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[122] Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Chunkster Reading Challenge #1

invisible.jpgThe invisible man is the anonymous narrator of the novel who, adopting a voice of the mainstream society, tries to make sense out of his life, experiences and position in American society. The middle-aged African American male recalls his being a model student in high school. He delivers a stellar speech in front of a group of prominent white men and earns a scholarship to college in the South. Longing for a role of leadership and education in the future, he reveres Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, who later has to expel him on account of misdemeanor. The mishap incident takes place during the narrator’s junior year, when he takes a trustee of the board to the slum where he suffers from a minor heat-stroke. Fearing that the college’s funds will be jeopardized by the unusual incident, Bledsoe immediately expels the narrator and keeps him deceived of his chance at returning to school.

Painfully recognizes the fate to which he has been consigned, he eventually gets a job in the boiler room of a paint factory in a company renowned for its white paint (an obvious racial innuendo, evoking the one-drop rule). His short career terminates when the foreman tricks him into turning a wrong valve and causing a boiler to explode. Upon recovery he comes across an elderly couple being evicted from their apartment and gives an impromptu speech rallying onlookers to their cause. While the people charge past him, attack the marshal and stir up a riot, his otherwise powerful speech brings him to the attention of the Brotherhood, an quality-minded organization with communist undertones. The group leader recruits the narrator and trains him to become an orator. Successful speeches that throb the heart of the crowd promote him to lead the organization’s work in Harlem. What at first appears to him to be “making history” and finding himself a niche in society does have a catch. He is no more than a pawn in the game, a mouthpiece for the group, that acts according to the group’s will and not his own.

Metaphors, images and allusions abound in this novel, making it somewhat tedious to read. While the narrator decides to make a new life for himself underground–invisible, he writes as a way to make himself visible to the mainstream culture. Ellison associates him, ever so distantly, with the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, but with a plot that merges him–a young, powerless, but ambitious man for a role of leadership–to a fictional form. This form brings him in contact with a variety of American types (white collars, blue collars, women, street folks…) as they operate on various levels of society, to reveal human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal. Most importantly, putting the narrator against a diverse backdrop reveals the human universals hidden within the plight of one who is both black and American.

The many people the invisible man lives under a facade, and they force him to do so. Everywhere he has turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice him for his good in order to benefit himself. Dr. Bledsoe certainly portrays as a black stereotype for the sake of his job in the white-dominated society. When a former member of the Brotherhood is shot by police in a scuffle, the leader vehemently rebukes the narrator for praising a man who sells voodoo dolls that mock the organization. Funeral of the loss dawns on the narrator that neither his identity nor the welfare of people matters to the Brotherhood, but their blackness and blindness. In trying to arouse the people, or even to subvert the organization, he has only aided its white-controlled interests in helping to start a race riot that will generate sympathy and propaganda for the cult. He is riding on the race issue, which still rings the truth about the present American politics:

“It was all a swindle, an obscene swindle! They had set themselves up to describe the world. What did they know of us, except that we numbered so many, worked on certain jobs, offered so many votes, and provided so many marchers for some protest parade of theirs? I learned there, aching to humiliate them, to refute them. And now all past humiliations became precious parts of my experience and for the first time I began to accept my past, and as I accepted it, I felt memories welling up within me. It was as though I’ve learned suddenly to look around corners; past humiliations flickered through my head and I saw that they were more than separate experiences. They were one; they defined me.” (507)

The invisible man rebels against this conformity issue, tired of living according to someone else’s regulations. It dawns on him that he has always tried to conform to everyone’s way but his own. After all the years he has to break away from this stinking rut. The end for him is a beginning. He is invisible, to those who have a peculiar disposition of the eyes and to those who have ignored their moral blindness, but he is not colorless. That he has been forced to conform has deprived him of his color and sanity.

6 Responses

  1. Great commentary. I have this book languishing on my TBR (surprise, surprise), and you’ve really given me some motivation to pick it up. Not sure why I’ve avoided it all these years.

  2. It’s been on my TBR for years! And I can’t seem to get into the right mindset to read it. Great review, you just may’ve inspired me to finally pick the book up!

  3. You write too fast: cannot keep up with all the postings! But The Invisible Man is excellent, and you have just reminded me that I need to reread it… Another one…

  4. I agree with seachanges. You’re way too fast Matt with your writings (and reading). I read Invisible Man in college but don’t recall much of it. Your commentary inspires me to explore it again more closely.

  5. […] | Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison It was the only novel that Ellison published during his lifetime, and it won him the […]

  6. […] from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky The Daeth of Virgil, Hermann Broch Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner My Absolom, My Absolom, William Faulkner […]

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