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Invisible Man by Ralph Waldo Ellison

The narrator of Invisible Man is telling more a story of self-discovery. A lot of times self narration comes with self-reflection and the Narrator later comes to realizes that all his roles have been created by the environment and culture around him. Throughout the story the narrator has no sense of self worth. Only the stereotypical roles that others have given him, and he bases his ideas on the options of others.

As the narrator puts it: “my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself” (560). Nevertheless, by the end of the book he finally understands the fact that life in America mainly consists of a color barrier between two colors; yet, he is still invisible, but no longer is he blind. His new view of reality teaches him that he is obligated to return to society “since there’s possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (568).

Ellison spent seven years writing Invisible Man, his one and only novel. “Invisible Man is [considered] literary fiction because of its in-depth exploration of one man’s psyche and its innovative style.” (“Invisible Man Genre”). Invisible Man is the story of a young man who considers himself “invisible” to the world around him. He goes on to explain that his invisibility is not the result of a biochemical accident and that he is not a spirit. He is invisible due to others refusing to see him because of his skin color.

The narrator says that being invisible serves as both a benefit and a constant exasperation. He depicts his anguished need to make others recognize him, and say he has found that such attempts rarely succeed. The narrator hides away in his invisibility preparing for his unnamed action.

The narrator recounts an incident in which he was bumped into by a tall, blond-haired man in the dark; the man insulted him and the narrator attacked him. Only at the last minute, he came to his senses, stopping himself from slitting the man’s throat. The next day, the narrator reads about the incident in the newspaper; the attack is described as a mugging. He comments on the irony of being mugged by an invisible man.

Now, the narrator hibernates in his invisibility” (Spark Notes Editors). He states that the beginning of his story is actually the end. The narrator is not sure of who he is because his “identity has been dictated by the white-dominated society” (“Narrator in Invisible Man”).

The narrator goes on a journey of self-discovery. The story takes place in the American South and Harlem, New York, where he meets people that further alter his life. Throughout the novel, Ellison uses many literary devices to illustrate the narrator’s persistence to finding himself.

The narrator finds his first job working at the Liberty Paints plant. Upon his arrival on his first day, he sees a huge electric sign that reads “KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS.” The Liberty Paints plant is most famous for its Optic White paint. In order to create the color, the narrator is to put ten black drops of toner in each bucket. It symbolizes “the necessity of the black contribution to white America” (“Invisible Man Symbolism, Imagery & Allegory”). Reverend Homer A. Barbee preaches at the chapel services at the college. He wears dark glasses.
On day, after giving his sermon, Barbee stumbles upon returning to his chair causing his glasses to fall from his face. The narrator catches a quick glimpse of Barbee’s eyes, and realizes that Reverend Barbee is blind. Brother Jack, a man from an organization in Harlem called the Brotherhood, has a false left eye. The narrator sees the sight problems as a representation of the blindness of the human race. Although this blindness if not of a physical nature, the human race refuses to see others for who they are.
The setting itself is symbolic of the human tendency to judge at first glance. The narrator is born and raised in the American South. When travels to New York he realizes the large difference between the North and South. He is surprised to find the white drivers obeying the directions of a black policeman. He wonders if some of the things he does will be considered insulting, such as leaving a tip on the table for a white waitress.

Unlike when he was in the South, the narrator experiences a sort of racial freedom in the North. Yet, he feels that his skin color will determine how he will be perceived by others. Whether it is by the white men of the Brotherhood or the self-proclaimed nymphomaniac, he would be judged by his skin color first then by who he is.

The tone of the story says a great deal about the narrator. He could have easily made the story nothing more than a depressing story about racial injustice. Instead, he told the story in a blunt but thoughtful way. It allows for a more reflective edge to the story. The story is told from first person point of view allowing the tone to remain soft versus scolding.
The narrator tells his story from his own experiences, allowing for a personal development of the narrator and no other character. The treatment of the characters mirrors the treatment the narrator experienced throughout the story. Every other character in the story is one-dimensional. There are set types of people but they are fairly simple.
Todd Clifton is a member of the Brotherhood. There is a point in the story where Brother Clifton is on the street selling Sambo dolls. The narrator further examines the doll to find that Clifton is controlling it with black string hidden from the audience. The doll itself is a symbol of the narrator. The strings are held by the white men of the Brotherhood. The strings may also be controlled by everyone that manipulated the narrator in his life.

The narrator remembers giving the graduation speech at his high school graduation. During his speech he urges that for the progression of Black America everyone should practice modesty and obedience because it is the key. His speech was received so well, and it was such a success that the town arranges for him to deliver the speech at an assembly of the community’s leading white citizens. Upon the narrator’s arrival to give his speech he is instructed to take to take part in the “battle royal” that appears to be a part of the evening’s entertainment.

