Causes and Effects of Invisibility And Blindness
In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
-- Anne-Marie Kimmes
Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man is a bildungsroman, a type of novel that chronicles a character’s moral and psychological growth. The narrator not only tells the story of Invisible Man, he is also its principal character. The narrative and thematic concerns of the story revolve around the development of the narrator as an individual. Additionally, because the narrator relates the story in the first person, the text does not truly probe the consciousness of any other figure in the story.
Ironically, though he dominates the novel, the narrator remains somewhat obscure to the reader; most notably, he never reveals his name. The names that he is given in the hospital and in the Brotherhood, the name of his college, even the state in which the college is located all go unidentified. The narrator remains a voice and never emerges as an external and quantifiable presence. This obscurity emphasizes his status as an “invisible man” as which he introduces himself in the Prologue of the novel. He explains that his invisibility owes not to some biochemical accident or supernatural cause but rather to the unwillingness of other people to notice him as he is black. It is as though other people are sleepwalkers moving through a dream in which he does not appear. The narrator says that his invisibility can serve both as an advantage and as a constant aggravation. Being invisible sometimes makes him doubt whether he really exists. He describes his anguished, aching need to make others recognize him, and says he has found that such attempts rarely succeed. Now, the narrator hibernates in his invisibility, preparing for his unnamed action. He states that the beginning of his story is really the end.
The Prologue of Invisible Man introduces the major themes that define the rest of the novel. The metaphors of invisibility and blindness allow for an examination of the effects of racism on the victim and the perpetrator. Because the narrator is black, whites refuse to see him as an actual, three-dimensional person; hence, he portrays himself as invisible and describes them as blind.
Thomas Schaub considers Invisible Man to be a “novel of social exclusion” describing “a culture in which the difference that separates black from white [...] is a difference of race so vast that Invisible Man [the narrator] is not merely awkward or out of place. He is invisible” (132). In his essay “Ellison’s Masks and the Novel of Reality”, Schaub talks about “exclusive reality” that is present in the novel. According to him, the narrator has been excluded from reality or may only participate in it on the condition that he remain invisible (130).
The narrator describes himself as an “invisible man” because he has decided that the world is full of blind men and sleepwalkers who cannot see him for what he is. The motif of invisibility pervades the novel, often manifesting itself hand in hand with the motif of blindness: one person becomes invisible because another is blind. The novel treats invisibility ambiguously. It can bring disempowerment, but it can also bring freedom and mobility. Indeed, it is the freedom the narrator derives from his anonymity that enables him to tell his story. Moreover, as will be shown later, both the veteran at the Golden Day and the narrator’s grandfather seem to endorse invisibility as a position from which one may safely exert power over others, or at least undermine others’ power, without being caught. The narrator demonstrates this power in the Prologue, when he literally draws upon electrical power from his hiding place underground; the electric company is aware of its losses but cannot locate their source.
Blindness is probably the most important motif in Invisible Man. It recurs throughout the novel and generally represents how people willfully avoid seeing and confronting the truth. The narrator repeatedly notes that people’s inability to see what they wish not to see – their inability to see that which their prejudice does not allow them to see – has forced him into a life of effective invisibility. But prejudice against others is not the only kind of blindness in the book. Many figures also refuse to acknowledge truths about themselves or their communities, and this refusal emerges consistently in the imagery of blindness. Thus, the boys who fight in the “battle royal” wear blindfolds, symbolizing their powerlessness to recognize their exploitation at the hands of the white men. The Founder’s statue at the college has empty eyes, signifying his ideology’s stubborn neglect of racist realities. Blindness also afflicts Reverend Homer A. Barbee, who romanticizes the Founder, and Brother Jack, who is revealed to lack an eye – a lack that he has dissimulated by wearing a glass eye. The narrator himself experiences moments of blindness, such as in Chapter Sixteen when he addresses the black community under enormous, blinding lights. In each case, failure of sight corresponds to a lack of insight.
For much of the story, and especially in the chapters before he joins the Brotherhood, the narrator appears extremely innocent and inexperienced. His innocence prevents him from recognizing the truth behind others’ errant behavior and leads him to try to fulfill their misguided expectations. He remains extremely vulnerable to the identity that society thrusts upon him as an African American. He plays the role of the servile black man to the white men in Chapter One; he plays the industrious, uncomplaining disciple of Booker T. Washington during his college years; he agrees to act as the Brotherhood’s black spokesperson, which allows the Brotherhood to use him.
