INVISIBLE MAN – Ralph Ellison
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ralph Waldo Ellison (March 1, 1914-April 16, 1994)
An American novelist, literary critic and scholar. Ellison is best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act (1964), a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory (1986). For The New York Times, the best of these essays in
addition to the novel put him “among the gods of America’s literary Parnassus.” A posthumous novel Juneteenth, was published after being assembled from voluminous notes he left upon his death.
PLOT SUMMARY (STORY OF THE NOVEL)
The narrator, an unnamed black man, begins by describing his living conditions: an underground room wired with hundreds of electric lights, operated by power stolen from the city’s electric grid. He reflects on the various ways in which he has experienced social invisibility during his life and begins to tell his story, returning to his teenage years. The narrator lives in a small Southern town and, upon graduating from high school, wins a scholarship to an all-black college. However, to receive it, he must first take part in a brutal, humiliating battle royal for the entertainment of the town’s rich white dignitaries.
One afternoon during his junior year at the college, the narchauffeurs Mr. Norton, a visiting rich white trustee, out among the old slave-quarters beyond the campus. By chance, he stops at the cabin of Jim Trueblood, who has caused a scandal by impregnating both his wife and his daughter in his sleep. Trueblood’s account horrifies Mr. Norton so badly that he asks the narrator to find him a drink. The narrator drives him to a bar filled with prostitutes and patients from a nearby mental hospital. The mental patients rail against both of them and eventually overwhelm the orderly assigned to keep the patients under control. The narrator hurries injured Mr. Norton away from the chaotic scene and back to campus.
Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, excoriates the narrator for showing Mr. Norton the underside of black life beyond the campus and expels him. However, Bledsoe gives several sealed letters of recommendation to the narrator, to be delivered to friends of the college in order to assist him in finding a job so that he may eventually re-enroll. The narrator travels to New York and distributes his letters, with no success; the son of one recipient shows him the letter. which reveals Bledsoe’s intent to never admit the narrator as a student again. Acting on the son’s suggestion, the narrator seeks work at a paint factory renowned for its pure white paint. He is assigned first to the shipping department, then to the boiler room, whose chief attendant, Lucius Brockway, is highly paranoid and suspects that the narrator is trying to take his job. This distrust worsens after the narrator stumbles into a union meeting, and Brockway attacks the narrator and tricks him into setting off an explosion in the boiler room. The narrator is hospitalized and subjected to shock treatment, overhearing the doctors’ discussion.
After leaving the hospital, the narrator faints on the streets of Harlem and is taken in by Mary Rambo, a kindly old-fashioned woman who reminds him of his relatives in the South. He laer happens across the eviction of an elderly black couple and makes an impassioned speech that incites the crowd to attack the law enforcement officials in charge of the proceedings. The narrator escapes over the rooftops and is confronted by Brother Jack, the leader of a group known as “the Brotherhood” that professes its omitment to bettering conditions in Harlem and the rest of the world. At Jack’s urging, the narrator agrees to join and speak at Tallies to spread the word among the black community. Using his new salary, he pays Mary the back rent he owes her and moves into an apartment provided by the Brotherhood. The rallies go smoothly at first, with the narrator receiving extensive indoctrination on the Brotherhood’s ideology and methods. Soon, though, he encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Neither the narrator nor Tod Clifton, a youth leader within the Brotherhood, is particularly swayed by his words. The narrator is later called before a meeting of the Brotherhood and accused of putting his own ambitions ahead of the group. He is reassigned to another part of the city to address issues concerning women, seduced by the wife of a Brotherhood member, and eventually called back to Harlem when Clifton is reported missing and the Brotherhood’s membership and influence begin to falter.
The narrator can find no trace of Clifton at first, but soon discovers him selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, having become disillusioned with the Brotherhood. Clifton is shot and killed by a policeman while resisting arrest; at his funeral, the narrator delivers a rousing speech that rallies the crowd to support the Brotherhood again. At an emergency meeting. Jack and the other Brotherhood leaders criticize the narrator for his unscientific arguments and the narrator determines that the group has no real interest in the black community’s problems. The narrator returns to Harlem, trailed by Ras’s men, and buys a hat and a pair of sun-glasses to elude them. As a result, he is repeatedly mistaken for a man named Rinehart, known as a lover, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and a spiritual leader. Understanding that Rinehart has adapted to white society at the cost of his own identity, the narrator resolves to undermine the Brotherhood by feeding them dishonest information concerning the Harlem membership and situation.
After seducing the wife of one member in a fruitless attempt to learn their new activities, he discovers that riots have broken out Harlem due to widespread unrest. He realizes that the Brotherhood has been counting on such an event in order to further its own aims.
