What is the importance of music in Invisible Man?

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In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the author explores stereotypes and prejudices in America from the early to mid-twentieth century. This novel of self-discovery presents an unnamed black man serving as a narrator. He seeks to learn where he fits into contemporary society while searching for the American dream....

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In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the author explores stereotypes and prejudices in America from the early to mid-twentieth century. This novel of self-discovery presents an unnamed black man serving as a narrator. He seeks to learn where he fits into contemporary society while searching for the American dream. From the outset of the novel, the narrator tells the reader:

“I am an invisible man . . . I am invisible . . . simply because people refuse to see me.”

The narrator recognizes that he exists in a subservient role from which he must escape if he is ever to understand what it means to be a black man in America. He knows there are obstacles in his way that he must overcome. As the protagonist begins his quest, Ellison cleverly uses metaphorical musical references to parallel the black struggle for individuality and against racism in America with certain music genres.

For example, jazz is a musical style developed largely from blues and primarily by African-American musicians. One of the most significant elements of the genre is improvisation. It is a style that absorbs elements of other genres and finds a way to become individualized. This type of music provides a perfect background for the novel since it mirrors the protagonist’s quest for his individuality. He must ingest the realities of the American society of his day before he can create a unique plan for navigating through society’s discriminatory stereotypes. This is possible only by developing his individual talents.

In the Prologue to Invisible Man, the protagonist is convinced he has the talent to succeed. He likens himself to some of the great minds that have come before him and maintains a positive outlook on life:

“Though invisible, I am in the great American tradition of tinkers. That makes me kin to Ford, Edison and Franklin. Call me, since I have a theory and a concept, a ‘thinker-tinker.’ Yes, I'll warm my shoes; they need it, they're usually full of holes. I'll do that and more.”

Of course, the narrator has not yet completed his quest so he must still face his obstacles. It is interesting that the author chooses the jazz sound of Louis Armstrong to be the narrator’s focus as he envisions his future:

“I'd like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue" -- all at the same time . . . Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music.”

This scene is especially powerful because the narrator’s selection of that Armstrong classic is an early example of the societal exposure to and condemnation of racism bestowed upon the public via the genres of blues and jazz.

Ellison does not comment directly on the meanings of the songs threaded through the novel, but the music does help to reinforce the feelings of racial tension central to the story. By studying the selected background music in Invisible Man, the reader develops great insight into the black struggle for individuality expressed in this classic and the protagonist’s transformation to visibility.

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Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man tells the story of an unnamed African American narrator who reflects on his position within society He views himself as invisible. The novel opens with a description of the narrator's living quarters, which is an underground room powered with stolen electricity. This theme of the invisible and the underground is furthered when the narrator takes Mr. Norton on a tour of the old slave quarters next to the all-black college. These cabins hold the ghosts of horrible stories about Jim Trueblood, who impregnated both his wife and his daughter.

This theme is emblematic of the African American experience: both visible and invisible at the same time. All black colleges want to promote and celebrate African Americans, but the truths of their previous slave experience are kept under wraps.

In America, black society was first defined by slavery. As slavery was outlawed, African Americans had to find a way to assimilate into an American society that still held prejudice against them. For many in Harlem, jazz music was a method for assimilation. Through melancholy verses and melodies, African Americans can verbalize their experiences in a digestible and relatable medium, which serves to move them from the invisible to the visible in a meaningful way.

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Ellison is such a fanatic of jazz music and literature that, according to his bio, when he read "The Waste Land" he became extremely impressed at how TS Elliot was able to use music as language within text.

So, Ellison did the same when he wrote Invisible Man. He would use jazz language, that is, jargon and description often found on jazz songs and music to bring out metaphores and similes and to expand his figurative language in a way that is comfortable for him as a lover of music and words.

Some of the similes you can find are in his descriptions of American symbols using phrases taken from jazz songs.

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