The Invisible Man’s Journey and the Larger American Experience

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From his earliest published writings in the late 1930s until his death in 1994 Ralph Ellison remained an outspoken commentator on American literature, culture, race, and identity, but his reputation has always rested most solidly on his one published novel, Invisible Man. Since its publication in 1952, Invisible Man has consistently been singled out as one of the most compelling and important novels of this century. Praised for both its artistic originality and its thematic richness, the novel continues to find new readers not least because of the reading experience it provides—at once inspiring and unsettling, lucid and complex, approachable and profoundly challenging. From the powerful first line of the novel (‘‘I am an invisible man’’), readers are engaged in the life of the narrator, this ‘‘invisible man,’’ as he tries to tell his story and ‘‘put invisibility down in black and white.’’ Moreover, the novel urges its readers to undertake a similar quest along with the narrator: to examine the painful realities of American history and culture and, in the end, to seek the ways in which they, too, may have ‘‘a socially responsible role to play.’’

Like the familiar opening of Moby-Dick (‘‘Call me Ishmael’’), Invisible Man begins with a prologue by the novel's first-person narrator, but in this case the introduction comes without a name: ‘‘I am an invisible man.’’ The narrator's name remains hidden to the reader throughout the novel, but the importance of names and the act of naming becomes clear as his story unfolds. The narrator is ‘‘named’’ by nearly every person he encounters in the novel: He is, for example, a ‘‘boy’’ and a ‘‘nigger’’ to the ‘‘leading white citizens’’ of his town; just the same (to his surprise) to Dr. Bledsoe; a ‘‘cog’’ in the machine of Mr. Norton's ‘‘fate’’; little more than a laboratory animal to the doctors in the factory hospital; a race-traitor to Ras the Exhorter; and a ‘‘natural resource’’ to the Brotherhood. Each person or group that the narrator encounters tries to identify him, to impose an identity upon him, while ignoring or denying his own emotional and psychological sense of self. As he reflects on his experiences from his ‘‘hole in the ground,’’ he understands that this misnaming is the real source of his identity crisis. He is ‘‘invisible’’ not from any lack of physicality or intelligence but because of a willed action of those around him, ‘‘simply because people refuse to see me.’’ But this blindness, this desire to call him by any name but his own, initially affects even the narrator himself. It takes him, as he acknowledges, ‘‘a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.’’

Achieving that ‘‘realization’’ requires the narrator to come to terms with his personal history and with his place in the larger history of America. The first words of the narrator's story in the first chapter of the book—‘‘It goes a long way back …’’—establish immediately the importance of history and memory to his quest, and his narrative itself constitutes both memory and history ‘‘in black and white.’’ Much of the tension of the story, however, results from the narrator's conflicted understanding of history and his desire to stifle his memories, to disconnect himself from his past. As he recollects his experiences at the college, for example, the narrator struggles to determine ‘‘what was real, what solid, what more than a pleasant, time-killing dream.’’ After rejecting the identity that he possessed at the college, the narrator is left with ‘‘the problem of forgetting it,’’ of quieting ‘‘all the contradictory voices shouting’’ inside his head. The narrator's difficulty in leaving his past behind resonates throughout his story, from the recurring voice and image of his grandfather to the physical reminders of his past that he carries with him throughout the novel.

Two physical objects in particular—Primus Provo's ‘‘FREE PAPERS’’ and Brother Tarp's chain link—act as vivid emblems of the painful realities of America's past. The narrator wants to believe that the legacy of slavery and southern chain-gangs belong to the distant past: When he reads the ‘‘fragile paper’’ that once released a man from slavery, he tells himself, ‘‘It has been longer than that, further removed in time….’’ But, as he begins to perceive in the factory hospital, the narrator's quest for his own ‘‘freedom’’ and identity can only be fulfilled when he recovers that history, when he understands its continuing relevance as part of his own past. He recognizes this connection fully only after rejecting the Brotherhood's ‘‘scientific’’ language in favor of a more personal sense of history: ‘‘I began to accept my past and, as I accepted it, I felt memories welling up within me…. Images of past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that they were more than separate experiences. They were me; they defined me.’’ Only after seeing this composite picture of his past does the narrator recognize not only his invisibility but also the ‘‘great potentialities’’ and ‘‘possibilities’’ that exist in spite of that invisibility.

