"Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" - Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison's 1952 masterpiece is often lauded by critics as one of the greatest American novels of the twenthieth century. I'm inclined to agree. Viewing this novel as simply a story about racism, as many unfortunately do (a result of having been forced to read it in school, perhaps), is far too limiting. Certainly Invisible Man is a landmark in black fiction, but the main thrust of the story is search for identity, not just for the black man, but for all humanity. The story is about invisibility, a term which can only be fully grasped by reading the book. It's a haunting portrait of the invisible man inside all of us...

The narrator is an intelligent, young, nameless African-American who seeks acceptance from all corners, but finds only manipulation. The tale begins at a southern college for Negroes, where the protagonist seems to be semi-content. However, he is perpetually haunted by the last words of his grandfather, and a feeling that he is merely conforming to a "whitewashed" stereotype of intelligent blacks. The Invisible Man is first sent on his downward spiral when he inadvertantly shows an idealistic, liberal, white trustee the true nature of much black life in the South, in the form of a whorehouse and an incestuous sharecropper.

As the trustee's world is rocked by partial confirmation of the racist stereotypes of others, the black headmaster of the college decides to expel the narrator. "Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of an education are you getting around here?" He is sent northward to New York City for a job by the headmaster, where he discovers a terrible betrayal which shakes his being.

As the narrator's odyssey progresses, he becomes a black spokesman for seemingly sympathetic communists. In time, he realizes that he is once again filling a stereotype, once again the object of manipulation by those he trusted. Faced with another betrayal, the Invisible Man muses, "Here I thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men."

The story ends in an apocalyptic nightmare, a surreal race riot of biblical proportions. As the narrator walks the streets inspired by T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, he ponders his own invisibility at length, bringing the earlier episodes of the story full-circle. As the novel closes, he goes into "hibernation" under the city, until the time he is ready to emerge triumphant, having defeated personal and societal demons, and at last visible. His soul is dead, but ready for rebirth.

Prose is rarely more beautiful, powerful, and well-written than it is in Invisible Man, Ellison's first and only novel. Read this book, and see why it took Ellison 40 years to write a follow-up (which he never finished...)

I wrote this essay on the topic of novels that introduce many of their important themes in the first chapter or section.

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a complex novel with many themes, the majority of which are introduced in the prologue. Themes of invisibility, violence, inaction vs. action, and the contradictions of African American culture are all presented.

The speak introduces himself as an invisible man, an entity created by others' inability to see him. He is a creature from nightmares, made unreal by the perceptions of his fellow humans. The novel following this explanation in the prologue is the story of how a man with such an obviously strong personality came to be unseen. Also, by calling himself a figment of nightmares, he makes all people who cannot see him "sleepwalkers;" he implies that most of the characters in the book will live under the dreamlike conditions of their own illusion of reality. From Ras the Destroyer, working for a dream that can never come true, to Sybil, seeing the Invisible Man as a sexual archetype, the characters of the book live in constant states of dreaming.

Casual violence permeates the novel. When the IM attacks a man on the street simply because the man bumped him, he is restrained only by the realization that the man thinks he is being attacked by a phantom. This savage beating in the prologue is the first point of casual violence in a book that includes black men fighting each other as entertainment for whites and culminates in bloody chaos in the "jungle of Harlem." For the IM, violence is a rite of passage and a necessity; for the white society around him, it is a way to revert the black man to a primitive, atavistic nature, thus making them more animal than man. Violence becomes a dangerous tool of subjugation because sometimes it can result in tragedy for the whites, but it remains a necessity because of its extreme power.

As he struggles to decide when to take action, the IM must choose between hibernation and invisibility or exposure and leadership. As he speaks in the prologue, he gives a definition: "A hibernation is covert preparation for a more overt action." So he hibernates, afraid that he might miss the moment when his action is to take place. The rest of the book continues to ask the crucial question: action or inaction? Should he fight? Should he stand up for himself following Bledsoe's letters? Should he lead his people? Always, the choice is ambiguous and confusing but, for the IM, necessary.

