Slavery, Reconstruction and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
The Civil War was fought to keep the United States together as a single nation. While the Declaration of Independence asserted that it was ‘‘self-evident’’ that ‘‘all men were created equal,’’ the subsequent formulation of the United States Constitution stipulated that slavery would remain legal. Because of the plantation system, the Southern states' economic livelihood depended on having a labor force which it could deny any legal, social or human rights. In the decades before the Civil War, the United States was held together through a series of compromises (The Missouri Compromise (1820), The Fugitive Slave Act, Compromise of 1850, The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)) that attempted to balance the political power of slave and free states. One of the most blatant statements of deprivation of Blacks' basic rights of citizenship and the attendant human rights was the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision of 1857, which stated directly that no black person had rights any white man need respect. Under this ruling, no Black person was allowed claims to citizenship.
The Civil War began in 1861 as the North tried to keep the South in the national Union. Slavery was partially abolished by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which did not outlaw slavery in the border states between North and South in an attempt to keep those states aligned neutral in...
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Point of View and Narration
The narration is in first person, addressing the reader directly with a direct and honest tone implying a certain naiveté. The narrator is most capable of conveying his confusion. His sense of accomplishment is rendered pathetic by his constant inability to take offense at the inhumane treatment he endures at the hands of his "benefactors." By rendering scenes of physical and psychological violence to the reader in forceful detail and lyrical immediacy, one expects a statement of anger and resistance. Instead, the reader alone seems to understand the demeaning implication of the battle royal as the narrator progresses toward the ultimately triumphant scholarship award. The final mention of the narrator's dream suggests that this absence of indignation is indeed ironic, an irony that is wound more tightly in the novel as a whole.
The story takes place around eighty-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, in approximately 1947. It is important that the narrator lives in the South, where slavery played a crucial role in sustaining the economic system of plantation farming until the Civil War. In the days after slavery's abolition, African Americans were prevented from becoming economically stable by the white community. The town of the story reflects a fundamental hierarchy in which white men are those with economic, political, judicial and educational authority. The hotel where...
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Compare and Contrast
1952: Racial segregation is legal, upheld by the Supreme Court decision of 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson. Schools, housing and employment and businesses in the South maintain separate facilities for Black and white people.
1954: The Supreme Court reverses the Plessy v. Ferguson decision with the decision, Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. Declaring that separate facilities are inherently unequal, the court ordered the desegregation of schools throughout the country.
2000: Today, de facto segregation continues to frustrate the implementation of the court's 1954 decision.
1860: About forty percent of African Americansliving in the city of New York would have to move in order to achieve racial integration. In New Orleans, about thirty-six percent of African Americans would have to move. (Massey and Denton)
1940: About eighty-seven percent of African Americans living in the city of New York would have to move in order to achieve racial integration. In New Orleans, about eighty-one percent of African Americans would have to move.
1990: About eighty-two percent of African Americans living in the city of New York would have to move to achieve racial integration. In New Orleans, about sixty-nine percent of African Americans would have to move.
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Topics for Further Study
Do you trust the narrator's perspective? What are some different perspectives that might add to a fuller picture? How might the story be told through Tatlock's eyes? Through the eyes of the woman?
In 1947, this story was first published as ‘‘The Invisible Man.’’ Five years later, the novel was published under the title of Invisible Man. How does the absence of the article "The'' change the title? How might one interpret the title and meaning of the book differently because of this change?
The M.C. is a strange character. His voice steers the audience's and the reader's attention to particular scenes. Analyze the role the M.C. plays in the story. Why is there so little description of this character?
There is a lot of laughing but it is difficult to discern what is funny. Why are so many of the men laughing? What kind of laughter is it and what does it mean?
Why does the narrator give the speech at the end? Why doesn't he get angry and leave?
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What Do I Read Next?
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson. Unsigned on its publication in 1912, the novel was republished in 1927 with Johnson named as author. The story is a narrative about "passing," in which a young boy learns the rules of racially identifying and being identified as an African American at the turn of the nineteenth century. Raised by his African-American mother in the North and virtually abandoned (except for economic support) by his Southern, white father, the narrator ultimately decides to allow society to consider him white. The novel offers an ironic story of self-realization that both highlights and critiques the forces of racism.
The Big Sea (1940) by Langston Hughes. The first volume of Langston Hughes' autobiographical novels, The Big Sea is a dynamic representation of learning what race means in New York, in Mexico, in the southern United States, and in Africa. The narrator uses humor, insight and a poetic sense of language to convey his experiences in learning to regard his racial identity and his cultural heritage as a source of strength from which he is able to understand himself as an individual in a complex world.
The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is the story of Nick Carraway, a young man from Minnesota who moves to New York to become a stock broker. He tells of his friendship with Jay Gatsby, a man who has followed his first love for many years, trying to...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baumbach, Jonathan, ‘‘Nightmare of a Native Son: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man,’’ in Critique, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1963, 48-65.
Bellow, Saul, ‘‘Man Underground: Review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man’’ in Commentary, June, 1952, pp. 608-610.
Busby, Marle, Ralph Ellison, Twayne, 1991.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, "Nature," in Selected Essays, edited by Larzer Ziff, Penguin, 1985, pp. 35-82.
German, Norman, ‘‘Imagery in the ‘‘Battle Royal’’ Chapter of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man,’’ in CLA Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4, June, 1988, pp. 394-399.
Hoberek, Andrew, "Race Man, Organization Man, Invisible Man,’’ in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 1, March, 1998, pp. 99-119.
Holland, Laurence B., "Ellison in Black and White: Confession, Violence and Rhetoric in Invisible Man,’’ in Black Fiction: New Studies in the Afro-American Novel Since 1945, edited by A. Robert Lee, Barnes and Noble Books, 1980, pp. 54-73.
Howe, Irving, "Review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man,’’ in the Nation, May 10, 1952.
Kim, Daniel Y., ‘‘Invisible Desires: Homoerotic Racism and its Homophobic Critique in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man,’’ in Novel, Vol. 30, No. 3, Spring, 1997, pp. 309-328.
Lee, Kun Jong,...
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