Ralph Ellison

The Invisible Man (1952)

 

Ralph Ellison (1914-1994)

1914   Born in Oklahoma City, for a construction worker father and a domestic servant mother.

1933   Joined Tuskegee Institute, Alabama (black college) to study music.

1936   Let Institute to Harlem, New York to work at Federal Writers’ Project where he befriended African-American black writers.

Joined the Merchant Marines in WWII.

Won Rosenwald Fellowship which enabled him to write The Invisible Man. Chapter 1 published 1948, novel published 1952.

1953   Won the National Book Award for The Invisible Man.

 

The Invisible Man (1952)

“And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.”

Narrator tells us he’s invisible as others refuse to see him. As a result of his invisibility he has been living underground and stealing electricity while writing his life story.

Gifted speaker, invited to give speech to important white men who humiliate him in the Battle Royal (black men in boxing rink, blindfolded, fight, then forced to scramble over electrified rug as they snatch some fake gold coins) then award him briefcase with scholarship to prestigious black college.

In college, after taking white trustee Mr. Norton to black bar and having him witness blacks fighting, Dr. Bledsoe expels narrator for not showing Norton an idealistic version of the black community. Given 7 letters of recommendation and sent to Harlem, New York, to look for a job, narrator soon finds out that letters portray him as dishonorable and unreliable.

Recruited by Brother Jack into the Brotherhood, a political organization to help the socially oppressed. He meets Ras the Exhorter who opposes interrational Brotherhood and believes black Americans should fight for their rights over and against all whites.

Soon the Brotherhood stops emphasizing Harlem and the black movement but rather focuses on matters more important than the individual. Riots break into Harlem and narrator is chased by people sent by Ras. Escaping Ras and the police, narrator falls down a manhole and the police cover the manhole over him.

The story ends at the beginning as narrator says he’s been underground ever since but is now ready to honor his own individuality without sacrificing his part in the community.

 

Themes:

His invisibility in the beginning is a note to how others fail to see him, but as the novel draws to its end, narrator sees that this inability of other to see him does not negate him as his real self is there even if others fail to see it.

Racism becomes a hindrance to the narrator’s attempts to maintain his individuality. Used by the white men for their interests, then later by the blacks for their own purposes, the narrator finds it impossible to act according to his own personality.

Stagnated ideology further results in an obliteration of personality. Struggling between the interrational ideologies of Booker T. Washington and the separatist ideologies of the novel’s Ras, the narrator understands eventually that personality cannot be confined to ideology.