The narrator gets mixed up with a gang of looters, who burn down tenement building, and wanders from them to find Ras, now on horseback, armed with a himself a spear and shield and calling himself “the Destrover.” Ras shouts for the crowd to lynch the narrator, but the narrator attacks him with the spear and escapes into an underground coal bin. Two white men seal him in, leaving him alone to ponder the racism he has experienced in his life.
The epilogue returns to the present, with the narrator stating that he is ready to return to the world because he has spent enough time hiding from it. He explains that he has told his story in order to help people see past his own invisibility, and also to provide a voice for people with a similar plight: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
CHARACTERS IN THE PLAY AND THEIR ROLE
The Narrator – The nameless protagonist of the novel. The narrator is the “invisible man” of the title. A black man in 1930s America, the narrator considers himself invisible because people never see his true self beneath the roles that stereotype and racial prejudice compel him to play. Though the narrator is intelligent,
deeply introspective, and highly gifted with language, the experiences that he relates demonstrate that he was naive in his youth. As the novel progresses, the narrator’s illusions are gradually destroy ed through his experiences as a student at college, worker at the Liberty Paints plant, and as a member of a political organization known as the Brotherhood. Shedding his blindness., he struggles to arrive at a conception of his identity that honors his complexity as an individual without sacrificing social responsibility.
Brother Jack – The white and blindly loyal leader of the Brotherhood. a political organization that professes to defend the rights of the socially oppressed. Although he initially seems compassionate, intelligent, and kind, and he claims to uphold the rights of the socially oppressed, Brother Jack actually possesses racist viewpoints’and is unable to see people as any thing other than tools. His glass eye and his red hair symbolize his blindness and his communism, respectively.
Tod Clifton – A black member of the Brotherhood and a resident of Harlem. Tod Clifton is passionate, handsome, articulate, and intelligent. He eventually parts ways with the Brotherhood. He though it remains unclear whether a falling-out has taken place, or whether he has simply become disillusioned with the group.
begins selling Sambo dolls on the street, seemingly both perpetrating and mocking the offensive stereotype of the lazy and servile slave that the dolls represent.
Ras the Exhorter – A stout, flamboyant, charismatic, angry man with a flair for public agitation. Ras represents the black nationalist movement, which advocates the violent Overthrow of white supremacy. Ellison seems to use him to comment on the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who believed that blacks would never achieve freedom in white society. A maverick, Ras frequently opposes the Brotherhood and the narrator, often violently, and incites riots in Harlem.
Rinehart – A surreal figure who never appears in the book except by reputation. Rinehart possesses number of identities, among them pimp, bookie, and preacher who seemingly infinite speaks on the subject of “invisibility,” When the narrator wears dark glasses in Harlem one day, many people mistake him for Rinehart. The narrator realizes that Rinehart’s shape-shifting capacity represents a life of extreme freedom, complexity, and possibility. He also recognizes that this capacity fosters a cynical and manipulative inauthenticity. Rinchart thus figures crucially in the book’s larger examination of the problem of identity and self-conception.
Dr. Bledsoe – The president at the narrator’s college. Dr. Bledsoe proves selfish, ambitious, and treacherous. He is a black man who puts on a mask of servility to the white community.
Driven by his desire to maintain his status and power, he declares that he would see every black man in the country lynched before he would give up his position of authority.
Mr. Norton – One of the wealthy White trustees at the narrator’s college. Mr. Norton is a narcissistic man who treats the narrator as a tally on his scorecard-that is, as proof that he is liberal-minded and philanthropic. Norton’s wistful remarks about his daughter add an entire quality of longing to his fascination with the story of Jim Trueblood’s incest.
Reverend Homer A. Barbee – A preacher from Chicago who visits the narrator’s college. Reverend Barbee’s fervent praise of the Founder’s “vision” strikes an inadvertently ironic note, because he himself is blind. With Barbee’s first name, Ellison makes reference to the Greek poet Homer, another blind orator who praised great heroes in his epic poems. Ellison uses Barbee to satirize the college’s desire to transform the Founder into a similarly mythic hero.
Jim Trueblood – An uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter and who lives on the outskirts of the narrator’s college campus. The students and faculty of the college view Jim Trueblood as a disgrace to the black community. To Trueblood’s surprise, however, whites have shown an increased interest in him since the story of his incest spread.
The Veteran – An institutionalized black man who makes bitterly insight ful remarks about race relations. Claiming to be a graduate of the narrator’s college, the veteran tries to expose the pitfalls of the school’s ideology. His bold candor angers both the narrator and Mr. Norton–the veteran exposes their blindness and
hypocrisy and points out the sinister nature of their relationship.
Although society has deemed him “shell-shocked” and insane, the
veteran proves to be the only character who speaks the truth in first part of the novel.
