Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4171
Ellison’s artistic vision is not impaired by blind spots related to racially divided cultures. While he acknowledges the expression of racial divisions in the works of such authors as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, he is also critical of stereotyped images of blacks in fiction by white authors. Ellison’s mature attitude toward American pluralism made him aware that racism is a common phenomenon that both whites and blacks need to transcend in order to coexist.
A masterwork of American pluralism, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man insists on the integrity of individual vocabulary and racial heritage while encouraging a democratic acceptance of diverse experiences. Ellison asserts this vision through the voice of an unnamed first-person narrator who is at once heir to the rich African American oral culture and a self-conscious artist who, like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, exploits the full potential of his written medium. Intimating the potential cooperation between folk and artistic consciousness, Ellison confronts the pressures that discourage both individual integrity and cultural pluralism.
Invisible Man is a story about the gradual awakening of an African American man concerning his role in a multicultural democracy. The novel’s narrator-protagonist introduces Ellison’s central metaphor for the situation of the individual in Western culture in the first paragraph: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” As the novel develops, Ellison extends this metaphor: Just as people can be rendered invisible by the willful failure of others to acknowledge their presence, so by taking refuge in the seductive but ultimately specious security of socially acceptable roles they can fail to see themselves, fail to define their own identities. Ellison envisions the escape from this dilemma as a multifaceted quest demanding heightened social, psychological, and cultural awareness.
The style of Invisible Man reflects both the complexity of the problem and Ellison’s pluralistic ideal. Drawing on sources such as the blindness motif from William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606), the underground man motif fromFyodor Dostoevski, and the complex stereotyping of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ellison carefully balances the realistic and the symbolic dimensions of Invisible Man. In many ways a classic Künstlerroman, the main body of the novel traces theprotagonist from his childhood in the deep South through a brief stay at college and then to the North, where he confronts the American economic, political, and racial systems.
This movement parallels what Robert B. Stepto in From Behind the Veil (1979) calls the “narrative of ascent,” a constituting pattern of African American culture. With roots in the fugitive slave narratives of the nineteenth century, the narrative of ascent follows its protagonist from physical or psychological bondage in the South through a sequence of symbolic confrontations with social structures to a limited freedom, usually in the North. This freedom demands from the protagonist a “literacy” that enables him or her to create and understand both written and social experiences in the terms of the dominant Euro-American culture. Merging the narrative of ascent with the Künstlerroman, which also culminates with the hero’s mastery of literacy (seen in creative terms), Invisible Man focuses on writing as an act of both personal and cultural significance.
Similarly, Ellison employs what Stepto calls the “narrative of immersion” to stress the realistic sources and implications of his hero’s imaginative development. The narrative of immersion returns the “literate” hero or heroine to an understanding of the culture he or she symbolically left behind during the ascent....
(The entire section contains 4171 words.)
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