The Invisible Man’s Journey and the Larger American Experience
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...
(The entire section is 1483 words.)