Analysis

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Last Reviewed on July 29, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344

In “Flying Home,” Ralph Ellison applies multiple meanings of both flying and home to tell the story of one individual pilot, Todd, and to connect it to the larger situation of African Americans amid the dramatic changes that World War II brought to US society. Drawing on the classical myth...

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In “Flying Home,” Ralph Ellison applies multiple meanings of both flying and home to tell the story of one individual pilot, Todd, and to connect it to the larger situation of African Americans amid the dramatic changes that World War II brought to US society. Drawing on the classical myth of Icarus, Ellison also conveys that, despite those changes, numerous limitations continued to hold black people back from full social participation; these included both external constraints and internal attitudes and emotions. Even though Todd spends only a few hours with Jefferson, the older man’s impact on him helps him through a difficult experience and helps prepare him for the ongoing battles he must face. The trust he develops through reconnecting with his roots—a metaphorical homecoming—is even more important than his achievement as a pilot candidate. The knowledge of having a solid base will enable him to soar, despite the negative attitudes and actions of white people.

By inserting Todd’s dreams into the incident of the downed plane, Ellison offers a context for Todd’s initial over-reaction to Jefferson’s stories. Anxious to prove himself within a white-dominated hierarchy of flight school and the military, Todd is suspicious of Jefferson’s intentions. Symbolically, he cannot distinguish between a buzzard—a black scavenger bird that feeds on corpses—and a black angel—the representative of a higher, spiritual realm. His memories of his girlfriend’s warnings about self-doubt and its projection onto others, combined with his terrifying dream of the Ku Klux Klan's threats against black voters, show two sides of his psychological makeup. When “rescue” comes in the form of the white authorities, the difference between support and antagonism is brought home: Dabney’s sick joke with the straitjacket quickly escalates into physical abuse. Clearly, Todd is not mentally ill in wanting to resist the restraints that white society tries to impose on him. To the contrary, Ellison shows, Todd’s sanity lies in recognizing where the threats to his achievement lie and who really wants to see him fly high.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 847

Ellison primarily uses the third-person point of view in “Flying Home,” yet very early he alerts the reader that he will play some tricks with it. While in a state of semiconsciousness, Todd hears voices, not placed in quotation marks, which are both inside his head and outside. Where the voices are coming from, who is speaking, what one intends or perceives, and what biases govern thought and speech—these questions that Ellison raises involve an interrelationship between theme and point of view. When Jefferson speaks of buzzards and black angels, Todd perceives himself as the actor in those roles. When Todd enters the world of his past for the first time, Ellison almost without warning shifts to the first-person point of view and thus places the reader intimately within the mind of his protagonist. It is as though, along with Todd, the reader has difficulty distinguishing between external and inner reality. Todd’s second memory is, on the other hand, clearly noted as his own thoughts. The progression in the story, in fact, is a gradual clearing of Todd’s mind so that by the end he sees clearly both himself and the outer world. Both technically and thematically, point of view comes into focus.

This manipulation of point of view, however, is not nearly as interesting in itself as are its implications in another facet of Ellison’s technique. Typically, Ellison likes his stories to operate on a mythical level. While maintaining a high degree of realism, including psychological realism, Ellison controls characters and events to fit into mythical patterns that universalize them. The story about a young man coming to awareness, for example, is clearly a vision of the initiation motif. His fall from the sky, like the black angel’s condemnation to the hell of Alabama, follows the pattern of death and rebirth. The buzzard that feeds on death is in the final statement of the story “a bird of flaming gold,” perhaps a reference to the phoenix, and certainly a reinforcement of the death-rebirth motif. The identification of Todd with Icarus and Jefferson with Daedalus is unmistakable. Flying too close to the sun Ellison interprets in his own way as part of the black man’s dilemma in American society. Elements of Christian myth, Heaven and Hell, and especially the question of knowledge and how much man has a right to, and the pride of the original Fall lie behind Todd’s experience. One must not forget the folk tradition that Ellison includes, Jefferson’s creation and re-creation of myth. Indeed, this last is especially important because of the relation of myth in the story to theme and point of view. Myths are useless if not understood and reinterpreted in the light of immediate experience, and Todd’s education is, in part, a coming to terms with his heritage.

Ellison’s mythical ventures operate in the Jungian manner. The myths are not only outside Todd but also within his racial unconscious. The events in the story are his acting out the patterns that already exist in his mind. If he is not to play out the roles blindly and chaotically, he must raise them to consciousness, and choose and reinterpret those that he needs in the modern world. The story does not show Todd reaching such a level of sophistication, but it does show Ellison’s own preoccupation with the task. The reader does, however, observe Todd acting out some changes in his conceptions. At the end, for example, he no longer views Heaven and Hell as whiteness and blackness, or as flying in the sky and living on the earth. Earth becomes the human community rather than Hell. Flying home is flying back to Earth.

It is also a return to the true self. A part of Carl Gustav Jung’s theories about the unconscious mind suggests the presence of archetypal images of the self—persona, anima, shadow—and of various other figures, such as the wise old man. Until late in the story, however, Todd rejects the promptings of the anima, still projects the evil and prejudice in himself outwardly on such figures as Graves and the white officers, and perceives Jefferson as ignorant rather than wise. By the end of the story, his soul lives in harmony. He has internalized Jefferson’s wisdom (the mythical father resides within him); he has accepted his girl’s advice that he not continually prove his intelligence to the white man (that he not feed on that dead horse); he has, by accepting Jefferson as his savior, admitted a prejudice in his own psyche, and no longer blindly projects such evil on the Dabney Graveses of the world. His perspective has cleared. His inner voice is in harmony with outer voices: “Like a song within his head he heard the boy’s soft humming.”

Without at all denying the black heritage, Ellison insists on the presence of all cultures within the human psyche. As he says elsewhere, it is possible for a black to be a Renaissance man, one who incorporates all experiences.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 178

De Santis, Christopher C. “’Some Cord of Kinship Stronger and Deeper than Blood’: An Interview with John F. Callahan, Editor of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.African American Review 34, no. 4 (2000): 601-621.

Hersey, John. Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Hobson, Christopher Z. “Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth, and African American Prophecy.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 51, no. 3 (2005): 617-647.

Jackson, Lawrence. Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.

McSweeney, Kerry. “Invisible Man”: Race and Identity. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

Nadel, Alan. “Ralph Ellison and the American Canon.” American Literary History 13, no. 2 (2001): 393-404.

Porter, Horace A. Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.

Warren, Kenneth. So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Watts, Jerry Gafio. Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Yuins, E. “Artful Juxtaposition on the Page: Memory Perception and Cubist Technique in Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association 119, no. 5 (October, 2004): 1247.

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