The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: An Analysis on Race and Race Relations before Civil Rights

SUMMARY

Invisible Man is an American literary classic. It tells the story of a nameless man who is invisible. His invisibility is both literal and physical. Invisibility is literal because he is ignored by main stream society. The invisibility is also figurative. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (Ellison 3). The cause of invisibility has to do with his race. This is because the main character –the invisible man- is Black. The audience is able to watch events unfold as he interacts with society and the people around him. Despite the places he goes and relationships he builds, the world continues to ignore him. In the beginning of the book he is figuratively invisible, by the end of the book he is physically invisible. Stealing electricity from the city, he lives underground invisible to the rest of the world. “The myriad problems faced by the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: the cruel disillusionments he undergoes with Dr. Bledsoe, Mr. Norton, the Brotherhood, his loss of home, of ambition, of hope, of friends”, (Bourassa 2). In many ways, Ellison compares what it means to be invisible, to what it means to be Black. Invisibility is used as a metaphor for the oppression faced by African American men throughout society as the narrator comes to a greater understanding of himself.

GENERA AND TYPE

Invisible Man is a fiction novel. It represents African American literature. Some scholars call the book, a protest novel. This is because of “the extent and complexity of the social problems of the Negro, and of the essential part of these problems took in any attempt to achieve an overall view of American society” (Volger 66). The novel works to protest against racism in society and the cloak of invisibility that is placed on Black people and the community. It addresses the oppressions faced by people of color that goes against mainstream White society. In this way, Invisible man is considered an existentialist novel or bildungsroman. This reflects that journey of transformation that occurs within the character. It includes individuality, identity, and self-discovery. “The novel can be studied as an existential one for it deals directly with questions of individual existence, identity formation, and the meaning of life for a Black man confronted with racism and cultural stereotypes”, (Neimneh, Muhaidat, Al-Omari, & Al-Shalabi 61).

POINT OF VIEW

The point of view of the novel is in first person. This is seen in the first line of the book where it states: “I am an invisible man” (Ellison 3). The voice is the narrator and main character. The name of the main character is never revealed. This is a technique that is done purposely by the writer. However, throughout the remainder of this research, the main character will be called I Am. I Am gives way to the journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance that is reached by the end of the book. Many of the situations I Am finds himself in, relates back to his culture, his place in society, and his social identity. The point of view comes from an individual who views himself a social outcast. He is African American, he is male, he is young, he is from the South. At the beginning of the book he has received a scholarship for being public speaker and the ability to move audiences. He is forced to fight a battle royal to earn his right to an education but is later expelled for taking his White dean to a Black brothel. However, when he moves to Harlem I Am begins on a slow journey to manhood. He first gets a job at a factory, before becoming a public speaker for the Black organization known as the Brotherhood. Learning more about his culture, I Am learns more about himself. He is able to recognize the oppressiveness of the organization as well as greater society. Through this point of view the audience witnesses the transformation of I Am from a naive young man into a mature adult.

SETTING

The novel, Invisible Man, was written in 1947 by Ralph Ellison. It is a time in America when Jim Crow and segregation was alive and heavily enforced. Racism and discrimination was rapid and blatant in society. This is the setting of the book. “Ellison follows his black hero out of the South… with a direct consideration of the relationships of the civil war to all aspects of contemporary society, both North and South”, (Volger 67). The time in history represents the experiences of both the author and the main character. The book takes place throughout the 1920 and 30’s. The first chapters of the book I Am is in the South. He faces heavy oppression by White society. He attends an exclusive Black college. However the college is led and directed by Dr. Bledsoe who does not culturally empower the student body and Mr. Norton a White and wealthy board member. Later, the setting of the book shifts.  In the North I Am lives in Harlem. Harlem is a New York burrow famous for Jazz and Black culture. In the city he comes in contact with an organization. All the while, he grows into his manhood that is expressed through pride and self-identity found in New York. “Harlem…drew much of its substance from the voices, idioms, folklore, traditions and political concerns of those whose racial and cultural origins I share” (Ellison xxi). Harlem is the setting of the book and also a point of transformation. He finds identity and self-discovery working with the Brotherhood, finding individuality and understanding.

