Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)
The grandson of slaves, Ralph Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma. As a young man, Ellison developed an abiding interest in jazz music. Employing a shifting, improvisational style directly based on Ellison's experience of jazz performance, Invisible Man ranges in tone from realism to extreme surrealism, from tragedy to vicious satire to near-slapstick comedy. Rich in symbolism and metaphor, virtuosic in its use of multiple styles and tones, and steeped in the black experience in America and the human struggle for individuality, the novel won the National Book Award in 1953. Invisible Man was hailed by writers such as Saul Bellow and critics such as Irving Howe as a landmark publication. Invisible Man was heavily influenced by the work of a number of twentieth-century French writers known as the existentialists.
Despite the overwhelming success of Invisible Man, Ellison never published another novel in his lifetime. Though he published two books of essays—Shadow Act in the 1960s and Going to the Territory in the 1980s—Ellison spent his later decades laboring on a vast novel- never finished.
Plot and structure:
The narrator begins with the claim that he is an “invisible man.” He is not literally invisible but rather others refuse to see him. He says that because of his invisibility, he has been hiding from the world, living underground and stealing electricity from the Monopolated Light & Power Company. He burns 1,369 light bulbs simultaneously and listens to Louis Armstrong's “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” on a phonograph. He says that he has gone underground in order to write the story of his life and invisibility.
As a young man, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the narrator lived in the South. Because he is a gifted public speaker, he is invited to give a speech to a group of important white men in his town. The men reward him with a briefcase containing a scholarship to a prestigious black college, but only after humiliating him by forcing him to fight in a “battle royal” in which he is pitted against other young black men, all blindfolded-so zaviazanými očami, in a boxing ring. After the battle royal, the white men force the youths to scramble over an electrified rug in order to snatch-chňapnúť at fake gold coins. The narrator has a dream that night in which he imagines that his scholarship is actually a piece of paper reading “To Whom It May Concern . . . Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”
Three years later, the narrator is a student at the college. He is asked to drive a wealthy white trustee-správca of the college, Mr. Norton, around the campus. Norton talks incessantly about his daughter, then shows an undue-nemiestny interest in the narrative of Jim Trueblood, a poor, uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter. After hearing this story, Norton needs a drink, and the narrator takes him to the Golden Day, a saloon and brothel-bordel that normally serves black men. A fight breaks out among a group of mentally imbalanced black veterans at the bar, and Norton passes out during the chaos. He is tended by one of the veterans, who claims to be a doctor and who taunts-vyčíta both Norton and the narrator for their blindness regarding race relations.
Back at the college, the narrator listens to a long, impassioned sermon by the Reverend Homer A. Barbee on the subject of the college's Founder, whom the blind Barbee glorifies with poetic language. After the sermon, the narrator is chastised-potrestaný by the college president, Dr. Bledsoe, who has learned of the narrator's misadventures with Norton at the old slave quarters and the Golden Day. Bledsoe rebukes-vyhrešiť the narrator, saying that he should have shown the white man an idealized version of black life. He expels the narrator, giving him seven letters of recommendation, addressed to the college's white trustees in New York City, and sends him there in search of a job.
The narrator travels to the bright lights and bustle-ruch of 1930s Harlem, where he looks unsuccessfully for work. The letters of recommendation are of no help. At last, the narrator goes to the office of one of his letters' addressees, a trustee named Mr. Emerson. There he meets Emerson's son, who opens the letter and tells the narrator that he has been betrayed: the letters from Bledsoe actually portray the narrator as dishonorable and unreliable. The young Emerson helps the narrator to get a low-paying job at the Liberty Paints plant, whose trademark color is “Optic White.” The narrator briefly serves as an assistant to Lucius Brockway, the black man who makes this white paint, but Brockway suspects him of joining in union activities and turns on him. The two men fight, neglecting the paint-making; consequently, one of the unattended tanks explodes, and the narrator is knocked unconscious.