While high off a reefer, the IM begins to see the "nodes" of history: the points where time takes on the qualities of a current, flowing and eddying. He learns to stand outside of time and to see that, in his own story, "The end is in the beginning." The structure follows this statement, beginning with the inevitable end to all in it, but also ending with a resolution for a beginning. The IM can enjoy the benefits of a lengthy hibernation because he is unconcerned with the passing of time.

In the prologue, the IM has a dream in which he witnesses a revival-type meeting celebrating blackness and talking about how it is a dangerous, powerful, unpredictable element of society. Yet he cannot stand to live in darkness; in the prologue he says, "the truth is the light and light is the truth." Light is synonymous with whiteness, and its importance to the racially black IM is perhaps the most significant theme of the novel. In the prologue, the IM explains that he is given form only by the light in his room; that he is not "dead" because of that form. Later, he is a pawn of both whites and blacks, but he is also the essential drop of black in the most popular of white paints. He learns to use whites as they have used him, and as he sees his fellow black men doing. He is appalled by the selling of the caricature-like puppets, but he becomes one to gain status. This confusion and ambiguity is foreshadowed in the prologue later on in his dream, when he speaks to an old black woman who tells him that she both loves and hates her dead white master, who used and humiliated her. This ambivalence, she explains, is why she slowly poisoned him, just as the IM's dying grandfather will later demand that all black men do to their white masters. This contradiction is why the IM will both love and hate the blacks and whites alike around him.

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 experiences—first 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. Man—a dynamic, conscious being—cannot 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 him—that he is an invisible man—he 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.

The Birds of Ellison's Invisible Man

Birds are fabulous creatures, unique in their ability of flight and magnificent in their appearance. Birds are associated with flight, and flight is associated with freedom or escape. Birds represent flight, freedom, and tranquility. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison uses birds as symbols to portray these things. Birds represent many things in the novel. Bird droppings on the Founder tarnish his image after his death. Caged birds in Emerson's office represent the Invisible Man's own yearning for freedom. The gulls flying around the Invisible Man during the novel foreshadow impending doom. In all of these cases, birds are used to symbolically represent ideas and thoughts that impact the Invisible Man's quest for freedom and a sense of self.

During the Invisible Man's remembrance of his once-loved college, his most prominent mental image is that of the statue of the Founder, covered in gull droppings. He remarks rhetorically, “Why is a bird-soiled statue more commanding than one that is clean?” (36). The Founder is supposed to be representative of the lifting up of the black race. The Invisible Man thinks, upon looking back, that the Founder was really helping to keep the black race in its place in society; the droppings should warn him that the Founder was not as great as he was thought to be. The second effect that the droppings have is that of symbolically marring the pristine image of the Founder in the mind of the Invisible Man. He thinks to himself, “I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place” (36). The droppings on the Founder are symbolic of the tarnished image that he presents to the view of the Invisible Man. Bird droppings affect the statue of the Founder in the way that birds affect the entire novel; in causing the Invisible Man to realize that he doesn't really know himself, they heighten his need for a distinct identity.

In Emerson's office, caged birds are symbolic of the pain suffered by the Invisible Man and of the freedom that he yearns for. The Invisible Man, like “an aviary of tropical birds set near one of the broad windows” (181) had a longing for the racial freedom he could never imagine in the South, but could clearly see in the North. Like the cage before the window, racial freedom remained an unattainable goal always in the distance. Also, the birds “(beat) their wings maliciously against the bamboo bars” (181) in an expression of rage and frustration. The tropical birds' suffering is symbolic of the restrictions placed on the Invisible Man by society and by himself. He must conform to the mold that society gives him, following the role he is supposed to in order to appease the Bledsoes in his life. He also restricts himself and convinces himself that it is for his own benefit; this is obvious when he refuses to stand closer to the window because it would be “unbusinesslike” (181). The birds in Emerson's office symbolize the Invisible Man because of their frustration at being caged and their longing for a freedom they cannot attain.

