In Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man, the protagonist narrates in the first person about his invisibility. He, as he refers to himself without considering his person a subject while being a real person, is made «of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids».1 He describes how people around are looking through him. The problem is not with their physical eyes, meaning it is not something that does not allow them to perceive physically. Only a few pages later, readers randomly find out that the narrator is spoken as of being black. The rest who look through him are characterized as white. In this way, the unexpected flow of expressively violent scenes pours light on an exceptionally sophisticated form of racist unification against which the protagonist will act. It is not a fact of physical absence but the social non-existence of an individual. To the question about his invisibility, the narrator replies that the nature of the vision of those who look through him has to be held responsible for this.
This is not a flaw in their physical vision and actual inability to perceive, but it is an internal prejudice that does not allow them to understand it the right way. The duality of the conflict between the main character and the world surrounding him is gradually unfolded with every step of the development of the book. Thus, with the sharp and aggressive sentences of the first-person narration, this prologue opens the story. The script is characterized by several particularly sophisticated forms of discrimination and humiliation against which the protagonist will fight throughout the novel. It takes a form of invisibility, namely, the suppression of the personality, which, obviously, deals not with physical absence, but with non-existence in a social sense. The demonstration of the latter explains why this story has such an importance for American and world culture.
The story begins with the narrator’s reminiscence about his past life. He tells readers how he dreamed of becoming a renowned educator and orator. However, readers are quickly shown how the system is going to treat the narrator’s dreams as the humiliating procedure of receiving a scholarship to a specially designated state college is described in detail. The narrator then experiences a plethora of situations where he is disregarded, disrespected, and mistreated because of the color of his skin. He gets expelled from the college and goes North, where he eventually finds out that what he considered exceptional freedom turns out to be the same he saw in the South.
The author goes as far as putting the narrator through experiencing the consequences of explosion and being subjected to medical experiments by White doctors. This is acknowledged when the narrator gives an introspection of his life as being “based upon the fallacious assumption that I, like other men, was visible”, referring to his past worldview.2 Further life makes the narrator more and more disenfranchised and disillusioned about the social situation of his race.
However, despite the numerous misfortunes of his life, including being chased into a manhole by a furious mob, the narrator finds a way to ease his hatred and emotional pain. To do so, he uses writing, and as he entrusts paper with the story of his path, he feels that life is still worthy of living. Thus, the man rediscovers the fact that he loves living no matter what. The latter is an example of an excellent new way of perceiving life that is not based on superficial ideas of others, judgment, and prejudice.
Themes and Characters
The theme of racial injustice is the most vividly expressed theme of the entire book. The author shows how deeply it has rooted in the fabric of society. The perceived social invisibility of the protagonist is representative of the racial practices imposed on the African American community that are described by the author in his novel.3 The writer pictures the situation brightly and with striking accuracy because he was a witness of it during his lifetime. While it is obvious that social traditions such as segregation, discrimination, and similar are racist and, thus, absolutely unacceptable, the more important theme of the novel is not the description of the racial situation in the United States.
The topic of greater importance for the readers of all times and nations is the theme of one man’s journey to discovering self-identity. The main character serves the purpose of expressing that idea explicitly. In relation to this, the scene of the expulsion of the narrator from college has great importance as it functions as one of the most powerful triggers that move the character to step on a path of realization, which stems from the inability to understand southern mores.4 The return of the narrator from the White culture to the cultural roots of his folk represents the evolution of his conscientiousness. This is the act of self-liberation of his true identity from the oppressive influence of the dominant racial discourse. As the character sets him free, Ellison here pushes the theme of Black identity in American literature, which strongly influenced future writers in their attempts to resolve this issue.5
In my opinion, Ellison’s warning to readers about the necessity of moderation, as it is depicted in the scenes of unrest in Harlem, was the most important idea. Despite the injustices, it is always crucial to stay away from violence or resentment and dedicate the efforts to something more productive. The latter I consider to be the second most valuable thought I derived from reading this book as it can be given to a person of any generation. If the piece of literature is capable of being useful through time, then it can be concluded that it is truly an art and is worthy of being a part of humanity’s cultural heritage.
The Invisible Man is one of the most powerful writings on the topics of racial justice ever written by any American writer. Its value is even greater as it provides readers with a valuable lesson on discovering one’s true identity and setting oneself free of the influence of the dominant culture. This idea is essential for modern culture as more and more people suffer from being unable to discover their true selves. Finding and establishing a meaningful connection with the cultural heritage of one’s people is presented by the author to be one of the ways to do so.
Banks, Joy. 2018. “Invisible Man: Examining the Intersectionality of Disability, Race, and Gender in an Urban Community.” Disability & Society 33, no. 6 (2018): 894-908. doi:10.1080/09687599.2018.1456912.
Ellison, Ralph, and John Callahan. Invisible Man. London: Penguin UK, 2016.
King, Lovalerie, and Linda F Selzer. New Essays on the African American Novel. New York: Springer, 2016.
Wang, Gaixia. “On The Construction of Self Identity in Invisible Man“. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research 87 (2017): 656-660. doi:10.2991/icemeet-16.2017.139.
- Ralph Ellison and John Callahan, Invisible Man, (Penguin UK, 2016), 1.
- Ralph Ellison and John Callahan, Invisible Man, (Penguin UK, 2016), 3.
- Joy Banks, “Invisible Man: Examining the Intersectionality of Disability, Race, and Gender in an Urban Community,” Disability & Society 33, no. 6 (2018): 895.
- Lovalerie King and Linda F Selzer, New Essays on the African American Novel, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 171.
- Gaixia Wang, “On the Construction of Self Identity in Invisible Man,” Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research 87 (2017): 659.