Edith Schor agrees in saying that the narrator is innocent in the beginning of the novel. She describes the story of Invisible Man as the “journey of its narrator from ignorance to knowledge and affirmation” (215). The Invisible Man is eager and ambitious, and expects by determination and hard work to find a high place for himself in society. He is prone to think the best of people even when he has reason not to, and he remains consistently respectful of authority. The narrator’s innocence sometimes causes him to misunderstand important events in the story, often making it necessary for the reader to look past the narrator’s own interpretation of events. Ellison uses irony to allow the reader to see things that the narrator misses.
Edith Schor explains that three informants tell the narrator that “he must first realize who he is in order to ‘play the game,’ but he fails to comprehend their meaning” (217). He is blind to his need to know who he is. The three informants are his grandfather (a former slave), Trueblood (a ‘field nigger’), and a veteran.
The first warning comes from his grandfather who said the following words on his deathbed:
“Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. 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” (Ellison 16).
The central thrust of these last sentences – that white society is an enemy – is not so much misunderstood as set aside. The narrator rather feels guilty and is haunted by his grandfather’s words when he is rewarded by white folks for his good conduct. As mentioned earlier, the narrator’s innocence sometimes causes him to misunderstand important events in the story. In this way, he fails to examine the observable nature of the white folks’ approval.
For instance, the narrator accepts his scholarship from the brutish white men with gladness and gratitude after the degradation and humiliation that involved the “battle royal” (a graphic illustration of the narrator’s grandfather’s dictum that “life is a war”) and the holding of his speech in Chapter One. He passes no judgment on the white men’s behavior. Here, the white men’s actions provide enough evidence for the reader to denounce the men as appalling racists. While the narrator can be somewhat unreliable in this regard, Ellison makes sure that the reader perceives the narrator’s blindness.
Following the narrator’s grandfather, Jim Trueblood is the second informant. Trueblood is an uneducated black man who lives on the outskirts of the college campus and who impregnated his own daughter while having a strange dream. Incapable to figure out if he is guilty or not because he committed his sin while he was sleeping, Trueblood does not exile himself and therefore refuses to act out the white man’s myth of guilt and pollution.
Ironically, only the people up in the college regard Trueblood with hatred and distrust and try to get him out of the county. White people have showered him with more money and help than before he committed the unspeakable taboo of incest. Schor argues that the use the whites make of Trueblood parallels their use of the boys at the smoker. They are “paying a scapegoat for the vicarious satisfaction he provides – for acting out what they dare not even imagine” (222). The narrator is appalled by Norton’s action of also paying his scapegoat and giving Trueblood a $100 bill. However, the narrator is blind to Norton’s motives and curses under his breath as he sees his expected tip to go to this lowest of ‘field niggers’. The Invisible Man feels superior to this black sharecropper just as he felt superior to the other black boys he fought in the “battle royal”. Just as the monetary rewards of the battle royal incite the narrator and his classmates to turn on one another in Chapter One, the rewards of social advancement offered by the college incite the students and faculty to turn their backs on one of the least-empowered groups of American blacks: the poor sharecroppers. In an attempt to conform to the role of the model black citizen expected of them by white trustees, these higher-status blacks disown the dishonorable Jim Trueblood. This attempt to break from the lower-status blacks in order to gain greater favor with the white community seems to illustrate the narrator’s grandfather’s statement in Chapter One that blind conformity to the good slave role constitutes an act of treachery. The narrator has not understood the second messenger and remains as innocent as he was at the time of his high school diploma.
Trueblood’s story has made the narrator ashamed and Norton faint. The narrator drives the white man to the nearest bar, where some fifty veterans from the insane asylum are visiting. One of them claims to be a doctor and a graduate of the college. He is an institutionalized black man who makes bitterly insightful remarks about race relations and tries to expose the pitfalls of the school’s ideology. After Norton wakes, the veteran mocks Norton’s interest in the narrator and the college. He calls the narrator an automaton stricken with a blindness that makes him do Norton’s bidding and claims that this blindness is the narrator’s chief asset.
When the doctor-veteran at the Golden Day tavern calls the narrator an “automaton”, the comment revives the problematic relationship between white benefactor and black beneficiary. The veteran explicitly identifies Norton’s narcissism by stating that Norton sees the narrator as a mark on the scorecard of his achievement:
Transcript of The Complexity of Identity and Blindness in Invisible Man by
The Complexity of Identity and Blindness in
by Ralph Ellison
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is a novel written by Ralph Ellison. It focuses on some of the social and psychological problems facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century. It touches on Black Nationalism, the conflict of identity, blindness and racism in this novel. The major theme of
is the necessity to construct a personal identity in a divided society. Ellison builds this theme on the assumption that in a racist country, blacks are granted no true identity; instead, they are merely the receptors of the projections of the white man’s fantasies and fears.
