Now considered a classic of the American canon, Invisible Man (1952) was the only novel Ralph Ellison published during his lifetime. It received the National Book Award for fiction in 1953. Critics have discerned in this novel the influence of the writers Herman Melville, Mark Twain, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright, and the influence of the jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong. Autobiographical elements also appear in the work. From 1933 to 1936, Ellison studied music at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a school similar to the college that the narrator attends in the early chapters of Invisible Man. Like the narrator, Ellison left college to make his way in New York, and Ellison was interested in the Communist Party in the 1930s but later repudiated it, just as the narrator became a member of the Brotherhood and was later disillusioned with their methods and values.
Concerned with the collective black experience in America as well as an individual's quest for identity, the novel employs a narrative frame in which the prologue and epilogue depict the unnamed protagonist in the narrative present, and chapters one through 25 trace how the narrator's life develops to that point, from his high school graduation to the events that recently precede the prologue. The novel's structure also sometimes resembles a jazz performance, in which Ellison introduces key themes early on and then elaborates and varies them throughout the rest of the work. Speaking from his underground dwelling, the narrator explains his invisibility in the prologue: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me" (3). Rather than see the narrator for the individual he is, most people see only the stereotypes they have come to identify with African Americans. The prologue also introduces many of the themes and motifs to be explored throughout the novel: the tension between vision and blindness, the subversion of authority, dreaming or altered states of consciousness, the power of music and oratory, and color symbolism. Several times throughout the prologue, the narrator says that he is hibernating, but he also reminds us, "A hibernation is a covert preparation for more overt action" (13). Though the narrator speaks to the reader directly throughout the novel, the reader never learns his name, emphasizing his struggle to find his identity and making him a universal stand-in for us all. Chapter one goes back 20 years in the narrator's life to the high school graduation speech that he is to give for local white community leaders. Before he can give his speech, he suffers abuse and humiliation when he and several other young black men are made to participate in a battle royal for the amusement of the white men. When the narrator finally gives his speech, which echoes Booker T. Washington's advocacy of trust, responsibility, and humility for the black race, the reader cannot help but see the irony. After his speech, the narrator is awarded a leather briefcase and a scholarship to a black college.
In chapter 2, we find the narrator at the college. As a model student, he has been chosen to drive the visiting white patron, Mr. Norton, around the campus. They end up at the shack of Trueblood, a poor black sharecropper who has scandalized the community by committing incest and impregnating his daughter. The community's differing responses, charity from whites and ostracism from blacks, and Trueblood's name signify what whites think of him and what blacks fear whites will think of the entire race, that Trueblood's animalistic act typifies the habits of all African Americans. Ironically, Norton's voyeuristic fascination suggests that he vicariously fulfills his own desires through Trueblood, to whom he gives money for telling his story.
Then, after a disastrous visit to a saloon called the Golden Day, in which the narrator and Mr. Norton speak to an insane black war veteran and doctor, the narrator returns Mr. Norton to the college. Dr. Bledsoe, the school president, reproaches the narrator for driving the patron to these unsavory places, and he sends him to evening services while he makes apologies to Mr. Norton. At the services, the narrator listens to a speech by the Reverend Homer Barbee, who describes with reverence the college founder, a man much like Booker T. Washington. Near the end of the speech, the narrator discovers that Homer Barbee is blind, which suggests that his reverence for the founder is based on flawed vision. Afterward, the narrator learns that his punishment is to be suspended from school. In his anger, Dr. Bledsoe tells him that the only way to please a white man is to lie, echoing the dying words of the narrator's grandfather, which we had heard in chapter 1. Speaking of whites, the grandfather had told the narrator, "I a want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction" (16).
The narrator travels to New York with sealed letters of recommendation from Bledsoe and attempts to find employment. On his bus ride to New York, the narrator meets the black doctor who spoke to Mr. Norton at the Golden Day. The doctor tells the narrator to "learn to look beneath the surface. . . . Play the game, but don't believe in it" (153), again echoing the dying words of the narrator's grandfather. Understanding and deciding whether to act on this repeated advice becomes an important part of the narrator's experiences throughout the rest of the novel.
In New York, the narrator optimistically pursues employment, using Dr. Bledsoe's sealed letters. After several disappointing attempts, the narrator presents his letter at the office of Mr. Emerson. Due to a feeling of kinship with the narrator and alienation from his father, Mr. Emerson's son reveals that Bledsoe's letters are in fact instructions to thwart the narrator's efforts to find employment. This is one of the narrator's many disillusioning experiences, from which he learns that there may be wisdom in his grandfather's words.
Following a tip from young Mr. Emerson, the narrator applies for employment at the Liberty Paint Company, an establishment known for its brilliant white paint that is used for national monuments. The narrator's first job is to mix the white paint by adding 10 drops of a black liquid to the base. Once stirred, the black liquid disappears, making the white base even whiter. Ellison suggests here the appropriation of black labor and energy by white society and the invisibility of blacks in America. The name of the factory and the use of this paint on national monuments implicate the whole country in this exploitation. Unsatisfied with his work mixing the paint, the narrator's boss sends him to the factory basement, where he assists the black janitor, Mr. Brockway. Brockway essentially runs the whole factory, but his power comes at the price of reinforcing the white establishment. When Brockway begins a fight with the narrator over the narrator's supposed involvement with the union, a neglected steam valve (the white one) explodes, causing the narrator serious injury. Chapter 11 picks up on the motif of altered states of consciousness as the narrator lies in the factory hospital undergoing an experimental treatment that involves electric shock. As he regains consciousness, his inability to remember his name or the details of his life reifies the internal quest that drives the whole novel. His emergence from the glass box in which his treatment took place is a figurative rebirth. White doctors and nurses wearing white jackets deliver him and cut the electrical wire that attached him to the machinery like an umbilical cord.
