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.