The novel demonstrates the process by which the narrator came to the realization that he--and other blacks--is invisible and as such cannot ever succeed by playing according to white rules. The task of the narrator upon realizing he is invisible is to figure out how to proceed from that realization responsibly. He does not want to withdraw altogether from the world. He also does not want to engage with it on the false basis that he has in the past, when he was blind to his invisibility.
is unique not only in the literature world for its improvisational jazz-inspired style, but also in the political world for adding a new voice to the discussion about blacks in America.
In our paper we are going to present the complexity of identity and the effect of blindness on individuals. To reach our aim we will divide the paper into four sections. In the first section we will introduce writer. In the second section we will talk about the importance of Harlem Renaissance in
and the brief summary of the novel. In the third section we will support our argument with the help of quotations. In the last section we will talk about our conclusion about the novel.
He was an American novelist, literary, critic, scholar and writer. He was born in Oklahoma City. He won the National Book Award for his first novel
, the story of an alienated and isolated black man living in racially repressive urban America. The remarkable success of
made Ellison famous worldwide and he was suddenly considered one of America’s most important writers.
He was proven himself through his only novel The Invisible Man. With this one novel, Ellison earned himself the 1953 National Book Award and acclaim by the African American community for so accurately portraying the struggles a black American had to face in the 1930s. The
contains excellently placed underlying themes and symbolism to accurately describe the narrators struggles to find himself in both American society and black society.
Ellison loves the American language. Following the progress of the American language, Ellison admires Twains southern speech the Mississippi dialect of Faulkner and Jones vernacular locations. He is sensitive to black speech especially by calling it “our own version of English.” He concerns himself with more personal matters than social. He has tried hard to protect and prove his distinctness, his difference from various predefined ideas of his identity. He refuses to be defined by race in his works. He states his race proudly but will not allow assumptions to become his identity.
No matter how hard he tries to avoid change in himself and life ,his ever growing experience will continue to transform him. Ellison adapted the existentialist’s universal themes to the black experience of oppression and prejudice in America. He also engaged powerfully with the tradition of African American social debate.
Effects of Harlem Renaissance in Invisible Man:
Harlem Renaissance has a very important historical role in both the writer’s life and the novel. Ellison gives a great place to Harlem in Invisible Man. Ellison describes living in Harlem as “dwelling in the very bowels of the city with “its crimes , its casual violence ,its crumbling buildings and its vermin invaded rooms…”He also contends that Harlem symbolizes the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth . Ellison often merges fantasy and reality.
The Harlem Renaissance:
It is the name for a movement in African American culture in the 1920s and 1930s which has had a big influence on African American literature, philosophy and music.
Originally it called as the New Negro Movement or Black Renaissance.
The movement began in Harlem, New York after World War II.
The Harlem Renaissance brought in the Civil Rights movement of the 40’s and 50’s.
Harlem was also the home of jazz a new and very popular musical sound of the 1920s, which met the needs of both a black and a White audience.
The movement began to affect the thinking of many African American writers and artist of all sorts.
They challenged against the thinking of many white Americans towards black Americans.
They refused to be treated as if they were not equal
It became a racial point for Blacks.
Ralph Ellison's single published novel, Invisible Man, is recognized as one of the finest achievements in modern American fiction as well as one of the most complete statements of the African-American experience. The novel addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early twentieth century, including Black Nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.
is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed African American man who considers himself socially invisible. His character may have been inspired by Ellison’s own life. The narrator may be conscious of his audience, writing as a way to make himself visible to mainstream culture; the book is structured as if it were the narrator’s autobiography although it begins in the middle of his life. The story is told from the narrators present, looking back into his past.
was controversial, attacked by militants as reactionary and banned from schools because of its explicit descriptions of black life. In addition, some black scholars criticized the novel for not being sufficiently "revolutionary" and not accurately depicting "the black experience. Literary critics, however, generally agreed on the book's significance. Ellison's attitude towards these critics is perhaps best summarized in his classic response to a reporter during a 1973 interview: "I'll be my kind of militant". (Ellison)
THE COMPLEXITY OF IDENTITY AND BLINDNESS
Often described as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story,
is the tale of a black man's search for identity and visibility in white America. Convinced that his existence depends on gaining the support, recognition, and approval of whites — whom he has been taught to view as powerful, superior beings who control his destiny — the narrator spends nearly 20 years trying to establish his humanity in a society that refuses to see him as a human being. Ultimately, he realizes that he must create his own identity, which rests not on the acceptance of whites, but on his own acceptance of the past.
