Invisible Man is the famous novel by the American author Ralph Ellison. The novel represents the integral part of the American literature. Invisible Man plot has a symbolic meaning in its background and the definition of the “invisible” should not be understood in a straightforward way. The novel’s plot does not consist of any fantastic elements. Quite the opposite, it touches upon the real keen social problem of the American society of the XX century.
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Invisible Man is devoted to the life of Afro-Americans in the United States. However, the author uncovers the problem a little bit differently from the typical literature works and speeches of the activists of that time. The narrator of the novel tells us that he is “invisible”.
However, it is not his physical stance. Rather, he feels this way because his existence is ignored by the society. He says that “when they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me” (Ellison n.pag.).
The “invisibility” to which he refers is caused by not his actions or behavior but rather by the attitude of people towards him. In his speech introduced in the Prologue, he tells us that he is invisible simply because people refuse to see him (Ellison n.pag.). The race discrimination of the Afro-Americans in the United States had been the urgent problem for decades. However, the authors like Ellison tried to shake people’s minds and to make them “see” the black people.
“The bewildered and nameless hero of “Invisible Man” longs desperately to achieve a personal success and to help his people. But his role as a man acted upon more often than acting, as a symbol of doubt, perplexity, betrayal and defeat, robs him of the individual identity of the people who play a part in his life” (Prescott par. 8).
In the “battle royal” episode, the example of the attitude of the white Americans to the black Americans can be seen.
“Blindfolded, the Negro boys stage a “battle royal,” a free-for-all in which they pummel each other to the drunken shouts of the whites. “Practical jokes,” humiliations, terrors–and then the boy delivers a prepared speech of gratitude to his white benefactors” (Howe par. 2).
The force which the white used towards the narrator is explained by the overall madness and blindness of the social minds. The narrator tells us that he fought “automatically” because everyone did (Ellison n.pag.). The “battle royal” episode shows us that the violence provokes further violence.
The episode of the meeting of the main character with Mr. Norton represents one of the most important elements of the plot. Mr. Norton is the wealthy Boston citizen and the sponsor of the college.
The narrator describes him as “a Bostonian, smoker of cigars, teller of polite Negro stories, shrewd banker, skilled scientist, director, philanthropist, forty years a bearer of the white man’s burden, and for sixty a symbol of the Great Traditions” (Ellison n.pag.). Mr. Norton is “blind” as he cannot see the real side of the life of the Afro-Americans in the United States.
Although he spends a lot of money for charity, his good actions do not yet tell about his world outlook. Mr. Norton is the successful well-educated person but he lives in the world the reality of which is far from the reality of the Afro-Americans. That is why he becomes the marionette in this situation. In fact, it becomes obvious that the amounts spent by Mr. Norton only contribute to the further discrimination and exploitation of the blacks.
In his talk with the main character of the novel, he tries to explain him his vision. However, it can be hardly done if he lacks the real understanding of the problem. He mentions that the fortune is pleasant but the main character, the “invisible man”, wonders how the fortune can be pleasant if his parents, grandparents and relatives experienced the hard way of life, so, the fortune is painful (Ellison n. pag.).
It is not surprising that they misunderstand each other. Mr. Norton belongs to the absolutely different social layer. It is hard for him to realize all the life troubles which the main character and the other blacks suffered. In spite of the fact that Mr. Norton is sincere, he is not able to help because he does not see the actual reality and the main character remains “invisible” to him.
In order to summarize all above mentioned, it should be said that Invisible Man is the outstanding work by Ralph Ellison. The metaphor of “invisible” is used by him to reflect the life of the Afro-Americans in the American society of the XX century. In the Prologue, the main character explains what it likes to be the “invisible” as he is seen by people’s eyes but not by their minds.
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In the first chapter, “the battle royal” shows the attitude of the whites towards the blacks clearly representing the race stratification of the American society. In the following chapter, the character of Mr. Norton is introduced to the readers. Mr. Norton is another example of the person who cannot see the real life of the blacks, though he intends to make his own contribution to the overcoming of the social problems in the United States.
Ellison, Ralph 1947, The Invisible Man. PDF file. Web.
Howe, Irwing 1952, Review of: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Web.
Prescott, Oliver, “Books of the Time”. The New York Times. 16 April 1952. nytimes.com. Web.