The narrator, and his classmates put on boxing gloves and proceed enter the ring. The white men place blindfolds on the youths and order them to fight each other viciously. The narrator’s unwillingness to resist or even protest what the white men were doing to him, and his classmates is apparent when he says “We were rushed up to the front of the ballroom, where it smelled even more strongly of tobacco and whiskey. Then we were pushed into place.” (Ellison 18-19)
Instead of denying them the ability to place him in a situation that he found uncomfortable, he just goes along with the plans. The narrator finds himself facing defeat in the last round, and when it came time for the narrator to give his speech, the white men laugh and ignore him as he quotes the larger sections of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address.
The men award him a calfskin briefcase containing a scholarship to the state college for black youth. The briefcase is symbolic of his naivety and youth. His final loss of the briefcase represents a severance from his past. Recalling his time at college, the narrator remembers the college’s bronze statue of its Founder, a black man. He illustrates the statue as cold and fatherly, its eyes empty.

At the end of his third year, the narrator takes a job driving Mr. Norton, one of the college’s white millionaire founders around campus. Ellison alludes to other works of literature in his story Invisible Man.
The narrator encounters a street vendor selling bake yams. He buys one and when he bites into it, he is reminded of his home in the South. In Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, the author eats into a madeleine and immediately recollects his childhood in Belle Époque France. In Invisible Man, Ellison does Proust one better by imbuing the moment with not only a definitive character transformation, but by the consumption of a second, frostbitten yam (“Invisible Man Allusions & Cultural References”).

Ellison also makes references to such historical figures as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute as a way for newly freed slaves to get their education. A more overt connection to Booker T. Washington in Invisible Man comes when the narrator writes of his grandparents: “About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand.”

This is a direct allusion to Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise address, when he said, “In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (“Invisible Man Allusions & Cultural References”).

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois expresses his theory of the double-consciousness possessed by blacks. According to DuBois, blacks know and understand what it is to be both an American as white Americans understand it and what it is to be a black American. DuBois thought this had both ups and downs, just as the narrator’s invisibility has its cons and pros. Ellison uses theme as a constant developmental element for the story. Such themes as, identity, race and ideology are few of the many present in the novel. In Invisible Man, identity is a conflict between self-perception and projection of others.

The narrator’s identity is invisible to those around him. Not until he separates himself from society can he truly come to understand himself. Although throughout the novel the narrator’s race depicts how he is perceived by society, the novel is aimed at transcending race and all the other ways humanity has used to categorize people. For a long time, the narrator is defined by his race which led to invisibility.

The book “Invisible Man” apparently tends to promote a political philosophy which makes very appealing to an emotional individual. It rejects all forms of ideology, arguing that ideology focuses too much on the collective perception at the expense of the individual.

The infusion of power appears depicted in nearly all of the relationships of Invisible Man. More so the power of white males appears to dominate the narrator’s view throughout the novel, this is also apparent in situations where there are no white males present. Other people who hold any form of power keep it only through the largesse or “generosity” of white men.

Admiration is particularly prominent towards the beginning of Invisible Man, when the narrator takes Dr. Bledsoe and Mr. Norton to be role models. By the end of the novel, the narrator apparently has no admiration for anyone. The narrator finds that Dr. Bledsoe and Mr. Norton are extremely flawed role models, and the he realizes that he can only depend on himself.

Ralph Ellison used many literary elements to illustrate the life of the narrator. The narrator remained nameless but was still a much more rounded character when compared to the others in the story. He has depth to his personality versus being seen as a single type of person.

Nonetheless it proves to be important. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was a book written by an unknown writer that quickly established him as one of the best of his time. The book remained on the bestsellers list for an incredible sixteen weeks. The story of the invisible man is one which best connects with the civil rights movement during that time in history which later lead to African American leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. The book might have not been responsible for the changes we see today, but it continues to intrigue readers, even casual readers like me.

His withdrawal from society and low profile gave him a chance to create his own identity, and to find himself. His education give him the abilities to achieve what he wanted and give himself a slightly higher status than most African American, and the advice that his grandfather gave him the drive needed to fight back.

His invisibility not only saved his life, but it allowed him to become himself. He became a more satisfied man at the end of the novel. In conclusion, it is clear that the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man finds an identity through his education, his grandfather’s advice, and his invisibility. Each of these three things plays a key role in his finding of himself.

Upon Ralph Ellison finishing his book he was most likely feeling the strain of being a black man in a world that saw him as less than a man. It is most likely this feeling of unrest that lead to the title of the book, because despite being of flesh and blood the world he lived in did not see him, thus the title “Invisible Man.”

Work Cited
Ellison, Ralph Waldo. “Invisible Man.” New York Random House, 1952
Shmoop Editorial Team. “Invisible Man Genre.” Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 25 Jun 2010.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Invisible Man Symbolism, Imagery & Allegory.” Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 25 Jun 2010

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Narrator in Invisible Man.” Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 25 Jun 2010.

Spark Notes Editors. “Spark Note on Invisible Man.” Spark Notes LLC. 2002. Web. 21 Jun. 2010.