The central theme of Ralph Ellison's writing is the search for identity, a search that he sees as central to American literature and the American experience. As the narrator of Invisible Man struggles to arrive at a conception of his own identity, he finds his efforts complicated by the fact that he is a black man living in a racist American society. As the narrator attempts to define himself through the values and expectations imposed on him, he finds that, in each case, the prescribed role limits his complexity as an individual and forces him to play an unoriginal part. The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are (156).
When I discover who I am, I'll be free (243). My problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man (441). According to writer he has not been himself and has not lived his own life but rather has allowed the complexity of his identity to be limited by the social expectations and prejudices of others.
Probably the most important motif in
is that of blindness, which recurs throughout the novel and generally represents how people willfully avoid seeing and confronting the truth. The narrator repeatedly notes that people’s inability to see what they wish not to see—their inability to see that which their prejudice doesn’t allow them to see—has forced him into a life of effective invisibility. But prejudice against others is not the only kind of blindness in the book.
This suggests that people are capable of seeing the narrator, but that they choose not to. His invisibility he says is not a physical condition but is rather the result of the refusal of others to see him. And he has lived without own identity. Because he didn’t have the ideal life which is his own reality or defined his own identity. He went on unfortunately his life warning the various masks assigned to him.
He says, my hole is warm and full of light. Yes, full of light. I doubt if there is a brighter spot in all New York than this hole of mine, and I do not exclude Broadway (3).
Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one's form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility (6). The narrator suggests that invisibility is part of his identity.
Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music (7).
By the novel’s conclusion, the narrator reflects on the previous 20 years of his life and takes stock of what he’s learned.
“For, like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action, but now, after first being 'for' society and then 'against' it, I assign myself no rank or any limit, and such an attitude is very much against the trend of the times. But my world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase - still it's a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn't accept any other; that much I've learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility”. (446)
We think that the protagonist now has come to embrace the reality of his invisibility, and in fact, use it to his advantage. He states that he finally has realized that he must honor 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.
Ralph Ellison is different from the other black writers.The other black writers focus on the themes of slavery, discrimination and racism. However Ellison doesn’t give particular importance of slavery or racism. Although he addresses black society’s problems in a serious way, he is against Black Nationalism. At the same time, he defends equality and justice among races.
Although Ellison's hero is repeatedly manipulated, betrayed, and deceived, Ellison shows that an individual is not trapped by geography, time, or place. He optimistically asserts that human beings can overcome these obstacles to independence, if they are willing to accept the responsibility to judge existence independently.
is also concerned with the communal effort of African-Americans to define their cultural identity. The novel surveys the history of African-American experience and alludes directly or indirectly to historical figures who serve as contradictory models for Ellison's protagonist.
However, Ellison does not restrict himself to the concerns of African-Americans because he believes that African-American culture is an inextricable part of American culture. Thus,
shows how the struggles of the narrator as an individual and as a representative of an ethnic minority are paralleled by the struggle of the nation to define and redefine itself. Ellison's frequently expressed opinion that African-American culture's assimilation by the dominant culture of the United States is inevitable and salutary has led some African-American critics to attack him as reactionary. The suspicion that he has "sold out" has also been fed by his broad popularity among white readers and his acceptance of teaching positions at predominantly white universities.
. New York: The Modern Library, 1994. pdf. 01/02/2014. print.
Ellison, Ralph. “The Prologue of the
.” Constucting Others, Constructing Ourselves. Ed. Sibylle Gruber. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 2002. 145-152. 05/03/2014. Web.
“Free Essays – Loss of Identity in
”. 123HelpMe.com. 20/03/2014. Web.
Ralph Ellison: A Collection of Critical Essays
. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1974. 15/02/2014.Web.
Klein, Marcus. "Ralph Ellison." After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century. Cleveland: World Pub., 1964. 71-146. 09/03/2014. Web.
Langman, F.H. "Reconsidering
." The Critical Review. 18 (1976) 114-27. 11/02/2014. Web.
Lieber, Todd M. "Ralph Ellison and the Metaphor of Invisibility in Black Literary Tradition." American Quarterly. Mar. 1972: 86-100. 04/02/2014. Web.
I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me (3).
I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century (5). In this secret place, the narrator creates surroundings that are symbolically illuminated with 1,369 lights.
The protagonist explains that light is an intellectual necessity for him. From this underground perspective, the narrator attempts to make sense out of his life experiences, and position in American society.
And I love light. Perhaps you'll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I
invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form (6). The narrator loves light because it allows him to see himself. This is part of the light/dark imagery that Ellison utilizes throughout the novel.
According to writer unawareness of one's invisibility leads to great art, but awareness of invisibility leads to comprehension.
I remember that I'm invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers (156). The character decides that the world is full of blind people and sleep walkers who cannot see him for who really is, thus he calls himself the invisible man.