CHARACTER ANALYSIS

Invisible Man, IM, or ‘the narrator’ is the name given to the main character by many researchers and scholars, (Bourassa). Invisible Man is the title the narrator gives himself. He describes himself as a, “invisible man” in the first sentence of the book. Throughout the novel, he accounts his life experiences as proof of his invisibility. The narrator does not give his name a technique used by the author. By refusing to give the main character a name, Ellison is able to deny the identity of the invisible man. This forever shields the invisible man’s identity. It also gives another affect. The character is known and recognized by being invisible to the world due to his race. With no name, the reader must further recognize his invisibility through language. Scholars agree citing that, “in Invisible Man blindness and invisibility are often represented by metaphors and symbols”, (Lopez-Miralles 60). Traditionally, scholars and researchers refer to the main character as, Invisible Man. This is the main character’s self-identity and the title of the book. Doing this gives into the sentiments of character provided by Ellison.

I Am narrates his story as a memoir. He reflects on the events of his life which demonstrates how he is invisible. “It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: that I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!” (Ellison 13).  I discovered this when forced to box other black boys to win his college scholarship. His invisibility was validated when he was hospitalized and then experimented on by doctors and scientist. Although he found cultural identity doing speeches for the Brotherhood, his individuality and personal values were made invisible through organizational control. Through these experiences I Am learns that he is invisible. Throughout the processes he learns more about himself and his self-identity as an invisible man. “Ellison celebrates a Negro American consciousness that is not a product of a will to historical forgetfulness, but a product of our memory, sustained and constantly reinforced by events”,  (Yaszek 303). As a character, I Am represents growth. In the beginning he is naïve to the oppression he faces. Accepting his invisibility he is able to take advantage of it and become self-aware. Invisible he lives as an invisible person under the city, in a man whole.

MOTIFS

The most obvious motive in this novel is invisibility. Invisibility is observed in I Am’s lack of identity, hospitalization, and being ignored by the rest of society. He steals electricity and this is ignored. His feelings are ignored by the Brotherhood when he gave a speech and memorial to honor a murdered friend. However, other motifs can be seen in the novel. These include blindness and to be controlled by others.

“Blindness constitutes a major motive in Invisible Man, both as a literal handicap and a figurative inability to see others”, (Elkins 73). Literal blindness is seen throughout the book. During the battle royal at the start of the novel, I Am and the other boys are blind folded during the fight. This way, the boys cannot see each other and the White audience who set up the fight and watching it for sport. However, blindness is also seen in the Brotherhood. Brother Jack is the leader of the Brotherhood. He only uses I Am to help the organization. When Brother Jack and I Am get into an argument about the Brotherhood and the Black community, Brother Jack’s eye falls out. The false eye is a literal example of blindness in the story. Jack is blind to I Am and he is blind to the needs of the Black people. Jack can only see through the eyes of the organization. Blindness is also figurative. In his first official speech with the Brotherhood, I Am discusses the figurative blindness of society. “They think we’re blind – uncommonly blind… they’ve dispossessed us each of one eye from the day we’re born. So now we can only see in straight white lines”, (Ellison 346). Blindness is used as an expression to describe those who are naive to themselves and society. I Am was blind to understand that he was just a tool used by the Brotherhood and the rest of the world.

Control is also a motif found in the novel. This includes the idea of a puppet and a puppet master. In the battle royal, his hospitalization, and the Brotherhood, I Am was being used or controlled by others. While hospitalized his body was being used for science. Doctors used him to experiment on electric shock therapy. He was also being manipulated and controlled by the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood accused him of doing speeches to promote himself and not for the goals of the organization. The motif of control can be seen in other areas of the book including Brother Todd Clifton and the Sambo dolls. Brother Clifton was a member of the Brotherhood. Instead of working for progression of the Black community, I Am finds Brother Clifton selling Sambo dolls on the street. These are dolls that stereotype Blacks into slavery roles. The doll is moved by using strings. The Sambo doll represents how Blacks are controlled by White society.  “I felt betrayed. I looked at the doll and felt my throat constrict; the rage welled”, (Ellison 434). Control is found throughout the book in different ways, while Brother Jack attempts to control the organization, Dr. Bledsoe attempts to control the Black student body at the college. I Am, however, is controlled by society and can be seen in his relationships with others.

