I 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.