The protagonist arrives at Liberty Paints resolved to make money to support himself in spite of his failed dream. He is given work and is told by a fellow employee that he is hired because he is a former college student who doesn't belong to a union; therefore, they don't have to pay him union wages. The protagonist is sent to work for Kimbro who is very aggressive and yells at his subordinates. Kimbro explains that his job will be to put the dope required for the paint into each bucket. He must place exactly ten drops of black liquid into each bucket in order to produce the optic white color. Kimbro boasts that the optic white is the whitest white and is so good that it is the brand used on government buildings. When they run out of dope, Kimbro instructs the narrator get more from the tack room, but the protagonist gets the wrong thing and ruins a few batches of paint. Kimbro is very upset and eventually dismisses the protagonist.
However, the protagonist is not fired. He is reassigned to work with Lucius Brockaway, a long-time black employee in the basement. Brockaway boasts that he is an irreplaceable part of the company and that no one has "the touch" that he has when it comes to making paint. Brockaway performs an engineering job and directs the protagonist to watch the gauges that monitor the making of the mixture. They work diligently and eventually break for lunch. The protagonist returns upstairs to retrieve his lunch from the area that he was originally assigned. Attempting to get his lunch, he walks in on a union meeting and is accused of being a fink, particularly because he works for Lucius Brockaway, an enemy of the union. Although the protagonist never asks to be a member, they vote on whether or not he can stay and eventually decide to monitor him. If he proves to not be a trouble maker, he will be allowed membership. When he returns, he is questioned by Brockaway as to why he was gone for so long. The protagonist truthfully responds that he had walked in on a union meeting, and Brockaway flies into anger. The protagonist and Brockaway fight until Brockaway bites him viciously and loses his teeth in the process. Brockaway apologizes and explains that he feels threatened by the union and sees their presence as treachery. During this time, the mixture is overheating and they struggle to turn the gauges down. Brockaway, knowing what will happen next, escapes from the scene but the protagonist stays too long and is left to suffer the explosion. He is incapacitated, hears voices around him and realizes that Brockaway ultimately got the better of him.
This chapter takes place in the protagonist's mind. He is under a physician's care in the factory hospital and has been given something to ease the pain. He hears voices around him who say that he needs to be kept under observation for a few days. He is also asked questions such as what his name is and other questions that signify that he is aware of his identity. During this time he also hears Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" and other pieces of music in his mind. He experiences a slight crisis of identity during this time and thinks to himself "When I discover who I am, I will be free."
After this experience, he comes to consciousness and is informed that he is "cured" and will be released. He is also told that he cannot return to work because he has to rest. He is concerned about pay and asks questions about Mr. Norton and Dr. Bledsoe. He experiences a transition of sorts, and after this experience, he returns to Harlem.
It could be said that the protagonist undergoes a rebirth of sorts during this section. After performing his job at Liberty Paints and being injured, he undergoes a shift that will signal a new day in his life. The factory hospital section could be considered as a period of incubation in which the protagonist emerges as a new person.