueblood confesses to a preacher, but the preacher is so aghast he sends Trueblood away. Trueblood can only sing the blues. He returns to his house, where Kate and Matty Lou assume he has run off. He discovers that both Kate and Matty Lou are pregnant, but he resolves not to leave them. He concludes, saying that even though his family won’t speak to him, he’s better off than before.
Trueblood’s story finds no resolution in religion. God doesn’t strike him down and the preacher is unable to accept his repentance. Trueblood retreats to singing the blues, a traditional black expression of woes that are too terrible to express any other way. In part, Trueblood’s story emphasizes the way in which misery is the most typical black story in America, and that whites are happy to help prop up his failure.
After hearing Trueblood’s story, Mr. Norton has become completely pale. The narrator asks if Mr. Norton is all right and convinces the shaken trustee to return to the car. Mr. Norton gives a hundred-dollar bill to Trueblood, telling him to buy his children some toys. The narrator is angry with Trueblood for being the one that Mr. Norton rewards, despite his sickening deed. Weakened, Mr. Norton says that he needs to have a “stimulant,” or a drink, to calm himself. Still wishing to please, the narrator heads for the Golden Day, the only bar nearby.
Mr. Norton earlier said that the fate of black people was part of his destiny. If Trueblood can be considered part of Mr. Norton’s destiny, the hundred-dollar bill is designed to assuage Mr. Norton’s guilt. Mr. Norton is again divided, both aroused and horrified by Trueblood’s story. The simplicity of Mr. Norton’s narrative about black progress has been shattered.