Of course, ‘‘potentialities’’ and ‘‘possibilities’’ are just what the narrator finds—for a time—in the grand missions of the Founder's college and the Brotherhood. At the college, the narrator identifies himself with Mr. Norton and with Dr. Bledsoe and feels that he is ‘‘sharing in a great work’’; likewise, in the Brotherhood, he believes that he has found ‘‘a way to have a part in making the big decisions, of seeing through the mystery of how the country, the world, really operated.’’ What attracts the narrator to both groups is, in part, versions of history and visions of the future that are full of meaning, purpose, and direction. But both groups, he eventually learns, maintain a strict control over all ‘‘possibilities,’’ conceal all ‘‘contradictions,’’ and, as the vet at the Golden Day prophesied, finally see the narrator as ‘‘a thing and not a man.’’ These groups give him a ‘‘role’’ to play, but only as an ‘‘automaton,’’ a "child,’’ a ‘‘black amorphous thing.’’

When the narrator ends his story, then, by wondering if ‘‘even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play,’’ it is clear that the answer to his question rests on the entirety of his narrative and has no simple solution. ‘‘Social responsibility,’’ first of all, is precisely what the racist ‘‘leading white citizens’’ of his southern town desired from him, the responsibility of keeping himself in a submissive and segregated ‘‘place.’’ In contrast, the responsible role that the narrator seeks for the future will go hand in hand with a belief—even if it is his alone—in the ‘‘social equality’’ that he inadvertently pronounced to the horror of the white men. Such a role will also rest on ‘‘personal responsibility’’ and emotional integrity of the sort that Jack and the Brotherhood denied to him. The narrator desires a role that neither engulfs his identity, his humanity, and his memory, nor requires, in his words, ‘‘Rinehartism-cynicism.’’ For his ‘‘mind,’’ his self, to be satisfied, he can neither ‘‘take advantage of the people’’ nor take no responsibility at all: He ‘‘must come out’’ to play a meaningful part in society, whether or not he remains invisible to the people he encounters there. In the end, the narrator finds the key to his identity in a healthy contradiction, both ‘‘denouncing’’ and ‘‘defending’’ his society, saying ‘‘yes’’ and saying ‘‘no,’’ affirming a world whose ‘‘definition is possibility’’ at the same time he refuses to be blind to negations of that promise.

A sense of ‘‘contradiction’’ and ‘‘possibility’’ may also, finally, be the key to the artistic power and continuing relevance of Ellison's Invisible Man. Just as his narrator offers ‘‘no phony forgiveness,’’ no unambiguous moral to his story, so Ellison leaves many of the tensions and competing elements unresolved. Ellison implies that the truth of American society cannot be encompassed in absolutes such as hope or despair, idealism or cynicism, even love or hate, but rather requires a willingness on the part of each citizen to see both extremes and hold them in balance. As Ellison envisions it, living as a true American requires faith—faith in equality and democracy when they are most out of reach, in the possibility of coming together when segregation predominates, in human complexity when society is obsessed with stereotypes. That the novel continues to move readers almost half a century after it was written testifies not only to the power of Ellison's storytelling but also to the continuing relevance of these themes. Ellison's success in reaching new readers each year affirms, it seems, the narrator's final, unanswered question: ‘‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’’

Source: Anthony M. Dykema-VanderArk, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Dykema-VanderArk is a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University.

Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man

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[In Invisible Man], Ellison attempted to portray the theme of Negro endurance and cultural continuity by devising a plot which would include a maximum of experiences common to the American Negroes, but which could be employed by a wandering hero in an episodic manner. For this plot, he relied heavily on the social migration theme that promised equality to the Southern Negro but shattered his hopes in an economic jungle which ended with a dispossession in Harlem….

