Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Invisible Man tells an African American Pilgrim’s Progess, a modern black rite of passage. In part, its story could not be more literal, a South-to-North, Dixie-to-Harlem journey that recalls the movement of black Americans from the postbellum South to the northern cities. In equal part, however, the story operates as a kind of fantasia, a “dream” history, which serves as both the narrator’s past and that of most of his black American cocitizenry. As he looks back from his “border area” manhole, lit with 1,369 lightbulbs illegally running on electricity from a company named “Monopolated Light & Power,” he declares himself to be “coming out,” no longer either invisible or, as it were, uninscribed and wordless.
In this respect, he offers himself as both an actual man and as a key figure from African American folklore, a “man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids” and a Jack-The-Bear whose time of “hibernation” has come to its appointed end. Dipping into blues and jazz, street talk and rap, he promises in the prologue to “irradiate”—that is, in every sense to seek to throw light upon—his own story and that of the larger American black-white encounter. Inevitably, the touchstones involve slavery, Reconstruction, the Jazz Age, the Depression, and interwar Harlem, with hints of the coming 1960’s Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man ranks as one of the most canny, daring characterizations in modern literature. Every action he takes, every transition in his life, almost everything he says, carries a double or emblematic implication without becoming simply or reductively allegorical. His role in the Battle Royal scene calls up the stereotype of the black male as pugilist, from slave fighter to Joe Louis. As a student, the narrator might well imagine himself as a would-be Booker T. Washington, but his goals are preset and accommodationist. In Trueblood and The Golden Day, he begins to see the “true” image white America holds of him and his...
(The entire section is 850 words.)
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