Invisible Man Explained

Invisible Man
Author:Ralph Ellison
Country:United States
Language:English
Genre:Bildungsroman novel, African-American Literature, Social commentary
Publisher:Random House, Inc.
Release Date:1952
Media Type:Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages:581 pp (Second edition)
Isbn:978-0-679-60139-5

Invisible Man,[1] a novel written by Ralph Ellison. It was the only novel that Ellison published during his lifetime, and it won him the National Book Award in 1953. The novel addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-American identity, including the relationship between this identity and Marxism, black nationalism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington.

Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[2]

Historical background

In his introduction to the House of the Rising Son 30th Anniversary Edition of Invisible Man,[1] Ellison says that he started writing the book in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont in the Summer of 1945 where he was on sick leave from the Merchant Marines and that the novel continued to preoccupy him in various parts of New York City. In an interview in the The Paris Review in 1955,[3] Ellison states that the book took five years to complete with one year out for what he termed as an "ill-conceived short novel." Invisible Man was published as a whole in 1952; however, copyright dates show the initial publication date as 1947, 1948, indicating that Ellison had published a section of the book prior to full publication. That section was the famous "Battle Royal" scene, which had been shown to Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon magazine by Frank Taylor, one of Ellison's early supporters.

Ellison states in his National Book Award acceptance speech that he considered the novel's chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest -- as Ellison would later put it -- he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly-regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind of symbolism which Ellison first encountered in the poem The Waste Land. [4], by T. S. Eliot. Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at the Tuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Land's ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and of literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later about what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation —techniques he had seen before only in jazz.

Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, but acknowledged that writing had provided him a growing satisfaction. It was a covert process Ellison conceded, or as he put it in his introduction to Shadow and Act "a refusal of hand right to let his left hand know what it was doing."

Plot introduction

Invisible Man is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed African American man who considers himself socially invisible. His character may have been inspired by Ellison's own life. The narrator may be conscious of his audience, writing as a way to make himself visible to mainstream culture; the book is structured as if it were the narrator's autobiography although it begins in the middle of his life.

In the Prologue, Ellison's narrator tells readers, “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights. He says, “My hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway." The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him since "the truth is the light and light is the truth." From this underground perspective, the narrator attempts to make sense out of his life, experiences, and position in American society.

Plot summary

In the beginning of the book, the narrator lives in a small Southern town. He is a model student, even being named his high school's valedictorian. Having written and delivered a successful speech about the requirement of humility for the black man's progress, he is invited to give his speech before a group of important white men. However, he is first forced to fight a humiliating "battle royal" with other blacks. The battle royal consists of the young black men fighting blindfolded in a boxing ring while their white superiors watch in enjoyment. After finally giving his speech, he receives a briefcase containing a scholarship to a black college outside of New Orleans, Louisiana that is clearly modeled on Tuskegee Institute.

During his junior year at the college, the narrator is required to give Mr. Norton, a rich white trustee, a tour of the grounds. He accidentally drives to the house of Jim Trueblood, a black man living on the college's outskirts who impregnated his daughter. Trueblood, though disgraced by his fellow blacks, has found greater support from whites. After hearing Trueblood's story and giving Trueblood a hundred dollar bill, Mr. Norton faints, then asks for some alcohol to help his condition, prompting the narrator to take him to a local tavern. At the Golden Day tavern, Norton passes in and out of consciousness as black veterans suffering from mental health problems occupy the bar and a fight breaks out among them. One of the veterans claims to be a doctor and tends to Mr. Norton. The dazed and confused Mr. Norton is not fully aware of what’s going on, as the veteran doctor chastises the actions of the trustee and the young black college student. Through all the chaos, the narrator manages to get the recovered Mr. Norton back to the campus after a day of unusual events.