Emerson -The son of one of the wealthy white trustees (whom the text also calls Emerson) of the narrator’s college. The younger Emerson reads the supposed recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe and reveals Bledsoe’s treachery to the narrator. He expresses sympathy for the narrator and helps him get a job, but he remains too preoccupied with his own problems to help the narrator in any
Mary – A serene and motherly black woman with whom the narrator stays after learning that the Men’s House has banned him. Mary treats him kindly and even lets him stay for free. Shew his black identity and urges him to become active in the fight for racial equality.
Sybil -A white woman whom the narrator attempts to use to find out information about the Brotherhood. Sybil instead uses the narrator to act out her fantasy of being raped by a “‘savage” black man.
THEMES EXPRESSED IN THE PLAY.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
1. Racism as an Obstacle to Individual Identity
As the narrator of Invisible Man struggles to arrive at a conception of his own identity, he finds his efforts complicated by the fact that he is a black man living in a racist American society.
Throughout the novel, the narrator finds himself passing through a series of communities, from the Liberty Paints plant to the Brotherhood, with each microcosm endorsing a different idea of how blacks should behave in society. As the narrator attempts to define himself through the values and expectations imposed on him, he finds that, in each case, the prescribed role limits his complexity as an individual and forces him to play an inauthentic part.
Upon arriving in New York, the narrator enters the world of the Liberty Paints plant, which achieves financial success by subverting blackness in the service of a brighter white, There, the narrator finds himself involved in a process in which white depends heavily on black- both in terms of the mixing of the paint tones and in terms of the racial makeup of the workforce. Yet the factory denies this dependence in the final presentation of its product, and the narrator, as a black man, ends up stifled. Later, when the narrator joins the Brotherhood, he believes that he can fight for racial equality by working within the ideology of the organization, but he then finds that the Brotherhood seeks to use him as a token black man in its abstract project.
Ultimately, the narrator realizes that the racial prejudice of others causes them to see him only as they want to see him, and their limitations of vision in turn place limitations on his ability to act. He concludes that he is invisible, in the sense that the world is filled with blind people who cannot or will not see his real nature.
Correspondingly, he remains unable to act according to his own personality and becomes literally unable to be himself. Although the narrator initially embraces his invisibility in an attempt to throw
Of the limiting nature of stereotype, in the end he finds this tactic too passive. He determines to emerge from his underground “hibernation.” to make his own contributions to society as a complex individual. He will attempt to exert his power on the world outside of society’s system of prescribed roles. By making proactive contributions to society, he will force others to acknowledge him, to acknowledge the existence of beliefs and behaviors outside of their prejudiced expectations.
2. The Limitations of Ideology
Over the course of the novel, the narrator realizes that the complexity of his inner self is limited not only by people’s racism but also by their more general ideologies. He finds that the ideologies advanced by institutions prove too simplistic and one-dimensional to serve something as complex and multidimensional as human identity. The novel contains many examples of ideology, from the tamer, ingratiating ideology of Booker T. Washington subscribed to at the narrator’s college to the more violent, separatist ideology voiced by Ras the Exhorter. But the text makes its point most strongly in its discussion of the Brotherhood. Among the Brotherhood, the narrator is taught an ideology that promises to save “the people,” though, in reality, it consistently limits and betrays the freedom of the individual. The novel implies that life is too rich, too various, and too unpredictable to be bound up neatly in an ideology; like jazz, ofwhich the narrator is particularly fond, life reaches the heights of its beauty during moments of improvisation and surprise.
3. The Danger of Fighting Stereotype with Stereotype
The narrator is not the only African American in the book to have felt the limitations of racist stereotyping. While he tries to escape the grip of prejudice on an individual level, he encounters other blacks who attempt to prescribe a defense strategy for all African Americans. Each presents a theory of the supposed right way to be black in America and tries to outline how blacks should act in accordance with this theory. The espousers of these theories believe that anyone who acts contrary to their prescriptions effectively betrays the race. Ultimately, however, the narrator finds that such prescriptions only counter stereotype with stereotype ad replace one limiting role with another.
Early in the novel, the narrator’s grandfather explains his bele that in order to undermine and mock racism, blacks should exaggerate their servility to whites. The narrator’s college represented by Dr. Bledsoe, thinks that blacks can best achieve success by working industriously and adopting the manners and speech of whites. Ras the Exhorter thinks that blacks should rise up to take their freedom by destroying whites. Although all of these conceptions arise from within the black community itself, the novel implies that they ultimately prove as dangerous as white people’s racist stereotypes. By seeking to define their identity within a race in too limited a way, black figures such as Bledsoe and Ras aim to empower themselves but ultimately undermine themselves.
Instead of exploring their own identities, as the narrator struggles to
do throughout the book, Bledsoe and Ras consign themselves and their people to formulaic roles. These men consider treacherous anyone who attempts to act outside their formulae of blackness.
But as blacks who seek to restrict and choreograph the behavior of the black American community as a whole, it is men like these who most profoundly betray their people.
