Invisible Man

Invisible ManI first read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in high school, when reading the great canonical works of literature was extremely important to me. I can’t recall what I made of it back then. I probably would have said that it was a good book and an important book and that I learned a lot from it, but whatever impression it made on me was fleeting. So much so that when I saw a stage adaptation of the play a few years ago, none of it was familiar to me. But it was mesmerizing, and I knew that I needed to read the book again. (See the video below for a scene from the play. I saw this same production, with the same lead actor, at Studio Theatre in DC.)

The unnamed narrator of the novel tells his story from underground, where he has created a home for himself that is bathed in light—all the better to see with, I suppose. He says that as an invisible man, he needs light more than anyone because “light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form.” And so he tells the story of how he discovered his invisibility, shedding light on the darkness that rendered him invisible.

The story begins 20 years earlier in the South, when the narrator is just about to graduate from high school. His public speaking skills have earned him a scholarship to a black college, a scholarship that is presented to him only after he has participated in a bizarre fighting match, clearly intended to humiliate him and the other young black men he fights.

From there he goes to college and later to New York. He commences each stage of his life with great hope for a bright future. And each time, his hopes are crushed under other people’s agendas because everything important about him is invisible. And that invisibility takes a toll, changing his view of himself:

It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

For much of the novel, the narrator eschews cursing and swearing and tries to be seen by being agreeable, following the rules and doing what’s expected. But mistakes and misunderstandings mean that when it’s seen, it’s in a poor light. At best, he’s seen as a tool for others, as when he is recruited into a political group called the Brotherhood and made a spokesman for the people of Harlem. The Brotherhood, however, does not let him be his true self. They give him and new name and tell him what to talk about (including, at one point, women’s issues, which … no). As a person, he does not exist.

One challenge in reading this novel is the fact that the narrator’s character, aside from his blistering and self-revelatory prologue and epilogue, is invisible. As he drifts from one life to another, he rarely feels like a full-bodied person. And so, as a reader, I had to find a way in that didn’t rely on caring about this individual. I had to think of him as a stand-in for other individuals, any individuals who are used as pawns to achieve other people’s goals.

The scenes of violence in Harlem at the end were especially startling, so soon after the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore. Much of the narrator’s disenchantment at trying to be in the world came from being immersed in that violence. Ellison does not opt for a simplistic narrative here, with black citizens as always helpless victims. Some of his characters are fighting injustice, but some just escalate the violence without care for or even knowledge of the reason that it began. The narrator is left believing that the whole thing was cooked up by his own supposed allies. One can understand his suspicion. He has reason to doubt everyone.

Invisible Man is a difficult book. I still can’t work out what my high school self would have made of it. I’m not even sure what my present self makes of it. I have qualms about the role of women. I wish I had more knowledge of the specific cultural context. And I wish too that I’d had the opportunity to study it in a class. I was so busy trying to wrap my mind around the story that I didn’t consider Ellison’s technique much. Yet I can’t deny its power in exposing how injustice robs people of themselves.


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16 Responses to Invisible Man

  1. Jeanne says:

    I remember thinking that the most interesting technique in this novel is trying to make the writing like jazz–improvisational, but with recognizable themes that play in and out.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s the kind of thing that made me wish I’d studied this in a class. I could see that he was doing something with recurring scenes and symbols, but I didn’t have the focus or brain space to dig into it.

  2. I recently bought this book, and I look forward to reading it, even though I’m sure it will be an emotional read. I saw Salem earlier this year, and I simply could not understand the politics/attitude. It was completely alien to me. A human being is a human being. Period.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the things I found really interesting about this book is how a lot of the racism he describes is not really overt and often comes from people who seem to be trying to help. I think that’s given the book remarkable staying power because it shows a type of racism that’s still around today, long after Jim Crow laws.

  3. lailaarch says:

    Thoughtful review! I need to read this. It was never assigned to me in school, and I, too, would have liked to have had the chance to study it in a class setting.

  4. Sonya Sombra says:

    I had a similar reaction when I read Richard Wright’s _Native Son_ in college. From your summary, it sounds like _Invisible Man_ explores some of the same themes. I’m definitely intrigued now — thanks for the recommendation.

    • Teresa says:

      I read Native Son at about the same time that I first read this. From what I remember Native Son gets darker but they do have a lot in common.

  5. Deb says:

    From high school reading, I just remember where he works in a paint factory and has to add a few drops of black paint to make the white paint whiter. That symbolism seems obvious now, but at the time (40 years ago) it was revelatory.

    • Teresa says:

      The whole paint section was really great (the stage play handled it so well), and setting it next to how the Brotherhood needs him to be effective drives the point home.

  6. I very much wish I’d had to read this in school. Nowadays I wish I had the context that would come with having studied it for a class, but I don’t particularly want to read it. People always describe the writing style in a way that makes it sound really unappealing — see above where Jeanne referenced jazz in re: the writing style, which like, jazz is one of my least favorite things in this entire world. (I know, I know, I’m bad at being from Louisiana. :p)

    • Teresa says:

      I found the style mostly pretty straightforward, actually. There are a few sequences that are sort of like dreams, and every now and then the plot points aren’t obvious, but the stylistic stuff is more in the form of recurring motifs that are weaved in and the way the narrator just sort of drifts from one world to another and back again.

  7. Your review completely sums up how I felt about reading this book! I knew that it was important and definitely felt like I got a lot out of it, but that was a few years ago now (on my own journey through American classics – we didn’t read anything like this at school in England). In retrospect though, it’s hard to sum up the final points, it felt like such an unexpected mixture of philosophy, violence, social realism and allegory. I think my final thought was to wonder if this is what Philip Roth might have written if he’d been born into a different American minority group?

    • Teresa says:

      I think the fact that there’s so much going on is one reason this book has had such staying power. Different readers might latch onto different things, and different pieces of the story will have resonance at different times.

  8. This is one of my top three books. It was an experience when I first read it, and now I teach it in my American Lit classes. It is a difficult, complicated book, and as much as it is about race, it’s also, to me, so much about identity in general that it’s accessible even for those without the narrator’s racial background. Like you said, much of the racism is overt, and it is the narrator’s difficulty in distinguishing help (Tarp giving him the leg iron) with manipulation that gets him in trouble over and over again.

    I also really love that Ellison’s short story writing informs his novel, which is why often people know the Battle Royale scene and nothing else (it’s anthologized like crazy).

    You should also pick up The Sympathizer – a new book – that I read and all the while thought of Invisible Man. I tweeted about the connection after I read it, and the author confirmed it was inspirational to him.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’re right about it being about identity in general. It’s one of the things that struck me when I saw the play because you get to see him try on different personas and live in different worlds over the course of a single evening.

      And thanks for that suggestion! I just looked it up, and it sounds great!

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