Essay, Research Paper: Invisible Man By Ellison

Literature: Civil War

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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 naiveté 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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