The gulls flying above the Invisible Man in the novel are also used as symbols. When the Invisible Man is walking to Mr. Bates' office, he encounters gulls circling the Statue of Liberty, and inevitably painting it with “liquid chalk” (165). The gull droppings covering the Statue of Liberty have much the same effect symbolically as they do on the statue of the Founder; the droppings making the statue ugly are symbolic of the statue representing something ugly in the Invisible Man's mind. The Statue of Liberty, previously a symbol of American freedom and tolerance, begins to lose its meaning for the Invisible Man when he begins to suspect that he is being used and is not in control of his life. This has crushed the Invisible Man's faith in the American Dream and has shown to him that the goals of freedom and tolerance are unattainable in American society. Also, the Invisible Man is covered with gull droppings when he is running in a drunken stupor after his encounter with Sybil. These droppings serve to symbolically tarnish his own image. The droppings on the Invisible Man, like the droppings on the statues, show that the Invisible Man's view of himself has been lowered after what he did with Sybil. The Invisible Man realizes he is not the great person he thought he was; his image has been tarnished after he realizes he was objectified and used by Sybil. His sense of self is again shattered when he realizes that he does not have power over the rest of the world, and that he does not even have power over himself. The gulls flying near the Invisible Man and the droppings they produce are powerful symbols used throughout the novel.

In Invisible Man, birds are used repeatedly to show the effects of something on the Invisible Man's view of the world around him, and consequently on his own identity and how he fits into that world. The droppings of the gulls on a statue are used to represent something lowered in the view of the Invisible Man. The birds in Emerson's office represent the Invisible Man and his own feelings. When the Invisible Man is covered with droppings, his own image becomes tarnished. The Invisible Man's view of the world is represented by birds; when that view changes, his own sense of identity and how that identity fits into the world is changed. His quest for freedom and a sense of self is advanced by a constantly changing view of the world and of himself.

The Brotherhood

Social and revolutionary movements can usually be represented by a single member who encompasses, believes, or can at least demonstrate some ideals of the organization. The Brotherhood in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man exposes Ellison’s overall disgust with “social justiceorganizations, exemplifying the use of individual members as mere tools of an oligarchy. The Inivisble Man (to be henceforth referred to as "IM") encounters members whose hypocritical alterior agendas influence the system, leading to his disillusionment with the organization. The Brotherhood systematically suppresses and brainwashes the individual, challenges race interactions, and keeps women subservient, all of which further the objectives of the white ruling class.

The Brotherhood exists for whites as a simple, systematic, organized means of oppressing inner-city blacks, meant to distract and occupy those who might try to instigate change. IM is told that the Brotherhood works “for a better world for all people”, and he is asked if he wants to “be the new Booker T. Washington” (who many people saw as an active Uncle Tom). He is not allowed to be himself, and is forced to take on the ideas and even the name of someone else. IM “was not hired to think”, because “the committee does the thinking for everyone.” Brother Jack, a main leader, has taken a role as “the great white father”, claiming that their job is “not to ask them what to think, but to tell them.” Most of the committee is white, exposing their motivation to brainwash the blacks and keep them distracted and demoralized.

The committee believes that they know blacks and therefore know what is best for the race. IM sarcastically exclaims that the white Brother Tobitt “must be practically a Negro” himself since he is “married to a fine, intelligent Negro girl” (he doesn’t even refer to her as a woman). IM is “forced to ride race”, and as the whites say they want equality, all they do to achieve this goal is make speeches. The lack of real action exposes hypocrisy in the system, reinforced by the white’s refusal to work with the blacks as equals.

The Brotherhood’s treatment of women outlines a glaring gender separation. The equality “for all people” does not include women, apparently, as IM is assigned to “The Woman Question”. The Brotherhood is only asking what to do with women in order to keep the status quo. They don’t have or propose a solution or answer, something they have no intention of producing. Even the name, “Brotherhood”, emphasizes men over women. The woman with whom IM has an affair with (ch. 19) thinks the Brotherhood is “too vast a philosophy to grasp immediately”, which is exactly what they want her to think. Within the Brotherhood, the Brainwashing committee must “keep the biological and ideological carefully apart”, therefore keeping women of any race subservient to men.

The Brotherhood is a hypocritical organization controlled by whites. IT runs under the façade of working for the equality of all people, but in fact, only keeps blacks distracted and oppressed under white rule. Women are given even less of a chance, not even considered as part of the organization’s doctrine. The Brotherhood suppresses individuality, destroys race interactions, perpetuates the inequality of women, and systematically oppresses blacks, fulfilling goals held by the white ruling class.

All quotes cited from:

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, Inc., 1952.

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