Disoriented and homeless after being released from the hospital, the narrator meets Mary Rambo, a matronly black woman who takes the narrator in because of her kindness and because she is sure the narrator will one day be a "a credit to the race" (255). The narrator's experiences have changed his personality to some extent. He is no longer as naive and eager to please as he had previously been. For example, seeing an old black couple being evicted from their apartment, he gives an impassioned speech that rallies the crowd of bystanders into controlled action. Afterward, the narrator meets Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood. Having heard the narrator's speech, Jack convinces him to become part of the Brotherhood by telling him he can have a political impact that transcends race. But at his first Brotherhood party, a woman wonders if he "should be a little blacker" (303), and a drunk man asks him to sing spirituals, indicating that he is still being stereotyped by race. This theme of being unable to escape stereotypes continues when, on his last morning at Mary's house, the narrator discovers a racially offensive bank figurine in his room: "the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin" (319). He accidentally breaks this bank and decides to throw it away without mentioning it to Mary. However, getting rid of the figurine proves harder than he imagined. Each time he tries to throw it away, someone yells at him to take his garbage elsewhere or returns it to him. The offensive figurine follows him just as racial stereotypes follow him.
After training, the narrator becomes the Brotherhood representative in the Harlem district. There he meets another young black Brotherhood member, Tod Clifton, as well as a black man who violently opposes the Brotherhood's efforts, Ras the Exhorter. Ras resembles such black nationalists as Marcus Garvey, and he believes the narrator and Tod are race traitors because they are working alongside whites. While the narrator rejects Ras's views, Tod seems intrigued by them.
At first, the narrator's work with the Brotherhood seems to be going well, then doubts about his integrity surface within the party. He receives an anonymous letter telling him to go slowly, and Brother Wrestrum, another black member, challenges the narrator's commitment, calling him a "petty individualist" (401). After these accusations, the Brotherhood reassigns the narrator to lecture on the "woman question," which the narrator considers an insulting demotion. Soon, however, the Brotherhood returns the narrator to Harlem because of the mysterious disappearance of Tod Clifton.
But his return to Harlem does not signal a complete reinstatement of the Brotherhood's trust. Making his way to a Brotherhood meeting from which he had been excluded, the narrator encounters Tod Clifton selling paper "Sambo Dolls" on a street corner. A policeman harasses Clifton for selling the figures without a license, and when Clifton resists, he is shot. After witnessing Clifton's death, the narrator wonders, "Why should a man deliberately plunge outside of history and peddle an obscenity" (438). The narrator believes that the Brotherhood is the only channel through which African Americans can have a voice in America. But Clifton's dancing figures, controlled by invisible strings, suggest that African Americans have been controlled without their knowledge by the Brotherhood.
The narrator gives an impassioned speech at Clifton's funeral that addresses the community's sense of racial outrage and quells the building riot, but the Brotherhood is angry that he disregarded their orders to downplay the race issue. As Brother Jack rages at the narrator, telling him he was "not hired to think" (469), his glass eye pops out, startling the narrator. Here, Ellison suggests the narrator's invisibility to the Brotherhood and his blindness to his own exploitation by the group.
While fleeing another confrontation with Ras the Exhorter after this meeting with Jack, the narrator dons a hat and sunglasses, and several passersby mistake him for a man named Rinehart. Rinehart is a trickster figure, a pimp, a gambler, and a crooked reverend; he is whatever his observer wants to see and that is the source of his power. The name Rinehart suggests both rind and heart, the outer shell and the inner substance, which do not necessarily correspond to each other. Through Rinehart's example, the narrator learns the power of invisibility. He combines this knowledge with his grandfather's earlier advice and decides to agree with whatever the Brotherhood tells him while secretly trying to uncover their vulnerabilities.
When riots break out in Harlem, the narrator realizes that the Brotherhood had planned this violence all along, hoping to use the crises to support their claims about the effects of poverty. And by acquiescing to the Brotherhood's desires, even though he did not believe in them, the narrator unwittingly aided their plan. He learns that either his grandfather's advice was flawed or he does not yet fully understand it. The black on black violence of the riots, staged for the benefit of whites, parallels the battle royal from chapter 1. Fleeing attackers, the narrator falls into an open manhole, which is sealed behind him. To see his way through the underground darkness, he burns one by one the contents of his briefcase, beginning with his high school diploma. In this way, he symbolically destroys the identity that has been given to him throughout his life by others. The epilogue brings the narrative full circle when, as in the prologue, he again speaks from his underground dwelling that he had discovered just after the events of chapter 25. Again, he tells us that he plans to return to the surface to play a "socially responsible role" (581). The final line of the novel reinforces the quest for identity, suggesting to the reader that his story is ours, regardless of our racial background: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" (581).
Bloom, Harold, ed. Bloom's Notes: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1996.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: Invisible Man. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1998.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Morel, Lucas E., ed. Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.
Trimmer, Joseph F., ed. A Casebook on Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972.
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