People feel invisible. Everybody at some point in their life feels like they need to find themselves and figure out their own identity. That is the story of Invisible Man. Invisible Man is a beautiful novel about self-identity and culture. The time that led to the publishing of this book allowed it to pave a path that showed America the struggle of an African American.
In modern American letters, the growth of African American literature has followed and held to a winding path. The literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s saw the flourishing of black writing, but the Great Depression then seriously crippled it. The popularity and success of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth resurrected African American literature in the 1940’s. The emergence of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin in the 1950’s helped push the development of African American literature to a new height. Invisible Man won the National Book Award for fiction in 1953 and was later voted “most distinguished single work” published between 1945 and 1965 in the United States.
This book begins with a prologue in which the narrator explains why he has gone underground. Essentially, he has retreated from a society in which he could find no place for himself as an individual. From his subterranean campout, somewhere in the depths of Harlem, with his new enlightenment both in a figurative and literal sense, he reflects on his past as a means of regrouping in the present and preparing for his future.
Ellison’s narrator is thoroughly lucid even as he describes episodes that get at the mystery and confusion of the roles people play in their everyday lives. He tells an extraordinarily vivid story about his authoritarian Southern background; his confusing experiences as a naive student at a black college, where he meets a visiting white philanthropist and unwittingly takes him to the wrong places causing the narrator to be forced to leave school by the president of the college; He journy’s to New York City, where he finds work at a paint factory and is gravely injured by his own manager; and his joining a group called the Brotherhood, which has banded together to protest the eviction of an elderly couple, where he rises in the ranks, but the group betrays him, and he’s forced to flee when a riot breaks out.
Ellison’s originality lies in his skillful depiction and enthusiastic celebration of African American culture. Ellison believed that black music, vernacular, and folklore were very highly developed cultural forms that helped shape the mainstream culture in America. Prior to this, African American writers who either looked down upon or ignored their own cultural heritage in their writings were often trapped in using stereotypes to portray African American experience; a conscious study and celebration of African American culture could release them from the bondage of such stereotypes.
In Invisible Man, Ellison took pains to exploit African American culture and beauty to the fullest. Interestingly, the author maintained the lack of personal identity that followed closely behind that culture due to the prejudice that went hand in hand with it, “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. (Prologue.2).” In the novel, Rinehart is portrayed to have several identities: He is a lover, a numbers runner, a preacher, and a con man. As the story develops, the invisible man is mistaken for Rinehart and he realizes that ultimately, he too will have to play many roles and that he has, in fact, already played many roles. The invisible man has gone from black college student to mental patient to revolutionary and counter-revolutionary. Meeting Rinehart helps the invisible man understand why his grandfather had two identities: a public one that isn’t his true self and a private one that is, “And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable. It was as though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself. And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct – just as my grandfather had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. (1.3).” On the other hand, the invisible man realizes that the relationship between having an identity and not having an identity is dialectical: A person’s invisibility also gives that person an opportunity to create and adopt whichever identity he or she would like to have.
Invisible Man reverberates with the musical, rhythmic, and lyrical cadence of black English. Ellison borrowed phrases freely from different sources and used them effectively to accentuate his thematic concerns. Invisible Man abounds with phrases and sentences such as “I’ll verse you but I won’t curse you (9.136),” and “I yam what I am (13.205).” In addition, Ellison borrowed from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915), “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face.(16.274).” The second part was added by Ellison with a bearing on the theme of the book.
As the hero passes from the South to the North, from the relatively stable to the swiftly changing, “his sense of certainty is lost and the style becomes expressionistic.” Later on, “during his fall from grace in the Brotherhood it becomes somewhat surrealistic.” Surrealism permits itself to develop nonlogically in order to reveal the operation of the subconscious mind. Ellison’s use of incongruous images in Invisible Man works well with his thematic accentuation of the protagonist’s phantasmal state of mind and the chaotic state of society.
Even though Invisible Man is about African American experience, the novel illuminates the common plight of people who are in earnest search of their own true identity, “All my life I had been looking for something and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man! (1.1).” Ellison’s thematic treatment of the conflict between dream and reality, between individual and society, and between innocence and experience appeals all readers. This thematic concern is highlighted by the fact that the book opens with the narrator’s claiming that his invisibility is not “exactly a matter of a biochemical accident to” his “epidermis” and it ends with the narrator’s making a foreboding declaration to the reader: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
Invisible Man was published to instant acclaim and though its complexity did not necessarily make it easy to read it truly is a book deserving of the highest praise. The story maintained a very real and believable point of view while keeping hold of its major themes. Parts like the incest of Mr. Norton spoke out to the reader that this novel was a book about men and not just a tale for boys.
It also managed to share its story with a sense of satirical comedy and that of a low comedy in a broader sense. The book seems to say that in a sense that if men recognize first that existence is purposeless, they may then be able to perceive the possibility of shaping their existence in some kind of viable form, in much the same manner as the blues artist gives form to his senseless pain and suffering.
The book most importantly shares the lifestyle of the African Americans during this period without portraying it as a grievance and burden that society must repair. Instead, it is as a shifting and blurring line between the identity of one man and his culture around him that must be recognized. This type of literature could only have been written by a black American, since nobody else could know with such intimacy the life of the black American, his self-identity, and his culture, “For one thing, they seldom know where their personalities end and yours begins; they usually think in terms of “we” while I have always tended to think in terms of “me” – and that has caused some friction, even with my own family. Brother Jack and the others talked in terms of “we,” but it was a different, bigger “we.” (14.187).”