Upon returning to the school he is fearful of the reaction of the day's incidents from college president Dr. Bledsoe. At any rate, insight into Dr. Bledsoe's knowledge of the events and the narrator's future at the campus is somewhat prolonged as an important visitor arrives. The narrator views a sermon by the highly respected Reverend Homer A. Barbee. Barbee, who is blind, delivers a speech about the legacy of the college's founder, with such passion and resonance that he comes vividly alive to the narrator; his voice makes up for his blindness. The narrator is so inspired by the speech that he feels impassioned like never before to contribute to the college's legacy. However, all his dreams are shattered as a meeting with Bledsoe reveals his fate. Fearing that the college's funds will be jeopardized by the incidents that occurred, college president Dr. Bledsoe immediately expels the narrator. While the Invisible Man once aspired to be like Bledsoe, he realizes that the man has portrayed himself as a black stereotype in order to succeed in the white-dominated society. This serves as the first epiphany among many in the narrator realizing his invisibility. This epiphany is not yet complete when Bledsoe gives him several letters of recommendation to help him find work in the north. Upon arriving in New York, the narrator distributes the letters with no success. From the recipient of the final letter, the narrator learns that the letters instructed various friends of the school to assist Dr. Bledsoe in keeping the narrator deceived about his chances at returning to school - that is do not hire the narrator and do not inform him of the contents of the note.

He eventually gets a job in the boiler room of a paint factory in a company renowned for its white paints. The man in charge of the boiler room, Lucius Brockway, is extremely paranoid and thinks that the narrator has come to take his job. He is also extremely loyal to the company's owner, who once paid him a personal visit. When the narrator tells him about a union meeting he happened upon, Brockway is outraged, and attacks him. They fight, and Brockway tricks him into turning a wrong valve and causing a boiler to explode. Brockway escapes, but the narrator is hospitalized after the blast. While hospitalized, the narrator overhears doctors discussing him as a mental health patient. He learns through their discussion that shock treatment has been performed on him.

After the shock treatments the narrator attempts to return to his residence when he feels overwhelmed by a certain dizziness and faints on the streets of Harlem. He is taken to the residence of a kind, old-fashioned woman by the name of Mary. Mary is down-to-earth and reminds the narrator of his relatives in the South and friends at the college. Mary somewhat serves as a mother figure for the narrator.

No longer able to work at the factory, the narrator wanders the streets of New York. Eventually, he comes across an elderly couple being evicted from their apartment and gives an important speech rallying passers-by to their cause. The onlookers, angry at the marshal in charge of the eviction, charge past him and start a riot. His otherwise powerful speech brings him to the attention of the Brotherhood, an equality-minded organization with obvious communist undertones. Their leader, Brother Jack, who witnessed the speech and the riot, recruits him and begins training him as an orator, with the intention of uniting New York's black community.

The narrator is at first happy to be making a difference in the world, "making history," in his new job. He gives several successful speeches and is soon promoted to head the Brotherhood's work in Harlem. While for the most part his rallies go smoothly, he soon encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist in the vein of Marcus Garvey who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Ras tells this to the narrator and Tod Clifton, a youth leader of the Brotherhood, neither of whom seem to be swayed by his words.

Soon the narrator's name is all over Harlem, and a magazine calls to interview him. Though he tries to convince them to interview Tod Clifton instead, they insist upon him. When the article comes out, one brother criticizes him for taking personal credit for the work, instead of emphasizing the whole of the Brotherhood. Though his work has been impeccable, the Brotherhood's ruling committee decides to take him out of Harlem and set him to work in a new part of town.

When he returns to Harlem, Tod Clifton has disappeared. When the narrator finds him, he realizes that Clifton has become disillusioned with the Brotherhood, and has quit. Clifton is selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, mocking the organization he once believed in. He is shot to death by a police officer in a scuffle. At Clifton's funeral, the narrator rallies crowds to win back his former widespread Harlem support and delivers a rousing speech, but he is censured by the Brotherhood for praising a man who would sell such dolls.

Walking along the street one day, the narrator is spotted by Ras and roughed up by his men. He buys sunglasses and a hat as a disguise, and is mistaken for a man named Rinehart in a number of different scenarios: first as a lover, then a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and finally as a reverend. He sees that Rinehart has adapted to white society, at the cost of his own identity. This causes the narrator to see that his own identity is not of importance to the Brotherhood, but only his blackness. He decides to take his grandfather's dying advice to "over come 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction. . ." and "yes" the Brotherhood to death, by making it appear that the Harlem membership is thriving when in reality it is crumbling.