THEME

“Racial oppression is one theme that is obvious. I Am is invisible because of his culture. A Black man, I Am faces many obstacles. He is admitted and expelled from college because of his race. He is used as a science experiment when he gets hurt at the paint factory because he is Black and invisible. “’They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!’ it said with a laugh… and I wanted to be angry murderously angry, But somehow the pulse of current smashing through my body prevented me” (Ellison 237).

Stereotype is also a theme in the novel. While working at the paint factory and for the Brotherhood, I Am faced many stereotypes. The paint factory bragged to make the most perfect white paint. The irony is that the ingredient for white paint is to add black paint. In addition, although the factory makes the purist white color, the person who makes it is Black. Stereotypes like this are also seen in the Brotherhood because the Black organization is managed by Brother Jack a White man. Lastly there are stereotypes of women. When I Am dates a White woman Sybil, she has bias beliefs about sex and Black men. Another female character Mary is also stereotyped throughout the book. She is considered a typical mammy figure who takes I Am into her home. “Because of her deep impact on the protagonist and her deeper impact on the narrative, Mary demonstrates that Ellison’s female characters may reach beyond their own seemingly superficial mold”, (Elkins 70).

Identity and self-discovery is another theme. “It is emphasized in the beginning and end that the protagonist of the book is also its creator, and that the writing of the book is itself part of the experience and the discovery of an identity”, (Volger 69). The aim of the book is identity. Identity is more than a culture, a gender, or age. Identity reflects a person’s individuality, a person’s values and beliefs. I Am attended an all Black college and participated in a Black organization. Through these experiences I Am was able to find his identity. This includes his identity as an invisible man, as a Black male, and as an individual. I Am struggled to find his identity even while in the Brotherhood. It wasn’t until the end that he was able to find himself. “In the north Ellison’s protagonist more consciously challenges the Brotherhood’s blandly multicultural vision of futurity when he refuses to subordinate the needs of the African American community to the cause of international class struggle” (Yaszek 303).

RALPH ELLISON

The life and the history of the main character reflect the author Ralph Ellison. Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City. He lived a short time, dying at the young age of 39. However during this life time Ellison wrote is first and only novel, Invisible Man, participated in the Harlem Renaissance, and was a student at Tuskegee Institute (Staples). Despite this Ellison lived a hard and difficult life. He grew up living in poverty throughout this youth and into his adult hood. However, during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Ellison rubbed elbows with African American writers, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, John Locke, and Richard Wright who would become critically claimed artist by their own right. Ellison’s life and experiences is what compelled him to create the Invisible Man. “It told a story of a young Black man whose experiences – at a Southern College, Harlem, in and out of the Communist Party- mirrored Ellison’s own”, (Staples). In this way, Ellison was able to take his own feelings and situations and weave them into the fictional tell of “an invisible man… of substance”, (Ellison 3).

 

  Works Cited

Bourassa, Alan. “Affect, History, and Race and Ellison’s Invisible Man.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 8.2 (2006): <http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.1311&gt;

Ellison, Ralph (1947). Invisible Man. Signet Books. New York, NY. Print

Elkins, Madison. “The Blindness of an Invisible Man: An Exploration of Ellison’s Female Characters.” The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee 5.1 (2012): 67-74. Retrieved from: http://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1160&context=pursuit

Lopez Miralles, Alejandro. “Invisibility and Blindness in Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wright’s Native Son.” Philologica Urcitana 9 (2013): 57-66. Retrieved from: http://www.ual.es/revistas/PhilUr/pdf/PhilUr09.4.LopezMiralles.pdf

Neimneh, Shadi, Fatima Muhaidat, Kifah Al-Omari, and Nazmi Al-Shalabi. “Gnre, Blues, and (Mis) Education in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” Cross-Cultural Communication 8.2 (2012): 61-72. Retrieved from: http://www.eis.hu.edu.jo/deanshipfiles/pub106363826.pdf

Staples, Brent. (2007). Visible Man. New York Times. Sunday Book Review. Retrieved from:  http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/20/books/review/Staples-t.html?pagewanted=1

Vogler, Thomas A.. “Invisible Man: Somebody’s Protest Novel.” The Iowa Review 1.2 (1970): 64-82. Web. Available at: http://ir.uiowa.edu/iowareview/vol1/iss2/29

Yaszek, Lisa. “An Afrofuturist Reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.”Rethinking History 9.2 (2005): 297-313. Retrieved from: http://www.wright.edu/~david.wilson/eng2050/afrofuturistreading.pdf

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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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