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My literature class assigned "The Black Ball" by Ralph Ellison. The strange white man offering a card for a union meeting has just left, and John's boss Mr. Berry has come to check on his work, especially the brass which John was so careful to polish.

"Good morning, John," Mr Berry said. I turned, and there he stood; derby, long black coat, stick, nose glasses and all. He stood gazing into the brass like the wicked queen into her looking glass in the story which the boy liked so well.

I think that this is a reference to the queen in Snow White, who asks the looking glass for the fairest lady in all the land. I'm not sure why it was brought up, though. Why couldn't it just say that he stared at the brass and left it at that? Or, if a more flowery description was needed, why Snow White specifically? I also noted this passage from earlier, where John recounts the normal way this interaction goes:

"Good morning, John." he would say, looking not at me but at the brass.
"Good morning, sir." I would say, looking not at him but at the brass. Usually his face was reflected there. For him, I was there. Besides that brass, his money, and the half-dozen or so plants in his office, I don’t believe he had any other real interests in life.

So both of them look into the brass, which is also the looking glass? I assume the brass is important, given how much word-space is lavished upon it, but how does Snow White's queen relate to all this?

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  • "the story which the boy liked so well" - did you read the entire book already? (I did not even know it existed). This quote fragment might have an answer in the book , to clarify if it is about the Snowwhite or not.
    – virolino
    Apr 24, 2023 at 5:41
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    I'm not sure why this was down-voted, it is a good question. The allusion to Snow White is clear enough that it does not need to be spelled out. Apr 24, 2023 at 9:09
  • @virolino yes, I read the story a few times before posting. There is not further clarification or description about what fairy tales are told to the son.
    – bobble
    Apr 24, 2023 at 13:44

2 Answers 2

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There are two questions here: the importance of the brass, and the allusion to ‘Snow White’.

First, the importance of the brass. This is explained early in the story. Berry, the building manager, is proud of the shine on his brass fittings, and the narrator John fears that he could lose his job if he fails to keep them polished:

I gave special attention to that brass because for Berry, the manager, the luster of these brass panels and door handles was the measure of all my industry. […] Besides that brass, his money, and the half-dozen or so plants in his office, I don’t believe he had any other real interests in life.

There must be no flaws this morning. Two fellows† who worked at the building across the street had already been dismissed because whites had demanded their jobs, and with the boy at that age needing special foods and me planning to enter school again next term, I couldn’t afford to allow something like that out on the sidewalk to spoil my chances.

Ralph Ellison (1938). ‘The Black Ball’. In John F. Callahan, ed. (1996). Flying Home and Other Stories, p. 111. New York: Random House.

† “fellow, n. 13. U.S. regional (southern) depreciative. A black man.” (OED)

Some background might be necessary here. Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, and when exposed to the atmosphere it develops a dark patina of copper oxide. Modern brass fittings are usually coated with a transparent lacquer to protect the metal from oxidation, but in the early 20th century when the story is set, this was not the case, and so to keep the brass shiny, it was necessary for someone to remove the patina by polishing the metal on a regular basis.

Second, the allusion to Snow White. The question describes this as a “flowery description”, but it is in the form of a simile: “He stood gazing into the brass like the wicked queen into her looking glass”. Figurative language (similes and metaphors) is not just for decoration, it is a compact form of description that takes multiple aspects from one thing (here, the wicked queen) and applies them to another (here, Berry).

So we should interpret this simile by considering all the aspects in which Berry is like the queen in ‘Snow White’. Here’s what I came up with:

  • They are both rulers of their domains (the building service department and the fairy-tale kingdom).
  • They both like to spend time looking at shiny objects (the brass and the magic mirror).
  • They are both vain (of the shine of the brass and of their personal beauty).
  • They are both capable of wicked actions (replacing John with a white man and poisoning Snow White).
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The Brass

As for why the author puts so much emphasis on Mr. Berry gazing into the brass in general, I can think of a few purposes.

First, it illustrates the basics of Mr. Berry's personality. The fact that he cares about the brass at all means that he likes things to be clean and orderly. The fact that he spends a very long time looking at the brass ("gazing into", as opposed to "glancing at") indicates that he is not easily pleased.

Second, it illustrates the relationship between Mr. Berry and the narrator. Mr. Berry avoids eye contact with the narrator by gazing at the brass, which reinforces that he does not see the narrator as an equal. More than that, by looking at the narrator's reflection in the brass instead of looking at him directly, he is literally only seeing the narrator through his work; this symbolically implies that he judges the narrator only in terms of utility to himself. "For him, I was there [in the brass]." The narrator does not try to make eye contact with Mr. Berry either, presumably because that might displease him, and the narrator is already worried about losing his job to a white applicant.

Now, I admit that you could make these points without referring to Snow White specifically.

Comparing Mr. Berry to "the wicked queen" is certainly not a flattering comparison. It implies that the narrator sees his boss as a villain or antagonist, probably a self-absorbed one. (Given the rest of the story, I'd say the author wants us to agree with that assessment.) But I would argue that the main purpose of the Snow White reference is to introduce and comment on an otherwise unrelated topic: "the boy".

The Boy

It is emphasized throughout the short story that "the boy", i.e. the narrator's son, is so young and innocent that he does not yet understand racism. The narrator seems to want to shield him from this knowledge for as long as possible; note how, in their first conversation, he tries to divert his son's attention away from the idea that he is "black".

Ellison's reference to the old fairy tale plays into this. The boy loves the story of Snow White—a heroine who is literally praised for the paleness of her skin—in a simple, childlike, and uncritical way. Unlike his father, he has not yet learned to view white people with suspicion, or absorbed the idea that his own brown skin is considered inferior.

Aside from that, the fact that the narrator makes this connection between Mr. Berry's behavior and his son's favorite story illustrates that he is thinking of his son even when he isn't there. From a purely physical perspective, the boy is not a character in this scene, but in another sense he has been included via the reference.

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  • While I appreciate the extra analysis of the boy's relationship to the Snow White tale, as my bolding/question indicates that's not what I was primarily interested in. Only your "aside" addresses my question at all. And it's not much, just saying that it makes Me. Berry look bad. I was hoping for some analysis of any Mr. Berry would be looking into the brass, perhaps tying into the other quote I pulled, which discusses who is seeing what in the brass/mirror.
    – bobble
    Apr 24, 2023 at 19:03
  • @bobble: I have expanded and revised my answer.
    – MJ713
    Apr 24, 2023 at 20:21

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