The narrator wakes in the paint factory's hospital, having temporarily lost his memory and ability to speak. The white doctors seize upon the arrival of their unidentified black patient as an opportunity to conduct electric shock experiments. After the narrator recovers his memory and leaves the hospital, he collapses on the street. Some black community members take him to the home of Mary, a kind woman who lets him live with her for free in Harlem and nurtures-vychovať his sense of black heritage. One day, the narrator witnesses the eviction-vysťahovanie of an elderly black couple from their Harlem apartment. Standing before the crowd of people gathered before the apartment, he gives an impassioned speech against the eviction. Brother Jack overhears his speech and offers him a position as a spokesman for the Brotherhood, a political organization that allegedly-údajne works to help the socially oppressed. After initially rejecting the offer, the narrator takes the job in order to pay Mary back for her hospitality. But the Brotherhood demands that the narrator take a new name, break with his past, and move to a new apartment. The narrator is inducted into the Brotherhood at a party at the Chthonian Hotel and is placed in charge of advancing the group's goals in Harlem.
After being trained in rhetoric by a white member of the group named Brother Hambro, the narrator goes to his assigned branch in Harlem, where he meets the handsome, intelligent black youth leader Tod Clifton. He also becomes familiar with the black nationalist leader Ras the Exhorter, who opposes the interracial Brotherhood and believes that black Americans should fight for their rights over and against all whites. The narrator delivers speeches and becomes a high-profile figure in the Brotherhood, and he enjoys his work. One day, however, he receives an anonymous note warning him to remember his place as a black man in the Brotherhood. Not long after, the black Brotherhood member Brother Wrestrum accuses the narrator of trying to use the Brotherhood to advance a selfish desire for personal distinction. While a committee of the Brotherhood investigates the charges, the organization moves the narrator to another post, as an advocate of women's rights. After giving a speech one evening, he is seduced-zvádzať by one of the white women at the gathering, who attempts to use him to play out her sexual fantasies about black men.
After a short time, the Brotherhood sends the narrator back to Harlem, where he discovers that Clifton has disappeared. Many other black members have left the group, as much of the Harlem community feels that the Brotherhood has betrayed their interests. The narrator finds Clifton on the street selling dancing “Sambo” dolls—dolls that invoke the stereotype of the lazy and obsequious slave. Clifton apparently does not have a permit to sell his wares on the street. White policemen accost him and, after a scuffle, shoot him dead as the narrator and others look on. On his own initiative, the narrator holds a funeral for Clifton and gives a speech in which he portrays his dead friend as a hero, galvanizing-oživiť, vyburcovať public sentiment in Clifton's favour. The Brotherhood is furious with him for staging the funeral without permission, and Jack harshly castigates- zbiť him. As Jack rants about the Brotherhood's ideological stance, a glass eye falls from one of his eye sockets. The Brotherhood sends the narrator back to Brother Hambro to learn about the organization's new strategies in Harlem.
The narrator leaves feeling furious and anxious to gain revenge on Jack and the Brotherhood. He arrives in Harlem to find the neighborhood in ever-increased agitation over race relations. Ras confronts him, deploring the Brotherhood's failure to draw on the momentum generated by Clifton's funeral. Ras sends his men to beat up the narrator, and the narrator is forced to disguise himself in dark glasses and a hat. In his dark glasses, many people on the streets mistake him for someone named Rinehart, who seems to be a pimp-pasák, bookie=bookmaker, lover, and reverend all at once. At last, the narrator goes to Brother Hambro's apartment, where Hambro tells him that the Brotherhood has chosen not to emphasize Harlem and the black movement. He cynically declares that people are merely tools and that the larger interests of the Brotherhood are more important than any individual. Recalling advice given to him by his grandfather, the narrator determines to undermine the Brotherhood by seeming to go along with them completely. He decides to flatter-lichotiť and seduce-zvádzať a woman close to one of the party leaders in order to obtain secret information about the group.
But the woman he chooses, Sybil, knows nothing about the Brotherhood and attempts to use the narrator to fulfill her fantasy of being raped by a black man. While still with Sybil in his apartment, the narrator receives a call asking him to come to Harlem quickly. The narrator hears the sound of breaking glass, and the line goes dead. He arrives in Harlem to find the neighborhood in the midst of a full-fledged riot, which he learns was incited- podnietený by Ras. The narrator becomes involved in setting fire to a tenement building. Running from the scene of the crime, he encounters Ras, dressed as an African chieftain-náčelník. Ras calls for the narrator to be lynched. The narrator flees, only to encounter two policemen, who suspect that his briefcase contains loot-lup, korisť from the riots. In his attempt to evade them, the narrator falls down a manhole-šachta. The police mock him and draw the cover over the manhole.
The narrator says that he has stayed underground ever since; the end of his story is also the beginning. He states that he finally has realized that he must honour his individual complexity and remain true to his own identity without sacrificing his responsibility to the community. He says that he finally feels ready to emerge from underground.