THE AUTHOR’S USE OF MOTIFS IN THE PLAY.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Probably the most important motif in Invisible Man is that of blindness., which recurs throughout the novel and generally represents how people willfully avoid seeing and confronting the truth. The narrator repeatedly notes that people’s inability to see what they wish not to see their inability to see that which their prejudice doesn’t allow them to see–has forced him into a life of effective invisibility. But prejudice against others is not the, only kind of blindness in the book. Many figures also refuse to acknowledge truths about themselves or their communities, and this refusal emerges consistently in the imagery of blindness. Thus, the boys who fight in the “battle royal” wear blindfolds, symbolizing their powerlessness to recognize their exploitation at the hands of the white men. The Founder’s statue at the college has
empty eyes, signifying his ideology’s stubborn neglect of racist realities. Blindness also afflicts Reverend Homer A. Barbee, who romanticizes the Founder, and Brother Jack, who is revealed to lack an eye a lack that he has dissimulated by wearing a glass eye.
The narrator himself experiences moments of blindness, such as in
Chapter 16 when he addresses the black community under enormous, blinding lights. In each case, failure of sight corresponds to a lack of insight.
Because he has decided that the world is full of blind men and sleepwalkers who cannot see him for what he is, the narrator describes himself as an “invisible man.” The motif of invisibility pervades the novel, often manifesting itself hand in hand with the motif of blindness-one person becomes invisible because another is blind. While the novel almost always portrays blindness in a negative light, it treats invisibility much more ambiguously.
Invisibility can bring disempowerment, but it can also bring freedom and mobility. Indeed, it is the freedom the narrator derives from his anonymity that enables him to tell his story. Moreover, both the veteran at the Golden Day and the narrator’s grandfather seem to endorse invisibility as a position from which one may safely exert power over others, or at least undermine others’ power, without being caught. The narrator demonstrates this power in the Prologue, when he literally draws upon electrical power from his hiding place underground; the electric company is aware of its losses but cannot locate their source. At the end of the novel, however, the narrator has decided that while invisibility may bring safety, actions undertaken in secrecy cannot ultimately have any meaningful impact. One may undermine ones enemies from a
position of invisibility, but one cannot make significant changes to the world. Accordingly, in the Epilogue the narrator decides to emerge from his hibernation, resolved to face society and make a visible difference.
THE AUTHOR’S USE OF SYMBOLS IN THE PLAY.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
i. The Sambo Doll and the Coin Bank
The coin bank in the shape of the grinning black man (Chapter 15) and Tod Clifton’s dancing Sambo doll (Chapter 20) serve similar purposes in the novel, each representing degrading black stereotypes and the damaging power of prejudice. The coin bank, which portrays a grinning slave who eats coins, embodies the idea of the good slave who fawns over white men for trivial rewards.
This stereotype literally follows the narrator, for even after he has smashed the bank and attempted to discard the pieces, various characters return to him the paper in which the pieces are wrapped.
Additionally, the statue’s hasty swallowing of coins mirrors the behavior of the black youths in the “battle royal” of Chapter 1, as they scramble to collect the coins on the electrified carpet, reinforcing the white stereotype of blacks as servile and humble.
The Sambo doll is made in the image of the Sambo slave, who, according to white stereotype, acts lazy yet obsequious. Moreover, as a dancing doll, it represents the negative stereotype of the black entertainer who laughs and sings for whites. While the coin bank illustrates the power of stereotype to follow a person in his or her every movement, the Sambo doll illustrates stereotype’s power to control a person’s movements altogether. Stereotype and prejudice, like the invisible strings by which the doll is made to move, often determine and manipulate the range of action of which a person is
ii. The Liberty Paints Plant
The Liberty Paints Plant serves as a complex metaphor for American society with regard to race. Like America, it delines itself with notions of liberty and freedom but incorporates a deeply ingrained racism in its most central operations. By portraying a factory that produces paint, Ellison is able to make his statements about color litera. Thus, when the factory authorities boast of the superiority of their white paint, their statements appear as parodies of arguments about white supremacy. With the plant’s claim that its trademark “Optic White” can cover up any tint or stain, Ellison makes a pointed observation about American society’s intentions to cover up black identity with white culture, to ignore difference, and y.” to treat darker-skinned individuals as “‘stains” upon white”purity.
Optic White is made through a process that involves the mixture of a number of dark-colored chemicals, one of which appears “dead black.” Yet the dark colors disappear into the swirling mixture, and the paint emerges a gleaming white, showing no trace of its true components. The labor relations within the plant manifest a similar pattern: black workers perform all of the crucial labor, but white people sell the paint and make the highest wages. never acknowledging their reliance upon their darker-skinned counterparts. This dynamic, too, seems to mirror a larger one at work within America as a whole.