“Who the hell am I” (Ellison 386)? This question puzzled the invisible man, the unidentified, anonymous narrator of Ralph Ellison’s acclaimed novel, Invisible Man. Throughout the story, the narrator embarks on a mental and physical journey to seek what the narrator believes is “true identity,” a belief quite mistaken, for he, although unaware of it, had already been inhabited by true identities all along. Ellison, in Invisible Man, uses the main characters invisibility and conflict with the outside world to illustrate the confusion of identity that many people experience.
The narrator’s life is filled with constant eruptions of mental traumas. The biggest psychological burden he has is his identity, or rather his misidentity. He feels a “wearing on the nerves” (Ellison 3) for people to see him as what they like to believe he is and not see him as what he really is. Throughout his life, he takes on several different identities and none, he thinks, adequately represents his true self, until his final one, as an invisible man.
The narrator thinks the many identities he possesses do not reflect him, but he fails to recognize that identity is simply a mirror that reflects the surroundings and the person who looks into it. It is only in this reflection of the immediate surrounding that the viewers can relate to the narrator’s identity. The viewers see only the part of the narrator that is apparently connected to the viewer’s own world. The part obscured is unknown and, therefore, insignificant. Lucius Brockway, an old operator of the paint factory, saw the narrator only as an existence threatening his job, despite that the narrator is sent there to merely assist him. Brockway repeatedly questions the narrator of his purpose there and his mechanical credentials but never even bother to inquire his name. Because to the old fellow, who the narrator is as a person is uninterested. What he is as an object and what that object’s relationship is to Brockway’s engine room is important. The narrator’s identity is pulled from this relationship, and this relationship suggests to Brockway that his identity is a “threat.” However, the viewer decides to see someone as the identity they assign to that person. The Closing of The American Mind, by Allan Bloom, explains this identity phenomenon by comparing two “ships of states” (Bloom 113). If one ship “is to be forever at sea, [and] another is to reach port and the passengers go their separate ways, they think about one another and their relationships on the ship very differently in the two cases” (Bloom 113). In the first state, friends will be acquainted and enemies will be formed, while in the second state, the passengers will most likely not bother to know anyone new, and everyone will get off the ship and remain strangers to one another.
A person’s identity is unique to every different viewer at every different location and situation. This point the narrator senses but does not fully understand. During his first Brotherhood meeting, he exclaims, “I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land” (Ellison 328) ! He preaches to others the fact that identity is transitional, yet he does not accept it himself. Maybe he thought it distressing being liked not for being his true self but because of the identity he puts on, or being hated not for being himself but because of his identity. To Dr. Bledsoe, the principal of the black southern university where the narrator attended, the narrator is a petty “black educated fool” (Ellison 141). To Mr. Norton, a rich white trustee of the black university, the narrator is a simple object intertwined with his fate, a mere somebody, he explained to the narrator, that “[was] somehow connected with [Mr. Norton's] destiny” (Ellison 41). To the organizers of the Brotherhood, Jack, Tobitt, and the others, the narrator is what they designed him to be. They designed for him an identity of a social speaker and leader, and to his listeners and followers, he is just that. These were his multiple identities, and none were less authentic than the others were, because to his onlookers, he is what his identities say he is, even if he thinks differently.
The narrator always had a desire for people “who could give [him] a proper reflection of [his] importance” (Ellison 160). But there is no such thing as a proper reflection because his importance varies among different people. Subconsciously, he craves attention. He wants recognition and status and wants to be honored as someone special. He must feel that he “can have no dignity if his status is not special, if he is not essentially different”(Bloom 193); therefore he joins Brotherhood in order to distinguish himself, and to give himself an identity. He gets what he wants, recognition and fame, but it is not right he thought, for he is recognized only for his false identity. His identity positions him in the center of attention of thousands of people, yet he feels he is unseen. In the brotherhood of thousands of brothers, yet he feels no one knows him. This is his feeling of having a misidentity, but it is his conception of identity, which is mistaken.
To comprehend identity, it would be necessary to understand that, in a solitary state, there is no need for identity, because identity is like a name, a label a person wears for those around him to see. If a person is stranded on an island, what use will it be to have a name? The narrator thought he “was becoming someone else”(Ellison 328) when he acquired his new Brotherhood name, but a name change is simply a prescription for an identity change in the same human being. A name, or rather call it an identity, is dynamic and interchangeable; a being is static. Rinehart, in the story, is an identity, which to different people implied a gambler, a briber, a lover, and a Reverend, and even happened to be an identity the narrator incidentally acquires temporarily. The narrator does not understand the fact that “Man is ambiguous” (Bloom 113), that man is viewed differently from different perspectives, but how a man is seen will not alter the person he is.
