How is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man influenced by Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground?

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The first lines of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man are very comparable to the first lines of Dostoevksy's novella Notes from Underground. In Dostoevsky's novel, they go like this:

I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I...

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The first lines of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man are very comparable to the first lines of Dostoevksy's novella Notes from Underground. In Dostoevsky's novel, they go like this:

I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well--let it get worse!

In Ellison's novel, the first lines in the Prologue are as follows:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

In both passages, there is a declaration of self-awareness and attempts by each speaker to explain their respective conditions to an imaginary listener. They describe how these conditions have impacted their responses to their respective societies. The Underground Man is so consumed by "spite" that he refuses the assistance of those who could help him. In this instance, the narrator is rejecting a facet of society (the educated bourgeoisie, represented here by doctors) to arm himself against a belief that he'll inevitably be rejected anyway. In Ellison's novel, the narrator has already been rejected: others refuse to see him as a fully realized human being.

In Dostoevsky's novella, the problem is internal: it is a disease that racks that narrator. In Ellison's, the problem is external: he has become distorted by others' imaginations and by surrounding conditions that he neither created nor controls.

Ellison's novel uses the existential problem that Dostoevsky presents: that isolation results from an inability to live with others. In the case of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, insecurity is fostered by resentment. In the case of Ellison's narrator, it's fostered by racism.

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A comparison of the two narrators in these novels may show a sort of mirror image, at once a copy and an opposite.

Both narrators are never named. Both begin by describing themselves as bitter social outcasts. Both tell the story of how they have failed to find a place for themselves in society. Both present a story whose truth is sometimes questionable. Both novels are clearly satirical in nature.

Ellison's character, however, has been driven away by prejudice and dishonesty, whereas Dostoevsky's character has sabotaged his own social life repeatedly. Ellison's character is sympathetic and likable, while Dostoevsky's character is not the type anyone would want to invite to dinner. The "underground" man seems determined to destroy himself and so does, while the "invisible" man seems determined to live honestly but fails to do so because of the obstacles others put in his way. Ellison seems to criticize barriers and traps created by a bigoted society and how they interfere with an individual's quest for self-realization, while Dostoevsky seems to criticize ways in which individuals can let their fear and mistrust of others ruin their ability to connect. If Ellison is taking another look at what Dostoevsky was doing, he seems to be looking at an individual alienated by a hateful society rather than, as in Notes from the Underground, a hateful individual guilty of his own alienation.

I wrote a thesis on Ellison's novel for my MA, and though I don't remember reading anything that explicitly stated a link between the two, I do know that Ellison enjoyed Dostoevsky's work, so it's certainly reasonable to assume an influence. The parallels between the two are possibly, but unlikely coincidental.

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Both “Invisible Man” and “Notes from Underground” deal with themes of depression, madness and social alienation. “Notes from Underground” was the first novel to powerfully combine social alienation with tropes of underground living. In “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison takes this relationship one step further by showing his protagonist’s actual descent from a normal character to a completely alienated on. He mirrors that social descent with a physical descent underground. At the beginning of the novel, Ellison’s protagonist is socially well-adjusted. He has hopes, aspirations and a community. By the end of the novel, he has become disillusioned with all forms of community and takes refuge in solitude and darkness. Ellison, like Dostoyevsky, used his estranged character to produce a express a scathing commentary on modern social life. The themes of Ellison’s critique are racial and political, while Dostoyevsky’s critique (through his unnamed narrator) is less concrete in nature.  

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