The novel ends with a massive Harlem race riot, fueled by anger over Clifton's death and the tension between the Brotherhood and the followers of Ras. Riding a horse in full tribal regalia, Ras orders the narrator hanged and throws a spear at him. The narrator hurls the spear back, piercing Ras' cheek. He now realizes that even in trying to subvert the Brotherhood, he has only aided its white-controlled interests in helping to start a race riot that will generate sympathy and propaganda for the organization. Blinded by his epiphany, the narrator runs away, and is soon accosted by a group of men for his briefcase. He once again flees and the narrator falls down a manhole, where he is taunted by his pursuers. Rather than try to escape, he decides to make a new life for himself underground, invisible. As mentioned at the beginning of the story, he taps an electric wire running into the building so he can power his collection of 1,369 bulbs in the basement, hidden from the power company.

Major themes

Ellison uses numerous metaphors, images, and allusions to enhance the emotional and intellectual impact of his novel. There are also some references to jazz. For instance, Ellison invokes the colors of the American flag with red of sloe gin, the Optic White of Liberty Paints factory, and the blue of "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?" by Louis Armstrong. Ellison also uses the language of music throughout the novel to characterize the deeper meaning of a scene. Armstrong's jazz, the street blues of Peter Wheatstraw (Peetie or Pete Wheatstraw was the stage name of blues singer William Bunch), and a heartfelt solo by a gospel singer all become central metaphors for interpreting the message behind Ellison's meandering and sometimes surreal plot.

Another allusion used by Ellison occurs after the main character discovers he has been deceived by the school master, which subsequently leads him to acquire an interim occupation at Liberty Paints. At his new job, the character is instructed to add ten drops of a black liquid to a can full of discolored paint. After the paint is shaken, the main character peers into the can and beholds a "pure white" paint. This allusion hints at the mindset of Americans at those times, an addition of ten drops of indoctrination to the African-American soul can instill in him the love of white America; or it could illustrate that what is considered "pure white" isn't exclusively white. This is also a vague reference to Jim Crow-era laws that were based on the percentage of "black blood" one had in order for such to apply.

Motifs of blindness and darkness also run through the novel, often alongside the metaphors of light and sight as truth and knowledge. For example, the Reverend Homer A. Barbee, a speaker who comes to the Narrator's school, and whose story glorifies Dr. Bledsoe and the purpose to the school (a purpose the Narrator finds to be false and subservient to the white benefactors), is blind. Perhaps his blindness can be seen as an indicator of the school's blindness, or even the blindness of the Narrator before he learned to despise the school. Later in the novel, the Narrator discovers that Brother Jack, whom he had revered and respected as a true visionary, is blind in one eye, thereby losing philosophical respect for the brother who, he comes to learn, used him as a poster-boy to earn the support of Harlem.

Invisible Man contains numerous references to Homer's Odyssey[5] The fact that Brother Jack only has one eye may be a reference to the cyclops, to whom Odysseus claims that his name is "nobody". Homer Barbee's blindness mirrors that of Homer of Khios, the legendary poet. During the 'Battle Royal' scene, when the Narrator faces the dancing white woman, she is described as "a fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea," a possible reference to a Greek siren, beautiful women (usually portrayed with scaled feet or with a fish tail for their lower extremities) who sing from a rock at sea in order to lure sailors to their deaths.

Brother Tod Clifton's name may have German origins. In German, the word "Tod" means death. This could possibly be foreshadowing his death in the climactic point of the novel. In Old Welsh, the name Clifton means "bridge between two mountains," which relates to the Brotherhood's desired role for him.

As the title suggests, the importance of invisibility is also a major theme in the text. While the narrator often bemoans his state of invisibility, there are a number of advantages to it as well that allow him to remain undetected and inconspicuous.

Both the main character in Ellison's Invisible Man and in H.G. Wells' Invisible Man are unnamed. Both Wells' and Ellison's protagonists wear hats and glasses as disguises.

Invisible Man has also drawn comparison to Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground.

See also

External links

Notes and References

  1. Ellison, Ralph Waldo. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
  2. http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/the_complete_list.html The Complete List | TIME Magazine - ALL-TIME 100 Novels
  3. "Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8,"The Paris Review, Spring 1955, p. 113
  4. Eliot, T. S. (1963). Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. ISBN 0151189781
  5. Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Viking, 1996.