The same person in different states of identities will experience quite a deviation in the way he or she is treated. The different treatments can lead to how one feels about one’s own being, which, in some cases, might illusion oneself as being a different person. John Howard Griffon, the author and narrator of the true-life novel, Black Like Me, demonstrated the interchangeability of identities and its effects. For himself, a white man, to understand what it is like to be black, he decides to “become a Negro” (Griffon 8). By simply darkening his skin with a medication, he gives up his life as a privileged white southerner, and “walks into a life that appears suddenly mysterious and frightening” (Griffon 9). Similarly, the narrator steps into a life of northern privileges he could only dream of when he was in the South. Probably “it was the clothes and the new name and the circumstances” (Ellison 328) which is so unfamiliar to the narrator that causes him to feel so different, and so strange, leading him into believing that he is becoming someone else. Perhaps he is startled that people likes him so much, which makes him think he “had become less of what [he] was, less a Negro” (Ellison 347); much like how Griffon is shocked when he glares into a mirror that reflects a “stranger, a fierce, bald, very dark Negro” (Griffon 191). But unlike the narrator, who rejects reality by assuming invisibility, Griffon stands face to face with the people who see his new identity. Although Griffon initially felt divided into “two men, the observing one and the one that panicked” (Griffon 48), he eventually learns how people are seen through multiple perspectives.
The narrator sees the meaning of identity as the universal perspective of a being. He acquires fame and recognition through the influential role he plays as a leading activist of the Brotherhood, and thinks everyone will regard him that way. Feeling full of confidence and dignity, he greeted two black fellows in a bar, thinking they would be astounded to see him. But, to his surprise, they “only look at [him] oddly”(Ellison 416). To those two, his fame is his notoriety because they do not like his race philosophy. The narrator works for an ideology that promotes equality among all humans, whether black or white, male or female. While the two black fellows hold an opposing ideology, a popular conventional belief in blacks at the time that “insisted on respect for blacks as blacks, not as human beings simply” (Bloom 33). Instead of being seen as a social leader, he is seen by those two as a social disgrace in the eyes of the black community.
The narrator sees himself as a walking stereotype. He is right because anyone who is perceived through an identity is a stereotype because no identity reveals exactly who a person is. Like a stereotype, identity exists externally from the person it identifies because it exists within the eye of the viewer. The narrator, during his fight with a white man on the street, suddenly realized that he is fighting a person that “had not seen [him]” (Ellison 4). However, that white man does see him, just that he is seen through an identity without any respect. The narrator is disgusted with people stereotyping him; therefore, he wants to believe himself as invisible. He does not want to speak at Clifton’s funeral, yet the people will not leave until he performs what is expected of him to give a speech. He comes to view his fame as a stereotype no different than that of those “black brothers who entertained them [white people] with stories so often that they [white people] laughed even before these fellows opened their mouths” (Ellison 413).
The narrator can believe himself to be whatever he wants, but what he sees of himself is not what others see of him. He cannot decide for others how to see him, although he can influence the way people see him just as easy as how J. H. Griffon adopted his new identities when he “wakes up in a black man’s skin” (Griffon 161). According to The Closing of the American Mind, all identities “depend on the free consent of individuals” (Bloom 110). For example a president holds his identity only because people elect to see him that way, otherwise he is like any ordinary Joe. Even if he thinks of himself as really nothing more than of common flesh and bones, he is no less a president because his identity is for the public to perceive and not for himself. Even if there is a single person who considers him a president, he is a president only to that person, just like how the narrator is perceived as a “fink” when he stumbles into a Union meeting. This is his identity in a particular setting, to those particular people, despite which, he truthfully denies it. Identity is “something [over] which one has no control” (Griffon 7).
The narrator believes he finally found his true identity when he realizes he is invisible to his surroundings; therefore, he assumes invisibility. However, invisibility is only his way to avoid reality. He is not invisible but simply not seen as what he thinks he should be seen as. He feels invisible only because no one really understands him, but, in reality, can any person be fully understood? A person can only be understood to an extent. Not even brother or sister, a best friend, a spouse, or a person’s parents who created him or her can totally understand. As John Corry says “?[he is a] black nationalist ?and the here ? Here?he can enjoy his invisibility” (Corry 1). Nobody is seen exactly as who they want to be seen, but that does not mean they are invisible, just that the identity they are presenting might not be what the world expects. Despite the narrator’s belief that, after his long journey, he has finally found the true understanding of identity and discovered his real identity, he is mistaken, for all the identities he experienced were real. He is the “same human individual,” seen differently “only in appearance” (Griffon 161) and that shows invisibility is a false revelation. Every different person who sees him holds a unique perception of him, even if he does not like how he is perceived; it is still a unique identity of his very being, and that identity is real on a simple basis that it exist. Because identity is a tool for the beholder to assess the identified, it belongs only to the beholder and not the identified. Without other people around, a person will not have an identity and there will be no need for one. That is the whole reasoning behind identity. The reflection of the world upon the main character builds a false identity with in, while he does not realize his true identity until his invisibility refuses to allow him to reflect the world.