The narrator: nameless protagonist; “invisible man”; a black man in 1930s America. He considers himself invisible because people never see his true self beneath the stereotype and racial prejudice. 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 destroyed through his experiences as a student at college, as a 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 honours 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 anything other than tools. His glass eye and his red hair symbolize his blindness and his communism.
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, though it remains unclear whether a falling-out has taken place, or whether he has simply become disillusioned with the group. He 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 a seemingly infinite number of identities, among them pimp, bookie, and preacher who 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. Rinehart 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-prisluhovačstvo 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 eerie 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 insightful 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 the 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 meaningful way.
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. She nurtures 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.
The American South and Harlem, New York in the late 1930s
Point of view:
First Person (Central Narrator)
The invisible man is our narrator throughout the entire novel, sandwiching the bulk of his story with a prologue and epilogue from his manhole. Since we hear his story from his point of view, we can't be sure whether all the memories are entirely factual. Instead, we understand the story to be his perception; he is speaking out about his experiences and, as he says in the epilogue, hopefully shedding light on things we might not have realized, or perhaps helping us feel more connected with similar experiences. Even though the story is told with other readers in mind, this is very much our narrator's show – it's his personal development that we witness, and no one else's. This treatment of other characters actually mirrors the way he himself has been treated; aside from the narrator, everyone in Invisible Man is pretty one-dimensional. Instead of complex individuals, we have set types: a member of the black establishment, a wealthy white philanthropist, a black nationalist, a utopian visionary, and so on.
Jazzy; A life-long lover of jazz, Ellison conceived of Invisible Man as jazz's literary equivalent. By turns sad, playful, shy, loud, fast-paced, drawing on different styles and traditions of writing, weaving constant refrains throughout the book, and creating a whole new aesthetic, the novel doesn't just have a style, it's got style.
Frank, Thoughtful. Although his story could easily have degenerated into a sob story of racial injustice, anger, and hate, the narrator's frank and thoughtful tone allows for a more reflective edge to the story. It probably helps that he's telling his story from hibernation, allowing him to capture the truth to the moments in his life. End of the story is also the beginning- circular structure.
Identity - Identity in Invisible Man is a conflict between self-perception and the projection of others, as seen through one man's story: the nameless narrator. His true identity, he realizes, is in fact invisible to those around him. Only by intentionally isolating himself from society can he grapple with and come to understand himself.
Race - While most the narrator's difficulties throughout the novel are associated with his race, Invisible Man is a novel aimed at transcending race and all the other ways humanity has used to categorize people. For a long time, the narrator's identity is defined by his race, leading to his invisibility.
Lies and Deceit- klam - Invisible Man is about the process of overcoming deceptions-podvody and illusions to reach truth. (One of the most important truths in the book is that the narrator is invisible to those around him.) In Invisible Man, then, deception is closely linked with invisibility. Because various people cannot see the narrator for who he is, they use him to suit their own purposes. As often as he is deceived, however, the narrator does some deceiving of his own, ultimately concluding that the ease with which he deceives people points to his invisibility.
Ideology - Invisible Man promotes a political philosophy of appealing to the emotional individual. It rejects all forms of ideology, arguing that ideology misses the trees for the forest, so to speak (in other words, the idea that ideology focuses too much on the collective at the expense of the individual). Several forms of black politics are depicted in the novel, including conservative progress, black nationalism, and communism.
Memory and the Past - Most of Invisible Man takes place in the narrator's memory, which inherently brings up issues of how well memory works – in other words, the nameless narrator character is choosing specific scenes to portray in specific ways; the entire novel is written from his perspective. Aside from this observation, memory and the past are also important in the novel as the narrator reflects on his past and uses the perspective to derive new feelings and opinions on his experiences. Although the Brotherhood tells him to put aside his past, we see that the narrator's personal journey requires him to square-vysporiadať with his past, to acknowledge-pochopiť and embrace-prijať it.
Power - Power infuses nearly all of the relationships depicted in Invisible Man. More specifically, white male power threads its way throughout the novel. Even in situations where there are no white males present, it's clear that white males hold the power. Other people who hold any form of power – Dr. Bledsoe, the narrator for a period of time, and Brother Clifton – hold it only through the largesse or "generosity" of white men.
