The central theme of Ellison’s writing is the search for identity, a search he sees as central to American literature and the American experience. He once said that “the nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are,” and this struggle toward self-definition is applied in Invisible Man within a social context. The particular genius in Ellison’s novels is his ability to interweave these individual, communal, and national quests into a single, complex vision.
On the level of the individual, Invisible Man is, in Ellison’s words, a clash of “innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality.” In this sense, the book is part of the literary tradition of initiation tales; stories of young men or women who confront the larger world beyond the security of home and attempt to define themselves in these new terms. Through the misadventures of his naïve protagonist, Ellison stresses the individual’s need to free himself from the powerful influence of societal stereotypes and demonstrates the multiple levels of deception that must be overcome before an individual can achieve self-awareness. Ellison describes the major flaw of his protagonist as an “unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success.” Although Ellison’s hero is repeatedly manipulated, betrayed, and deceived, Ellison shows that an individual is not trapped by geography, time, or place. He optimistically asserts that human beings can overcome these obstacles to independence if they are willing to accept the responsibility to judge existence independently.
The communal effort of African Americans to define their cultural identity permeates both of Ellison’s novels. Invisible Man surveys the history of African American experience and alludes directly or indirectly to historical figures who serve as contradictory models for Ellison’s protagonist. Some of the novel’s effect is surely lost on readers who do not recognize the parallels drawn between Booker T. Washington and the Founder, between Marcus Garvey and Ras the Destroyer, or between Fred erick Douglass and the narrator’s grandfather. W. E. B. Du Bois’s description of the doubleness of the African American experience fits the Invisible Man’s narrator, and Du Bois’s assertion that the central fact of an African American’s experience is the longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self, stands as a summary of the novel’s overriding action.
Ellison does not restrict himself to the concerns of African Americans, however, because he believes that African American culture is an inextricable part of American culture. Thus, Invisible Man shows how the struggles of the narrator as an individual and as a representative of an ethnic minority are paralleled by the struggle of the United States to define and redefine itself. This theme permeates Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, as well. In it, the superficiality of race as a color rather than as a culture is told through the cyclical nature of Bliss’s notions of identity. Ellison’s frequently expressed opinion that African American culture’s assimilation by the dominant culture of the United States is inevitable and salutary has led some African American critics to attack him as reactionary. The suspicion that he “sold out” was also fed by his broad popularity among white readers and his acceptance of teaching positions at predominantly white universities.
The breadth and diversity of Ellison’s novels make it possible to fit them into several American literary traditions. As part of the vernacular tradition, exemplified by Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, Ellison skillfully reproduces the various speech patterns and rich folklore of rural and urban African Americans. As part of the Symbolist tradition, exemplified by Herman Melville and T. S. Eliot, Ellison builds his novel around a full set of provocative and multifaceted symbols. As part of the tradition of African American literature, Ellison echoes the theme of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), reproduces the northward flight to freedom in Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), explores the ambiguity of identity as James Weldon Johnson did in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), and appropriates the striking underground metaphor of Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” (1944).
In Invisible Man, Ellison employs a “jazz” style in which an improvisation of rhetorical forms is played against his central theme. Letters, speeches, sermons, songs, nursery rhymes, and dreams are used throughout the novel, and the novel’s style adjusts to match the changing consciousness and circumstances of the protagonist. In the early chapters, Ellison employs a direct, didactic style similar to that of the social-realist protest novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s. In the middle portions of the novel, after the narrator moves to New York City, Ellison’s prose becomes more expressionistic, reflecting the narrator’s introspection. In the last section of the novel, as the story moves toward the climactic race riot in Harlem, the prose becomes surreal, emphasizing the darkly comic absurdities of American existence.
In Juneteenth, Ellison also draws from his musical background to stylistically frame the story. In his National Book Award acceptance speech, Ellison noted his dream of creating a novel that incorporated “the rich babel of idiomatic expression around me, a language full of imagery and rhetorical canniness.” He implements sermons, folk tales, the blues, and the rapidity of jazz music to reveal the flawed notions that the protagonist has about his identity.
In all sections, Invisible Man is enriched by Ellison’s versatile use of symbols that focus attention on his major themes while underscoring the ambiguous nature of the human condition. Structurally, the book is episodic and cyclic, presenting the reader with versions of a basic pattern of disillusionment enacted in increasingly complex social environments. In each cycle, the narrator eagerly accepts an identity provided by a deceitful mentor and eventually experiences a revelation that shatters the illusory identity he has adopted. This repeated pattern demonstrates the pervasiveness of racism and self-interest and convinces the narrator that he must find his individual answers and stop looking to others.
Although Invisible Man addresses some of the most serious concerns of American society, it is also a comic novel in which Ellison relies on both the traditional picaresque humor of initiation and the rough-edged and often disguised humor of urban African Americans. Its dark comedy, sophisticated play of rhetorical forms, complex use of symbolism, and original examination of difficult social issues distinguish the book as a masterpiece of modern fiction.
First published: 1952
Type of work: Novel
An ambitious but naïve black youth journeys through American society in search of his identity.
Ellison’s Invisible Man is framed by a prologue and an epilogue that are set at a time after the completion of the novel’s central action. The novel’s picaresque story of a young black man’s misadventures is presented as a memoir written by an older, more experienced embodiment of the protagonist. The narrator of the...
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