In the novel one unnamed youth progresses from a high school setting in Greenwood to the Southern college for Negroes and from there to Harlem. He does not remain in Harlem but seeks employment in the white neighborhoods of New York City and expresses interest in a scientific Brotherhood before returning to Harlem. In the final riot scene he flees from Harlem and discovers an underground cellar near Harlem situated in a white community bordering the Negro ghetto. His motivation for leaving Greenwood was the scholarship presented him by the white community of the town. At the college, the hero again felt an external motivating force which this time catapulted him from the Southern college to New York supposedly under the same expectations that faced Eddie, Harry, and Marvin (of earning his college expenses for the next school year); but he soon felt the true motivating impulse of expulsion…. [Although] the hero in Invisible Man has achieved no recognition of his identity, he has developed a workable solution and method of continued searching.

Within the episodic migration theme, Ellison developed a central character … [who] is nameless and achieves an enlarged symbolic position. As he confronts the idiosyncrasies and overt violence of his environment and the white man's world that closes its doors to him, he is able to portray the frustrations and victories common to every man (‘‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’’); thereby, he achieves universal magnitude equivalent to the requirements for an epic hero.

Robert Bone, in his attempt [in ‘‘Ralph Ellison and the Use of Imagination,’’ Anger and Beyond, 1966], to classify Invisible Man as a picaresque novel, recognizes the heroic qualities in the unnamed character’s confrontations with reality: ‘‘His [Ellison’s] heroes are not victims but adventurers. They journey toward the possible in all ignorance of accepted limits. In the course of their travels, they shed their illusions and come to terms with reality.’’ The internal evidence from the novel further substantiates the heroic qualities of the hero, who alone must contend frequently with the machinations of the white mind.

During the high school address before the drunken audience at the smoker in Chapter 1, the speaker illustrates his speech with the account of ‘‘a ship lost at sea’’ whose sailors ask for fresh water from the first friendly vessel they meet. The reply stresses self-reliance: ‘‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’’ Like the captain of the distressed vessel, the Negro youth has been taught to seek help where it can be obtained. He must seek and strive for his own identity within society.

The encounter with Mr. Norton following the ill-fated Golden Day episode again resounds with an emphasis on self-reliance, for Mr. Norton explains that ‘‘‘Self-reliance is a most worthy virtue. I shall look forward with the greatest of interest to learning your contribution to my fate.’’’ Do not Dr. Bledsoe's letters manipulate the hero into a position of being rejected by Mr. Emerson in New York City, a rejection that forces the hero to rely on his own skills rather than the reputation of his Southern alma mater (‘‘ … that though the wide universe if full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till’’)?

Following the youth’s symbolic second birth from the prefrontal lobotomy machine, he collides with the street crowds of New York without a protective shield (his college ties that opened doors for him, or a strong body that enabled him to work in non-union plants and remain temporarily outside his Harlem environment); and he soon struggles for a new identity, although his ‘‘tail feathers’’ have been ‘‘picked clean’’ like Poor Robin’s. It is his encounter with a ‘‘yam’’ seller in Harlem that reverses his bewilderment and enables him to regain an identity:

This is all very wild and childish, I thought, but to hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am! I wolfed down the yam and ran back to the old man.…

Although this discovery and the search for identity has begun, it remains a disheveled stream of arabesqueness at the conclusion of the novel. Ellison’s hero apparently has yet a host of worlds to vanquish.

