From his earliest published writings in the late 1930s until his death in 1994 Ralph Ellison remained an outspoken commentator on American literature, culture, race, and identity, but his reputation has always rested most solidly on his one published novel, Invisible Man. Since its publication in 1952, Invisible Man has consistently been singled out as one of the most compelling and important novels of this century. Praised for both its artistic originality and its thematic richness, the novel continues to find new readers not least because of the reading experience it provides—at once inspiring and unsettling, lucid and complex, approachable and profoundly challenging. From the powerful first line of the novel (‘‘I am an invisible man’’), readers are engaged in the life of the narrator, this ‘‘invisible man,’’ as he tries to tell his story and ‘‘put invisibility down in black and white.’’ Moreover, the novel urges its readers to undertake a similar quest along with the narrator: to examine the painful realities of American history and culture and, in the end, to seek the ways in which they, too, may have ‘‘a socially responsible role to play.’’
Like the familiar opening of Moby-Dick (‘‘Call me Ishmael’’), Invisible Man begins with a prologue by the novel's first-person narrator, but in this case the introduction comes without a name: ‘‘I am an invisible man.’’ The narrator's name remains hidden to the reader throughout the novel, but the importance of names and the act of naming becomes clear as his story unfolds. The narrator is ‘‘named’’ by nearly every person he encounters in the novel: He is, for example, a ‘‘boy’’ and a ‘‘nigger’’ to the ‘‘leading white citizens’’ of his town; just the same (to his surprise) to Dr. Bledsoe; a ‘‘cog’’ in the machine of Mr. Norton's ‘‘fate’’; little more than a laboratory animal to the doctors in the factory hospital; a race-traitor to Ras the Exhorter; and a ‘‘natural resource’’ to the Brotherhood. Each person or group that the narrator encounters tries to identify him, to impose an identity upon him, while ignoring or denying his own emotional and psychological sense of self. As he reflects on his experiences from his ‘‘hole in the ground,’’ he understands that this misnaming is the real source of his identity crisis. He is ‘‘invisible’’ not from any lack of physicality or intelligence but because of a willed action of those around him, ‘‘simply because people refuse to see me.’’ But this blindness, this desire to call him by any name but his own, initially affects even the narrator himself. It takes him, as he acknowledges, ‘‘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.’’
Achieving that ‘‘realization’’ requires the narrator to come to terms with his personal history and with his place in the larger history of America. The first words of the narrator's story in the first chapter of the book—‘‘It goes a long way back …’’—establish immediately the importance of history and memory to his quest, and his narrative itself constitutes both memory and history ‘‘in black and white.’’ Much of the tension of the story, however, results from the narrator's conflicted understanding of history and his desire to stifle his memories, to disconnect himself from his past. As he recollects his experiences at the...
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[In Invisible Man], Ellison attempted to portray the theme of Negro endurance and cultural continuity by devising a plot which would include a maximum of experiences common to the American Negroes, but which could be employed by a wandering hero in an episodic manner. For this plot, he relied heavily on the social migration theme that promised equality to the Southern Negro but shattered his hopes in an economic jungle which ended with a dispossession in Harlem….
In the novel one unnamed youth progresses from a high school setting in Greenwood to the Southern college for Negroes and from there to Harlem. He does not remain in Harlem but seeks employment in the white neighborhoods of New York City and expresses interest in a scientific Brotherhood before returning to Harlem. In the final riot scene he flees from Harlem and discovers an underground cellar near Harlem situated in a white community bordering the Negro ghetto. His motivation for leaving Greenwood was the scholarship presented him by the white community of the town. At the college, the hero again felt an external motivating force which this time catapulted him from the Southern college to New York supposedly under the same expectations that faced Eddie, Harry, and Marvin (of earning his college expenses for the next school year); but he soon felt the true motivating impulse of expulsion…. [Although] the hero in Invisible Man has achieved no recognition of his identity, he has developed a workable solution and method of continued searching.
Within the episodic migration theme, Ellison developed a central character … [who] is nameless and achieves an enlarged symbolic position. As he confronts the idiosyncrasies and overt violence of his environment and the white man's world that closes its doors to him, he is able to portray the frustrations and victories common to every man (‘‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’’); thereby, he achieves universal magnitude equivalent to the requirements for an epic hero.
Robert Bone, in his attempt [in ‘‘Ralph Ellison and the Use of Imagination,’’ Anger and Beyond, 1966], to classify Invisible Man as a picaresque novel, recognizes the heroic qualities in the unnamed character’s confrontations with reality: ‘‘His [Ellison’s] heroes are not victims but adventurers. They journey toward the possible in all ignorance of accepted limits. In the course of their travels, they shed their illusions and come to terms with reality.’’ The internal evidence from the novel further substantiates the heroic qualities of the hero, who alone must contend frequently with the machinations of the white mind.
During the high school address before the drunken audience at the smoker in Chapter 1, the speaker illustrates his speech with the account of ‘‘a ship lost at sea’’ whose sailors ask for fresh water from the first friendly vessel they meet. The reply stresses self-reliance: ‘‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’’ Like the captain of the distressed vessel, the Negro youth has been taught to seek help where it can be obtained. He must seek and strive for his own identity within society.
The encounter with Mr. Norton following the ill-fated Golden Day episode again resounds with an emphasis on self-reliance, for Mr. Norton explains that ‘‘‘Self-reliance is a most worthy virtue. I shall look forward with the greatest of interest to learning your contribution to my fate.’’’ Do not Dr. Bledsoe's letters manipulate the hero into a position of being rejected by Mr. Emerson in New York City, a rejection that forces the hero to rely on his own skills rather than the reputation of his Southern alma mater (‘‘ … that though the wide universe if full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till’’)?
Following the youth’s symbolic second birth from the prefrontal lobotomy machine, he collides with the street crowds of New York without a protective shield (his college ties that opened doors for him, or a strong body that enabled him to work in non-union plants and remain temporarily outside his Harlem environment); and he soon struggles for a new identity, although his ‘‘tail feathers’’ have been ‘‘picked clean’’ like Poor Robin’s. It is his encounter with a ‘‘yam’’ seller in Harlem that reverses his bewilderment and enables him to regain an identity:
This is all very wild and childish, I thought, but to hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am! I wolfed down the yam and ran back to the old man.…
Although this discovery and the search for identity has begun, it remains a disheveled stream of arabesqueness at the conclusion of the novel. Ellison’s hero apparently has yet a host of worlds to vanquish.
In his struggle the hero cannot act independently of all external forces. Ellison's central hero...
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The anti-hero of Invisible Man, though we come to know him intimately, remains nameless. He is no-man and everyman on a modern epic quest, driven by the message his grandfather reveals in a dream: ‘‘To Whom It May Concern … Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.’’ His primary search is for a name—or for the self it symbolizes. During his search, he is given another name by the Brotherhood, but it is no help. When he becomes a ‘‘brother,’’ he finds that brotherhood does not clarify his inner mysteries.
In creating his anti-hero, Ellison builds on epic and mythic conventions. The nameless voyager passes through a series of ordeals or trials to demonstrate his stature. First, he passes through...
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