The protagonist butted and kicked a stranger who had called him an insulting name in the deserted street. And the beaten guy lay on the asphalt, moaning. Seeing it, the protagonist was disgusted and ashamed. Feeling he was like a drunken man, he wavered about on his weakened legs. Then he was amused.

Then I was amused: Something in this man's thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life. I began to laugh at this crazy discovery. Would he have awakened at the point of death? Would Death himself have freed him for wakeful living? But I didn't linger. I ran away into the dark, laughing so hard I feared I might rupture myself. The next day I saw his picture in the Daily News, beneath a caption stating that he had been "mugged." Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man! (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)

I don’t understand the highlighted part, and so it’s puzzling me why the protagonist was amused. Would you explain the sentence?

  • TO READERS: Please note that this question does not, as it at first appears to, ask for a critical interpretation but for the linguistic interpretation which OP requires as a basis for her subsequent critical interpretation. Jun 23, 2013 at 13:30

1 Answer 1


SUBJECT: Something in this man's thick head

  • That is, the “phantom” which the narrator conceives himself to be: “You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds.”

CONJOINED VERBS: had sprung out and beaten

  • That is, “had sprung out of his thick head (out of his mind) and had beaten”


  • Object, that is, of BEAT; SPRING is intransitive

PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE: within an inch of his life.

  • This is complicated.

    • First, it's an elliptical version of to within an inch of his life.
    • The object of the ellipted preposition to is within an inch of his life, which thus acts as a noun phrase equivalent to a point within an inch of his life.
    • The construction within DISTANCE of means “less than DISTANCE from”.
    • The phrase as a whole may be characterized as a “resultative object complement” of the verb BEAT: the locative modifies the object him and represents the outcome of BEAT: to bring him to a point lying less than a (figurative) inch from his life.
    • Finally, his life here means “the end of his life”—that is, “his death”.

So what amuses the narrator is the notion that it was not he himself but a ‘phantom’ inside the victim’s own mind which ‘externalized’ itself in the narrator and beat the victim so severely that he lies near death.

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