In his struggle the hero cannot act independently of all external forces. Ellison's central hero is governed by his paternal grandfather's deathbed command to act the part of an intelligencer toward the white society and ‘‘overcome ’em with yeses.’’ The hero, moreover, is also controlled by a naturalistic fate that is almost as important as the classical Olympian interference. Beneath this fate, the hero is allowed some degree of independence whereby he may become self-reliant. But this self-reliance is restricted to the Negro world; regardless of his solutions for establishing his identity, the society in which the hero lives and must find work is a segregated society that limits his opportunities. Unlike the racial injustice portrayed in Ellison’s vignette, ‘‘The Birthmark’’ (New Masses, July 2, 1940), when Matt and Clara are repulsed by the brutality and barbarism of a lynching, the segregated social conditions in Invisible Man manipulate the hero as though they were an amoral fate in which the hero finds himself. Within his limitations, the hero refuses to retreat from his heroic search for his identity. In the Epilogue, he realizes his need to return to the streets of Harlem rather than live continually in complacent seclusion. (The only men worthy of praise of the gods during the heroic age were those who accomplished noble deeds.) And so the hero reasons, ‘‘Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat’’—a restatement of the conflict that plagued men for centuries.

Along with his grandfather’s deathbed command, which haunts the hero throughout the novel as Anchises’ predictions in the underworld influenced Aeneas’ struggle in Italy or as Achilles’ potential return to his father would have eliminated his chances for universal fame, a limited number of additional epic similarities appear in Ellison's novel: the hero’s Dantesque descent in the Prologue, Sybil’s Circean attempts to detain the hero from his mission, examples of gory combat, and one mock epic battle.

In the Prologue, the Negro youth’s descent into a cave that appears in a ‘‘reefer’’ dream is similar to Dante’s progress into Inferno following his night of wandering in a lonely woods. During the Brotherhood portion of the novel, the hero has been denounced by the party leaders, but before he can effect his separation from the organization, he is transferred to the downtown section of New York and assigned to lecture on the position of women in the United States. The women of the Brotherhood and Sybil in Chapter 24 are unable to seduce the hero. Their attempt to sap his stoic will has failed, and they are unable to preclude his search for identity.

The battle scenes and physical flights from death echo of primitive combat. Near the end of the Harlem Riot, the hero ‘‘ran expecting death between the shoulder blades or through the back of my head, and as I ran I was trying to get to Mary’s.’’ In the Epilogue his description of his personal feelings upon recognition of his fated position in society reeks of gory details:

That is the real soul-sickness, the spear in the side, the drag by the neck through the mob-angry town, the Grand Inquisition, the embrace of the Maiden, the rip in the belly with the guts spilling out, the top to the chamber with the deadly gas that ends in the oven so hygienically clean—only it's worse because you continue stupidly to live.

But Ellison, the Ellison of subtle humor, does not neglect at least one mock epic battle as Ras the Exhorter fights the uniformed New York policemen: ‘‘‘Hell, yes, man, he had him a big black hoss and a fur cap and some kind of old lion skin or something over his shoulders and he was raising hell. Goddam if he wasn't a sight, riding up and down on this ole hoss, you know, one of the kind that pulls vegetable wagons, and he got him a cowboy saddle and some big spurs.’’’ The unnamed hero from a nebulously defined town of Greenwood and the college for Negroes in the South has migrated to Harlem where he witnesses mock-chivalry and chaos but has yet failed to achieve his own identity.

Although the central character in Invisible Man is fictitious and nameless, the chaos that swirls about him in the final chapters presents a scene similar to the Harlem Riot of 1943. Ellison's clever meshing of fiction with historical fact and his structural development in the novel tend to produce a surface adventure with historical significance.

Intertwining through the episodes is Ellison's use of lyrics, which often are effective digressions and possess ironic overtones that suggest an atmosphere of defeat or of victory. Moreover, the spirituals and hymns, blues and jazz, recall slavery work songs and catastrophes that weld the centuries of the American Negroes’ experiences into a collective event of suffering and expectation….

