In Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, what does the phrase "courage bumps" mean?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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At one point in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the narrator recalls the period of adolescence, particularly the physical appearance of many people who go through that period:

the expression empty, the grin without character, the ears too large, the pimples, “courage bumps” too many and too well-defined.

The term “courage bumps” has often been taken to refer to acne, as a quick search of Google Books will show. More recently, as a search of Google itself will show, the term has sometimes been used to refer to painful bumps beneath the skin of the face, rather than to elevated parts of the outside of the skin. By far the most common meaning of the term, however, involves the pimples characteristic of acne.

Ellison’s use of the term is relevant to his novel in a number of different ways, including the following:

  • It helps make the language of the novel seem more authentic and colloquial.
  • It helps emphasize a main theme of the novel: maturation, the change from youth and adolescence to adulthood.
  • It helps emphasize another of the novel’s main themes: the importance of physical appearance in judging people, even including judgments of one’s own earlier self.
  • It helps emphasize yet another major theme of the book: the idea that humans share far more similarities than differences. People of all races can relate to the problem of being afflicted with “courage bumps” during the teenage years.







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