by Ralph Ellison
A wealthy white man who helped found the narrator's college, Mr. Norton is described by the narrator as a "symbol of the Great Traditions." Although he is convinced of his own liberalness and philanthropy, we have to question that as Mr. Norton never replies to the narrator's plea for employment and doesn't recognize the narrator in the subway. Mr. Norton serves as additional evidence in this novel for the futility of ideology. Although Mr. Norton insists that he sees his fate as linked to that of black individuals, he views his help in macro-level terms: that is to say, this many blacks will graduate, this many blacks will go on to these many careers, etc. Yet, when it comes to actual personal aid, which he had the opportunity to give to the narrator, Mr. Norton doesn't follow through on his professed commitment to racial progress.
There's a big honking question when it comes to Mr. Norton, though. Why is he so affected by Trueblood's story? Why did he slip the man 100 bucks? We have some theories. On the one hand, perhaps the wealthy and sheltered Mr. Norton is simply fascinated by Trueblood in the way that we are fascinated by Shamu at SeaWorld. Trueblood's existence is so far removed from Mr. Norton's own that he treats it as entertainment. On the other hand, it's hard not to notice Mr. Norton's obsession with his own daughter. He says, and we quote: "She was a being more rare, more beautiful, purer, more perfect and more delicate than the wildest dream of a poet. I could never believe her to be my own flesh and blood." While we will never know for sure whether he empathizes personally with Trueblood, Norton's statements about his own daughter certainly give us pause.