As a novelist, Ellison seems to have engaged his literary talents in a conscious effort of recording a century of Negro culture in Invisible Man. He records speech habits and musical lyrics of an oral tradition before they are lost to future ages. But his greater achievement is that he couches the lyrics and sermons within a framework of Negro expressions and history. His novel becomes no mere anthology of unrelated selections, but a unified presentation of the American Negroes’ culture and heritage. The lyrics, moreover, reflect glimpses of the white culture that dominated the slavery and reconstruction eras of the South and was modified by Negro choirs. Spirituals and anthems left behind by the hero on the Southern college campus reappear in a pejorative form of insult (‘‘Go Down Moses’’) voiced by the intoxicated members of the scientifically oriented Brotherhood. Conversely, the spiritual theme of ‘‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’’ resounded throughout sections of Dvorak's New World Symphony.

In the hospital scene following the paint factory explosion, the hero is reminded of a work song as he struggles to free himself from the machine and as he attempts to recall his past identity. Mary Rambo's use of the ‘‘Backwater Blues’’ and Trueblood's singing of primitive blues laments are two characteristic examples of Ellison's heavy reliance on the blues form. Trueblood's children and those of Brother Hambro in New York, sing nursery and game songs, but the songs are those borrowed from the Anglo-Scottish community. Ellison's use of animal lyrics (‘‘Poor Robin’’), the jazz of the musical bars in New York, and the Harlem jive of Peter Wheatstraw (‘‘She's got feet like a monkey / Legs like a frog—Lawd, Lawd!’’) together form a composite, along with his other musical types, of the American Negroes’ culture and the experiences to which the invisible hero was subjected.

The musical references and lyrics parallel the geographic settings used in the structure of the novel and provide evidence of a cultural heritage that existed long before the events in the novel occurred. They are the remains of a primitive oral tradition among the American Negroes that Ellison sought to record in their authentic context before they were lost or obscured in fragmentated passages in printed anthologies. The scope of the novelist was ambitious enough, and the once oral musical tradition has become literature.

Ralph Ellison’s ‘‘love’’ for the American scene somehow inspired him to capture the American Negroes’ culture in an artistic form, and his Invisible Man is Ellison’s attempt—a most successful attempt—to produce the great American Negro epic. For the reader aware of the American Negroes’ culture, it is an Odyssey in disguise.

Source: Stewart Lillard, ‘‘Ellison’s Ambitious Scope in Invisible Man,’’ in English Journal, Vol. 58, No. 6, September, 1969, pp. 833-39.

Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero

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The anti-hero of Invisible Man, though we come to know him intimately, remains nameless. He is no-man and everyman on a modern epic quest, driven by the message his grandfather reveals in a dream: ‘‘To Whom It May Concern … Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.’’ His primary search is for a name—or for the self it symbolizes. During his search, he is given another name by the Brotherhood, but it is no help. When he becomes a ‘‘brother,’’ he finds that brotherhood does not clarify his inner mysteries.

In creating his anti-hero, Ellison builds on epic and mythic conventions. The nameless voyager passes through a series of ordeals or trials to demonstrate his stature. First, he passes through the initiation-rites of our society—the battle royal (exposing the sadistic sexuality of the white southern world) and speechmaking that sends him to college are parts of this rite of passage, and he is tormented into the adult world. He passes this test by demonstrating his servility and naively interpreting his grandfather’s dictum: ‘‘Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’’ This is the first outlook of the invisible man—the paranoia fostered by ‘‘them,’’ the white oppressors; the boy here is Buckeye the Rabbit, the swift clever animal living by its wits beneath the jaws of the killer.

When he arrives at college, he is confronted by the deceit and duplicity of Negroes who have capitulated to a white world; he is broken by the powerful coalition of Bledsoe the Negro president and Norton the white trustee. His second trial shows him that the struggle is not a simple one of black against white, that ‘‘they’’ are more complex than his first experiences showed. He finds that both black and white can be turned against him.

The second phase of his career commences in the trip to New York, an exile from ‘‘paradise’’; in the city, he finds Bledsoe’s seven magic passports to success in the white world, the letters of recommendation are actually betrayals, variations of the dream-letter: ‘‘Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.’’ Thus, his primary illusions are shattered, but there are many more layers to the cocoon in which he sleeps.

