Invisible Man By Ellison


Invisible Man By Ellison Essay, Research Paper

While the civil war ended one form of slavery in America, another system of

oppression was ready to take its place. In Ralph Ellison?s acclaimed novel

Invisible Man, a young black, nameless narrator struggles through a series of

hard-won lessons as he makes his journey from the Deep South to Harlem, New

York, from naivet? to disenchantment, from illusion to insight. Like most of

us, he stumbles down the path of identity, adopting several along the way in an

attempt to solve his relationship with a hostile, prejudiced American society.

Testament to the narrator?s various identities is the symbol of his briefcase,

which he receives as a prize after the disturbing ?Battle Royal? and

proceeds to carry until the end when he is in the coal bin, and truly an

invisible man. Its contents -his high school diploma, representing his southern

black identity, the recommendation letters representing his college identity,

the anonymous letter and the slip of paper with his brotherhood name

representing his brotherhood leadership identity, Clifton?s paper doll

symbolizing his disillusionment with the brotherhoods ideals and finally, the

shattered pieces of Mary?s bank, perhaps signifying his identity in the

context of white America -each an identity others dictated by others, not

developed by himself. While in the cellar, he creates torches out of these

objects as though lighting his past on fire, using his history to guide him out

of the hole and out of illusion. The beginning is a nightmare. A young, eager

Negro boy, valedictorian of his high school class believes he is to deliver a

speech to a group of white benefactors. Instead, he finds himself together with

several other Negroes in a ?Battle Royal?, a disgusting free-for all in

which, blindfolded and barebacked like savages, the boys are instructed to beat

each other. After the battle, the narrator is called upon to make his speech,

his mouth full of blood and his head spinning from the blows. In his speech, the

narrator makes allusions to Booker T. Washington, the great black

accommodationist, reflecting that he too believes in playing by the white

people?s rules, meaning never ask for more than they are willing to give. At

the end of this traumatic scene, he receives a ?prize? briefcase containing

a scholarship to a Negro college. In this society, we often rely on others as a

means of learning about ourselves- a dangerous habit, especially when surrounded

by those who are blind to the individual person. The narrator adores college and

is under the illusion that it is a place of perfection, an institution at which

he aspires to acquire a position as the assistant of his idol, Dr. Bledsoe, the

president of the college and great leader of his race. But while the college is

supposed to be a fountain of knowledge, of wisdom, it is rather like the broken

fountain out front- dry with nothing to sustain real life. In his third year at

the school, he is expelled for innocently showing a white trustee, Mr. Norton,

the reality of black life in the south by inadvertently taking him to the home

of an incestuous farmer and then to a whorehouse appropriately called ?the

Golden Day?. The headmaster, who admits he?ll see all Negroes hang before he

gives up his power , offers the shattered young boy false hope in the form of

seven letters of recommendation. Grateful, the narrator carries these letters in

his prize briefcase to New York where his truth, his identity are dealt

additional blows when he discovers that they are in fact letters of condemnation

and meant only to keep him running, to keep him hoping for that golden day.

Disillusioned, with growing sense of personal rejection and social invisibility,

it is at this point that the narrator begins metamorphosing into the invisible

man. Recruited by the ?Brotherhood?, a mixed-race group of social activists,

he now becomes a spokesman for the organization. Brother Jack, one of the white

leaders hands the narrator a slip of paper on which is written his new

brotherhood name. His truth, his new identity is shaped by this organization,

and his sense of purpose, importance is temporarily restored as he slips it into

his briefcase. He admits, ?I am what they think I am?. However, the

brotherhood, like Mr. Norton and Dr. Bledsoe, does not believe that the

individual is important. Of the brothers, the narrator eventually discerns

?they were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their voices.

And because they were blind they would destroy themselves?Here I thought they

accepted me because they felt color made no difference, when in reality it made

no difference because they didn?t see either color or men.? He realizes

further that his relationship with the brothers has been schematic when he

connects the anonymous letter warning him about the organization to Brother Jack

?again to ?set him running with one and the same stroke of the pen??

Brother Tod Clifton?s obscene, paper doll is another object the narrator

stores in his briefcase, representing his eventual disillusionment with the

brotherhood?s ideals. Like Tod, the narrator believed he had a kind of

moderate power in Harlem when in reality he was merely being manipulated.

Selling these racist caricatures were Tod?s way of expressing the truth that

he was only a puppet and the brotherhood was pulling all the strings. ?You

were not hired to think?, admits brother Jack to the narrator as if saying;

?know your place boy?. The final Item in the narrator?s briefcase is the

only object that doesn?t light on fire. The shattered pieces of a cast iron

bank was once shaped as a grotesque statue of a black man with an outstretched

hand in which, if a coin placed and a lever pressed, will flip the money into

its grinning mouth. This implication of this self-mocking image insults the

narrator who breaks it into pieces that he later tries to get rid of, yet

cannot. This bank, this ?early piece of Americana? symbolizes how he is

stereotyped in the context of American society. He cannot throw it out, nor can

he burn its pieces ?he is therefore branded with this identity that he is

unable to elude. ?I am an invisible man?I am invisible, understand, simply

because people refuse to see me?When they approach me they see only my

surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and

anything except me.? These are the first words of the prologue, yet it is only

in the end, when he has fallen into the coal bin, that he explains how he

arrived at such a peculiar state of consciousness. As he lights the contents of

his briefcase of fire, he understands that he has never had his own identity,

thus he is invisible to the outside world. His prior identities did not

represent himself, but that which others thought him to be. And, like Booker T.

Washington, he accommodated them. He falls asleep and dreams that he is

confronted with all his antagonists, all those that befriended him and then

betrayed him, and he is able to tell them that he is through running. They

castrate him and he is free of all illusion, ready for a new life.


Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible man, New York: Doubleday. 1967

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