Admiration - Admiration is particularly salient towards the beginning of Invisible Man, when the narrator takes Dr. Bledsoe and Mr. Norton to be role models. By the end of the novel, the narrator does not admire anyone. Dr. Bledsoe and Mr. Norton have been exposed as extremely flawed role models, and the narrator realizes that he can count only on himself.
Ambition - In Invisible Man, admiration tends to fuel ambition. As the narrator admires Dr. Bledsoe, so his ambition is to one day serve as Bledsoe's assistant. The course of ambition throughout the novel also parallels that of admiration – both falter and are non-existent by the end. At the close of the novel, the narrator's aims could not be described as ambition. His ambition is constantly thwarted-marené because he lives in a white-dominated society.
Love - Love is notable in Invisible Man because of its absence throughout most of the novel. The narrator rejects it because it would interfere with his ambitions. At the end of the novel, however, the narrator says he has found love (and its other half, hate), but it doesn't manifest itself as love for any particular person, place, or idea. It's just… nebulous-nejasný love.
Women and Femininity - In Invisible Man, the situation of white women is drawn parallel to that of black men – both are oppressed by white male society. None of the women we encounter in the book understand their situation in this way, but the narrator repeatedly shows them as suffering from the same problems with invisibility.
Symbolism, allusions, myth:
Liberty Paints: The narrator's first job is in a highly patriotic paint company most famous for its Optic White paint colour. In order to create this pure white, the narrator is instructed to add ten black drops of toner into each bucket. Could this possibly have anything to do with black/white relations in America? We think that this paint business demonstrates the necessity of the black contribution to white America – although America is often thought of as a white man's country, America would not be America without the contributions of black people. Taking another angle, the name "Liberty Paints" is ironic since it implies freedom for all, which is clearly not the experience of the narrator throughout this entire story.
Vision and Sight: When there's a lot of talk about eyeballs in a book called Invisible Man, you know something's up with sight. Reverend Barbee gives a crowd-pleasing speech praising the Founder of the college only to later reveal that he is a blind man. Then Brother Jack turns out to have a false left eye. This shows the flawed nature of their visions – Barbee gave a great speech praising an institution and man that are basically shams-pretvárky, and Jack espouses a horribly cold ideology.
As for the narrator, he comes to believe himself an invisible man because no one actually sees him for who he is – but as someone of whom they can take advantage. Realizing this social invisibility, the narrator decides to pair it with actual invisibility, and drops out of sight for an indeterminate amount of time.
Sambo Doll: When the narrator further examines the paper doll that Clifton was selling, he realizes that Clifton controlled the doll with a thin black string that was invisible to the audience. Clifton puppeteers the flimsy black doll in much the same way that the Brotherhood manipulated both Clifton and the narrator, or the way the narrator has been manipulated his entire life, or the way blacks have been manipulated for whites' entertainment.
The Battle Royal Briefcase: We think it's symbolic that the narrator receives the briefcase as a naïve kid, and then hangs onto it for the rest of the novel. Emblematic of his past vulnerability, eagerness to please, and youthful ambitions, his final loss of the briefcase suggests a complete severance-prerušenie of ties to his youthful past and a true rebirth.
Literary Fiction, Coming-of-Age, African-American Literature
Invisible Man is literary fiction because of its in-depth exploration of one man's psyche and its innovative style.
My own interpretation:
Set in the U.S. during the pre-Civil Rights era, when Jim Crow segregation laws denied black Americans basic rights, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man follows a young, college-educated black man's struggles to survive dangerous situations and to succeed in a racially divided society that refuses to see him as a human being. Although the protagonist undoubtedly has a name, Ralph Ellison chose to keep his character nameless and "invisible" throughout the novel.
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. (Prologue.1)
This suggests that people are capable of seeing the narrator, but that they choose not to. Other people have the power to render the narrator visible or invisible.
"Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open." (p.16)
This is part of the grandfather's deathbed speech. These words echo throughout the narrative. The narrator remembers this speech when Brother Hambro explains to him the interests of the Brotherhood organization. Even though he doesn´t really agree with them, he decides to seem to go along with them completely.
"You're hidden right out in the open - that is, you would be only if you realized it." (p. 154)
The veteran doctor from the Golden Day makes this statement to the protagonist. It foreshadows the notion of invisibility that the protagonist will come to learn. The veteran is the only one who understand the relations between blacks and whites in the beginning of the novel
“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" (p. 581)
The protagonist ends the novel with these words. They are significant because they call into question who the actual audience is for this novel.