For he is first of all a dreamer, a somnambulist, and sleep and dreams figure significantly in his image of himself. As he reassesses himself, his metaphor for new discoveries is the same: ‘‘ … it was as though I had been suddenly awakened from a deep sleep.’’ Yet each sleep and each awakening (little deaths and births) prove to be interlocked layers of his existence, a set of never-ending Chinese boxes. One climactic section of the novel details his second crucial awakening—the ‘‘descent into the underworld’’ which occurs in chapters 10 and 11.

Like the hero of myth and ritual, Ellison’s invisible man finally descends from life on the mortal plane into an underworld of death. This is the substance of the entire New York section of the novel. On arriving in the city, he recalls the plucked robin of the old song and imagines himself the victim of a fantasy-letter: ‘‘My dear Mr. Emerson … The Robin bearing this letter is a former student. Please hope him to death, and keep him running.’’ Then he takes the job at Liberty Paints, keeping white paint white by adding drops of pure black, under the ironic slogan, ‘‘If It’s Optic White, It’s The Right White,’’ which (like ‘‘If you’re white, all right, if you’re black, stay back’’) has been invented by a Negro, the ancient and malevolent Lucius Brockway. The anti-hero becomes a machine within the machines, and he finds that Brockway, an illiterate ‘‘janitor’’ is the heart of the whole industry. In the boiler room, an inferno, he is betrayed again by a Negro and ‘‘killed’’ through his treachery. But the death is the ritual death of the hero’s career—a death which leads to resurrection and a new identity.

After the explosion, the anti-hero awakens in a hospital, where he is resurrected by white doctors using an electroshock machine. Chapter 11 opens with a monstrous image of the demons of this underworld: ‘‘I was sitting in a cold, white rigid chair and a man was looking at me out of a bright third eye that glowed from the center of his forehead.’’ The doctors revive him (‘‘We're trying to get you started again. Now shut up!’’) to the accompaniment of fantastic effects—Beethoven motifs and a trumpet playing ‘‘The Holy City’’ and dreamlike dialogue from the surgeons:

‘‘I think I prefer surgery. And in this case especially, with this, uh … background. I'm not so sure that I don’t believe in the effectiveness of simple prayer.’’

‘‘The machine will produce the results of a prefrontal lobotomy without the negative effects of the knife.’’

‘‘Why not a castration, doctor.’’

Then, as he is revived, the doctors construct an heroic identity for him, recapitulating his existence as a Negro, starting with the first folk myth guises of the clever Negro—Buckeye the Rabbit and Brer Rabbit: ‘‘… they were one and the same: ‘Buckeye’ when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes; ‘Brer’ when you were older.’’ The electrotherapy machine is an emblem of the mechanical society imprisoning the anti-hero: ‘‘I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I'll be free.’’ This lesson of the resurrection is carried through the rest of the anti-hero’s journey.

The apparatus which resurrects the invisible man is a mechanical womb, complete with umbilical cord attached to his stomach which is finally cut by the doctors; he is delivered of the machine, and the doctors pronounce his new name—yet he remains nameless. The doctors, who follow a ‘‘policy of enlightened humanitarianism’’ declare that this New Adam will remain a social and economic victim of the machine: ‘‘You just aren't prepared for work under our industrial conditions. Later, perhaps, but not now.’’

The anti-hero sallies forth after his revival in the underworld ‘‘overcome by a sense of alienation and hostility’’ when he revisits the scene of the middle-class Negro arrivals in New York. He is now painfully aware of the hostility of his world, and he reacts not passively (‘‘in the lion's mouth’’) but aggressively. In a symbolic gesture, he dumps a spittoon on a stranger whom he mistakes for his first nemesis, Bledsoe. The act is that of a crazed messiah: ‘‘You really baptized ole Rev!’’ Then he goes forth for a harrowing of hell.

