Budding from crumbling social and political structures in the post-WWI Western world, existentialism and its emphasis on human individuality illustrated new philosophical developments: the loss of trust in external authority and a shift toward focusing on the self. Many no longer turned to government, religion, or science to define meaning but instead found it inwardly, by examining their own thoughts and desires. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, published in 1952 as the philosophy was reaching its height of popularity, approaches existentialism in the light of race relations. The novel's black protagonist chronicles his experiencesfirst as a naive college student emulating Booker T. Washington's policy of self-advancement, then as a worker in a paint factory, a speaker for a communist party called the Brotherhood, and finally as a fully-realized individual living in isolation. He gradually becomes disillusioned in how people view him, realizing that the prejudice and ideologies he encounters reduce him to hollow stereotypes: servile black slave, industrious black student, lazy black laborer, abstract black spokesman. These social identities thrust upon him obscure his own identity; only when he sheds others' expectations does he understand that he is a complex individual, undefinable by the one-dimensional roles prescribed for him.
Developed as the story progresses is the existentialist theme that existence precedes essence. Mana dynamic, conscious beingcannot be limited by definitions or systems which aim to diminish him to gears in a cogwheel because he is a complicated individual. However, the Brotherhood imposes such essences on Invisible Man, regarding him as a symbol of his skin color; "'Don’t you think he should be a little blacker?'" (p.303), whispers one member. The narrator "was not hired to think" (p.469) but to be a tool for advancing vague, lofty political motives. Brother Jack, a former mentor to the narrator, shouts that discipline is "'sacrifice, sacrifice, SACRIFICE!'" (p.475), exposing the Brotherhood’s fanatical drive which forces its members to shed personal identity for the organization.
When the narrator finally does grasp his identity, he burns the objects in his briefcase which have reduced him to an essence or definition. His smoldering high-school diploma frees him from the psychological confines of the corrupt and racist educational system just as the burning Brotherhood certificate delivers him from the sinister and amorphous "Negro" stereotype. He "smiles as he sees the swift but feeble light push back the gloom", dissipating his blindness and willingness to let others define him. The narrator has "encountered himself, surged up in the world," and now can finally be "what he makes of himself."1
The ubiquitous discrimination which confronts Invisible Man isolates him from society. Some, for instance, see him as the coin bank he finds, the "cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and white-mouthed Negro..., his face an enormous grin" (p.319). Their racism gives rise to the novel's blindness motif. Before entering college, he must fight sightless in a "battle royal", confined in a white blindfold that symbolizes the surrounding white elite, who gratify their prejudiced notions that blacks are savages. Later, as Jack gives a speech about discipline his glass eye falls out, and the narrator notes that "discipline is sacrifice. Yes, and blindness." (p.475) People’s blindness alienates the narrator, as they never accept nor notice his individuality; he appears both faceless and nameless in their eyes.
In existentialist philosophy, one feels alienated from vast, autonomous, and impersonal human institutions. However, this isolation "illuminates the blackness of the narrator's invisibility" (p.13). Forced by his understanding that no one sees himthat he is an invisible manhe turns inward and embraces his invisibility, finding his identity and "playing the invisible music of his isolation."
Though one’s life is his own, a person cannot control all aspects of it. Thrown into his present location arbitrarily, he realizes that existence is absurdity. Existentialist forerunner Blaise Pascal writes about this ridiculous aimlessness:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of space of which I am ignorant, and which knows me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there, why now rather than then.2
After being hurled into a violent rebellion in the streets, the narrator "recognizes the absurdity of the whole night" and more broadly, "of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that has brought him here still running..." (p.559). Just the mere fact of being born black instead of white influences his desires and draws hatred against him. Still, he realizes "that it is better to live out one's own absurdity than to die for that of others...." He does not lapse into despair but considers his grandfather’s deathbed words"Agree 'em to death and destruction"in a new light: "affirm the principle on which the country was built" (p.574). The way to overcome absurdity is to say "yes" to the world, to take responsibility for society’s wrongdoings and transcend them instead of resigning oneself to invisibility.
1. Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Existentialism is a Humanism." http://members.aol.com/DonJohnR/Philosophy/S_Human.html
2. Pascal, Blaise. Pensées.
Any non-attributed quotes owe their source to the following:
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, Inc., 1952.