Invisible Man Explained

Invisible Man
Author:Ralph Ellison
Country:United States
Language:English
Genre:Novel, bildungsroman, African-American Literature, social commentary
Publisher:Random House
Pub Date:1952
Media Type:Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages:581 pp (second edition)
Isbn:978-0-679-60139-5
Dewey:813/.54 20
Congress:PS3555.L625 I5 1994
Oclc:30780333

Invisible Man is a 1952 African-American novel written by Ralph Ellison, the only novel published before his death in 1994 (three were posthumous). It addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.

Invisible Man won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953.In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Invisible Man nineteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[1]

Historical background

Ellison says in his introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition[2] that he started writing Invisible Man in a barn in Waitsfield, Vermont in the summer of 1945 while on sick leave from the Merchant Marine. Letters he wrote to fellow novelist Richard Wright as he started work on the novel provide evidence for its political context: the disillusion with the Communist Party that he and Wright shared. In a letter to Wright August 18, 1945, Ellison poured out his anger toward party leaders for betraying African Americans and Marxist class politics during the war years. "If they want to play ball with the bourgeoisie they needn't think they can get away with it.... Maybe we can't smash the atom, but we can, with a few well chosen, well written words, smash all that crummy filth to hell." In the wake of this disillusion, Ellison began writing Invisible Man, a novel that was, in part, his response to the party's betrayal.[3]

In an interview in The Paris Review 1955,[4] Ellison states that the book took five years to complete with one year off for what he termed 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.

In his speech accepting the 1953 National Book Award,[5] Ellison says 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 that Ellison first encountered in the poem The Waste Land,[6] 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 literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation—techniques he had only before seen in jazz.

Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided him a "growing satisfaction." It was a "covert process," according to Ellison: "a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know what it was doing."[7]

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.

The story is told from the narrator's present, looking back into his past. Thus, the narrator has hindsight in how his story is told, as he is already aware of the outcome.

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 from the electric company Monopolated Light & Power. 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, the main character lives in a small town in the South. He is a model student, even being named his high school's valedictorian. Having written and delivered an excellent paper about the struggles of the average black man, he gets to tell his speech to a group of white men, who force him to participate in a series of degrading events first. After finally giving his speech, he gets a scholarship to an all-black college that is clearly modeled on the Tuskegee Institute.

During his junior year at the college, the narrator takes Mr. Norton, a visiting rich white trustee, on a drive in the country. He accidentally drives to the house of Jim Trueblood, a black man living on the college's outskirts, who impregnated his own daughter. Though disgraced by his fellow blacks, Trueblood has found greater support from whites. After hearing Trueblood's story and giving him a $100 bill, Mr. Norton faints, then asks for some alcohol to help his condition. The narrator promptly takes him to the Golden Day, a local tavern, where his charge passes in and out of consciousness as World War I veterans being treated at the nearby mental hospital for various mental-health issues 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, 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 finally manages to get the recovered Mr. Norton back to the campus.

Upon returning to the school he is fearful of college president Dr. Bledsoe's reaction to the day's incidents. Insight into 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, but his dreams are shattered as a meeting with Bledsoe reveals his fate. Fearing that the college's funds will be jeopardized by the day's incidents, 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 of many in the narrator realizing his invisibility. This epiphany is not yet complete when Bledsoe gives him several letters of recommendation to help him get a job under the assumption that he could return upon earning enough money for the next semester.

Upon arriving in New York, the narrator distributes the letters with no success. Eventually, the son of one of "possibilities" takes pity on him and shows him an opened copy of the letter; it reveals that Bledsoe never had any intentions of letting the narrator return and sent him to New York to get rid of him. On the son's suggestion, the narrator eventually gets a job in the boiler room of a paint factory in a company renowned for its "Optic White" paint (used to render any object, from coal to monuments to buildings, blindingly white). 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, the outraged Brockway 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 recovering, 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 dizziness and faints on the streets of Harlem. He is taken to the residence of Mary, a kind, old-fashioned, down-to-earth woman who reminds him of his relatives in the South and friends at the college. Mary somewhat serves as a mother figure for the narrator. While living there, he happens upon an eviction of an elderly black couple and makes an impassioned speech decrying the action. But when the police arrive soon after, the narrator is forced to escape over several building-tops. Upon reaching "safety," he is confronted by a man named Jack, who implores him to join a group called The Brotherhood--a thinly-veiled version of the Communist Party that claims to be committed to social change and betterment of the conditions in Harlem. The narrator agrees.

At first, the rallies go smoothly and the narrator is happy to be "making history" in his new job and making a difference in history. Soon, however, he encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist similar to, but not based on 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.

The narrator continues his work in Harlem until he is called into a meeting of The Brotherhood. Believing that he has become too powerful, they reassign him to another part of the city to address the "women question." After the narrator gives his first lecture on women's rights, he is approached by the wife of another member of The Brotherhood. She invites him to her apartment where she seduces him. The narrator is soon called to return to Harlem to repair its falling membership in the black community.

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 quit. Clifton is selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, mocking the organization he once believed in. Soon after, Tod is shot by a police officer and dies. At his funeral, the narrator delivers a rousing speech, rallying crowds to reclaim his former widespread Harlem support. He's criticized in a clandestine meeting with Brother Jack and other members for not being scientific in his arguments at the funeral; he angrily retaliates and Jack loses his temper to the extent that a glass eye flies out of its socket. The narrator realizes that the half-blind Jack has never really seen him either, and that The Brotherhood has no real interest in the black community's problems.

He is trailed by Ras the Exhorter's men as he returns to Harlem; buying sunglasses and a hat, he's mistaken for a man called Rinehart in several scenarios: a lover, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and finally, a reverend. He sees that Rinehart has adapted to white society at the cost of his own identity. He decides to take his grandfather's dying advice to "overcome'em with yeses, undermine'em with grins, agree'em to death and destruction...." and "yes" the Brotherhood to death by making it look like the Harlem membership is thriving when it's actually crumbling. He seduces Sybil, the wife of another member, in an attempt to learn of the Brotherhood's new activities.

Riots break out in Harlem and the narrator gets mixed up with a gang of looters. Wandering through a ravaged Harlem, he encounters Ras, who now calls himself Ras the Destroyer. After escaping Ras's attempt to have him lynched (by throwing a spear Ras had acquired through the leader's jaw, permanently sealing it), the narrator is attacked by a couple of white boys who trap him inside a coal-filled manhole/basement, sealing him off for the night and leaving him alone to finally confront the demons of his mind: Bledsoe, Norton, and Jack.

At the end of the novel, the narrator is ready to resurface because "overt action" has already taken place. This could be that, in telling us the story, the narrator has already made a political statement where change could occur. Therefore, it is storytelling and the preservation of the history of these invisible individuals that causes political change.

Awards

See also

External links

Notes and References

  1. http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/the_complete_list.html The Complete List | TIME Magazine – ALL-TIME 100 Novels
  2. Ellison, Ralph Waldo. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
  3. Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement (2001), pp. 66-69.
  4. "Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8, The Paris Review, Spring 1955, p. 113
  5. http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_rellison.html "Ralph Ellison, Winner of the 1953 Fiction Award for Invisible Man"
  6. Eliot, T. S. (1963). Collected Poems, 1909–1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. ISBN 0151189781
  7. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
  8. http://www.nationalbook.org/nba1953.html "National Book Awards – 1953"