He joins the Brotherhood, an infernal organization which meets at the Chthonian club. In the Brotherhood, he rises to authority, becomes a respected leader and demagogue and is finally again betrayed by the wielders of power, whites who manipulate Negro stooges for their own ends. But at the end of this episode, the penultimate phase of the hero’s career, he meets two important emblematic figures: Ras the Destroyer and Rinehart the fox. Ras, the black nationalist leader, is his crazed counterpart, and he harasses the invisible man until the night of the riots, when he attempts to hang and spear the anti-hero as a scapegoat for the mob—a dying god to appease the violence Ras releases. A contrast is Rinehart, who like Renyard is a master of deception and multiple identities: ‘‘Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rine the reverend.’’ He is a tempter, and the invisible man nearly succumbs to his temptation to freedom without responsibility; he strolls through Harlem disguised as Rinehart, the visible-invisible man who passes undetected through many identities. Ras offers the assurance of one undivided black identity and Rinehart the assurance of many shifting amoral identities—the faces of stability and flux. But the anti-hero avoids both traps, turning Ras’s spear on him and shucking the dark glasses and wide hat of Rinehart, then finally dropping literally out of sight underground at the climax of the riot. Ellison has said [in Writers at Work, 1965] that he took Rinehart’s name from the ‘‘suggestion of inner and outer,’’ seeming and being, and that he is an emblem of chaos—‘‘He has lived so long with chaos that he knows how to manipulate it.’’ So Rinehart and Ras both represent chaos, two versions of disorder.

Loss of identity, sleeping and blindness are the figures that express the invisible man's confusion and despair as his world disintegrates. Then, after the cultural malaise climaxes in the riot, the final phase of the anti-hero's progress begins, a descent into the tomb—the netherworld across the Styx where heroes rest: ‘‘It’s a kind of death without hanging, I thought, a death alive…. I moved off over the black water, floating, sighing … sleeping invisibly.’’ So he remains immortal and waiting, like the heroes of myth who disappear and are believed to wait should the world require them—like King Arthur and Finn MacCool, sleeping giants blended into the landscape. The invisible man, now grown into Jack-the-Bear, turns to New York’s sewer system, a black and labyrinthine underground—a fitting anti-hero’s mausoleum.

In this black crypt he destroys his old selves one by one as he searches for light, erasing his past—burning his high school diploma, a doll which is a bitter totem of Tod Clifton’s demise, the name given him by the Brotherhood, a poison-pen note, all the tokens of his identity. Then he dreams of castration and sees that the retreat has been his crucifixion—he has been cut off from the world of possibility. ‘‘Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility. Step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos—ask Rinehart, he’s a master of it—or imagination.’’ Imagination in the end redeems the anti-hero and makes his flight from battle a victory, for it gives us his story. In his tomb he is not dead but hibernating, preparing for a spring of the heart, a return which may be either death or resurrection:

There’s a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell either of death or of spring—I hope of spring. But don’t let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring and in the smell of thee as in the smell of me.

The Easter of the spirit may be the emergence of the new man—no longer an anti-hero, invisible, nameless and dispossessed, but a true hero—or it may be the death of our culture.

The resurrection motif ties the story in the frame of prologue and epilogue, in the voice from underground:

… don’t jump to the conclusion that because I call my home a ‘‘hole’’ it is damp and cold like a grave, there are cold holes and warm holes. Mine is a warm hole. And remember, a bear retires to his hole for the winter and lives until spring, then he comes strolling out like the Easter cluck breaking from its shell. I say all this to assure you that it is incorrect to assume that, because I’m invisible and live in a hole, I am dead. I am neither dead nor in a state of suspended animation. Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation.

Buckeye the Rabbit has grown into the formidable Jack-the-Bear (recalling the Bear’s Son of the sagas) as the anti-hero has passed his trials and journeyed on his downward path, reliving the recent history of the Negro. He lies in wait beneath the inferno, under the underworld, listening for the hero’s call.

Source: William J. Schafer, ‘‘Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero,’’ in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1968, pp. 81-93.

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Critical Overview