THE INVISIBLE MAN
Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible man (Ellison, R 1977) uses the voice of an anonymous central character to indirectly convey opinions of social and cultural dominance. These opinions alternate, regenerate and revolutionize as Ellison’s invisible man occupies a multitude of collected identities. This essay aims to highlight particular examples of how the text utilizes dualistic concepts and a transforming narrative of both singular and multiplied perspective, to communicate themes of racial identity as both a pronounced discussion and micro sociological impression.
The Invisible Man’s narrative structure operates on a theme of anonymity to allow the reader to relocate and readapt to the novels fluctuating extemporaneous movement without questioning the likelihood of such circumstances affecting one individual.
Ellison constructs a central character that both projects and mirrors themes of class, race and ultimately epitomizes an every-man. Over the course of the novel the Invisible Man compiles a collective statement about the multifarious identity of discrimination and characterizes its many forms by introducing characters both prominent and inconspicuous that intersperse throughout the novels mercurial episodes. The author then gives his protagonist an unrealistic sense of optimism, which to a ‘White’ audience may read as a defeatist characteristic, when it is more likely to be warning a ‘Black’ audience that dangers lie in appeasing a power that wishes only to debilitate.
Ellison plants his invisible man on a path of ‘blind’ father figures. Having established his central character’s eventual autonomous identity at the beginning of the novel, the reader has been lead to question the clarity of Reverend Homer A. Barbee and Brother Jack perceptions. Ellison gives these two characters damaged vision, a function to aid the reader in identifying a theme of social and cultural blindness; the ‘physical limitation allows for a metaphoric reading […] their perception of the world in a one-dimensional view’ (Sellen, A, M, p. 94). The fact that both Brother Jack and the Reverend appear as mentor figures to the central character, further reiterates Ellison’s intention to create a journey from innocence and ignorance, to ‘enlightenment’. The invisible man and subsequently the reader must first encounter ignorance masked in leadership to fully comprehend themes of racial and social contradiction and how such identities come to overpower both a trained and untrained mind. Another image of false sighted intervention is identifiable when the Invisible Man is at the mercy of another ‘cycloptic’ figure in hospital. Ellison’s passage describing the ‘bright third eye that glowed from the centre of his forehead’ (Ellison, R p.188) not only reiterates the themes of altered sight, but also incorporates a mythical element to the text that serves to disorientate the reader and create a discourse from reality. The latter is examined further as the operation or ‘pre-frontal lobotomy’ urges narrator and reader through stages of perceived actuality and fabrication. During this event in the novel, the Invisible Man is at the mercy of an undetermined number of hospital staff that performs an audible shift from the voices of medical professionals, to those of a blood- thirsty mob, mimicking the novels earlier depictions of racial violence during the Battle Royale. Passages such as ‘look, he’s dancing […] they really do have rhythm don’t they [and] get hot, boy! Get hot!’ (Ellison, R p.193) assume a similar tone to the jeers of ‘Uppercut him! Kill him! Kill that big boy! (Ellison, R p.24) featured in the novels introduction to racial violence. This is a particularly significant incident in one of the novels many transitional episodes because it forms a barrier between the readers affinity with reality, fantasy and engineers Ellison’s intention to establish a central character capable of representing multifarious identities while utilizing dualistic devices.
The novel relies heavily on duality to communicate the transforming identity of racial discrimination. From black to white, south to north, individual and representative. The Invisible Man is ‘torn between his existential need to define himself in his own terms and his moral need to speak on behalf on his race’ (DiBattista, M 2011). Two more characters in the novel that represent dualistic themes and introduce a ‘fool-identity’ are the Vet in the Golden Day and Jim Trueblood. The Vet embodies a ‘wise fool’ who can recognize his own hunger for racial justice as well as he can identify ‘white’ fragility and Trueblood epitomizes ‘white’ weakness. The fact that Mr. Norton engages with both these characters in succession indicates Ellison’s intent for Norton to identify his ignorance and immorality in the psyches of his cultural opposites, as ‘the grotesque body is a device to make visible what has been hidden, even unconscious’ (Sellen, A M, p.94). This approach demonstrates how Ellison marries themes of duality and identity to comment on ‘white’ ethicality, without openly chastising a society unfamiliar with egalitarianism. Secondary to this idea of subtle delivery, one must again note the narrator’s anonymity because invisibility is predominantly an existential, before it is a social cataclysm.
The complex arrangement of Ellison’s central character and narrator
demonstrate the novels attachment to a modernist style. The author uses a function of displacement and equivocation to eclipse ideas of ‘black’ and ‘white’ and structure a story that identifies the ‘fools’ in a fictitious society, to a society that is too ‘blind’ to distinguish their association with the text. This approach indicates an author writing for his time and designing an anonymous voice and a progressive awareness in a central character to communicate ideas to an enlightened reader.
Ellison, R 1977, Invisible Man, pp. 24, 188, 193, Penguin Books Ltd, Great Britain.
DiBattista, M 2011, Novel Characters: A Genealogy, John Wiley & Sons, West Sussex.
Sellen, A M 2010,Fooling Invisibility – A Bakhtinian Reading of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”: Applying Bakhtinian Theory to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, GRIN Verlag, p. 94,