Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, is a story about a black man’s experiences with racism in America, from the novel’s beginning in the South and its end in Harlem. Through the narrator’s experiences, Ellison is able to tell a complex narrative that ends with the narrator realizing that American society views him as invisible, a theme prevalent throughout the book. Ellison uses the narrator’s struggles throughout the novel to show how American society perpetuates racist political and social ideologies.
Ralph Ellison saw America as “a fluid multicultural democracy”(Banner-Haley 165) filled with people from all around the world. However, despite this, he noticed that even after the Civil War, society continued to perpetuate the ideology that whites were superior to minorities in every way. Because of their beliefs they continually overlooked the monumental impacts minorities have had in American history. He also saw that literary works of his time did not use minority characters as “literary symbols but as petrified objects that embody contemporary ideological notions of race”(Purcell 35). This dehumanization of black characters and the overall treatment of African Americans during his life motivated him to write a novel displaying how society overlooks black identity.
One of the most prevalent themes of the novel is the protagonist’s search for identity(Tracy 36) Throughout the novel, Ellison uses several methods of description, or more accurately lack of describing the narrator to illustrate how he has been losing his identity throughout the events of the novel. The most notable lack of information about the narrator that readers will notice is his name. The narrator never explicitly states his name, and even in the only instance that he actually does it is masked from the reader by the “roar of the furnaces” of the Liberty Paints plant(Ellison 208). This establishes his name as something trivial to the reader as well as the people he encounters throughout the plot of the novel. By refusing to reveal something so simple yet so monumental to a person’s identity, Ellison is able to show readers how American society still perpetuates the notion that African Americans are not fully human by overlooking such basic aspects of black identity.
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However, the treatment of the narrator’s name does not simply end with keeping it hidden from the readers and the characters inside of the novel. As the novel progresses, society continues to further damage his identity by altering his name. After an explosion at the Liberty Paints plant sends the narrator sends him to the plant’s hospital, the narrator is forced to undergo electroshock therapy against his own will. After he undergoes the treatment, a man begins to ask him questions about his identity, the first one being his name. As the narrator struggles in his new state, he realizes that he no longer knows his own name(Ellison 239). Not only has the treatment made him forget his name, it has erased many other aspects of his identity, such as his home and even the name of his mother. After the man has asked the narrator these questions, the doctors declare that the narrator has been cured(Ellison 245).
The electroshock therapy used by the factory hospital is another metaphor for society’s erasement of black identity in America. The doctors and nurses of the hospital utilize the barbaric technique in order to deduce the narrator down to a man without a history. Here, the narrator’s name as well as his entire identity is not only reduced to something trivial to the world, but is diminished to something completely unnecessary for the narrator’s existence. The treatment represents how society tries to maintain racism in America by not only overlooking black identity, but actively attempting to erase all aspects of black culture. By the removal of their identity, they continue to make black people appear less as than people and more as the objects they once were. At the end of his treatment, the only thing that the narrator has been “cured” of is his identity and his validity of being human.
Once the narrator has been “cured”, he is released from the factory hospital and once again wanders the streets of Harlem without a job. After he witnesses an eviction and fails to calm a crowd of angry citizens, he escapes the police and then encounters a man named Brother Jack who saw the speech he gave to the crowd. Brother Jack explains to the narrator that he enjoyed his speech and offers him a job working for his political organization, the Brotherhood. The narrator is offered a large sum of money for being a speaker for the Brotherhood, but for his job he must assume a completely new identity. “‘That is your new name,’ Brother Jack said. ‘Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment’”(Ellison 309). The narrator obliges and assumes his new identity for the Brotherhood.
Once again, the narrator’s identity is being modified by society for their own benefit. In the case of the Brotherhood, the narrator’s identity is being changed so that the only important aspect of it is his connection to the Brotherhood. By reinventing his identity, the Brotherhood is using him as their mouthpiece for their own political gain. Like many other experiences the narrator endures throughout the novel, he is being reduced to an object. What is especially ironic about the Brotherhood’s treatment of the narrator is that the Brotherhood is a “radical group that is a thinly disguised representation of the 1930s Communist Party”(Banner-Haley 162), a political party that supports equality for all and was especially attractive to minorities for this reason. The Brotherhood’s motives for creating equality yet their reinventing of the narrator’s identity for their own gain show that even they are as “chaotic, manipulative, and power hungry as all the other groups of people the narrator has met in the North and in the South”(Tracy 37).
As one of the Brotherhood’s speakers, the narrator travels around Harlem delivering speeches to crowds and creating more supporters of the Brotherhood. One day he witnesses one of his friends from the Brotherhood, Tod Clifton, selling racist Sambo dolls that are puppets with the stereotypical image of a black man. The narrator watches in disbelief as Clifton continues to make the Sambo dolls dance to his will. As he watches Clifton, the narrator sees a man “look down, then up at him with amazement and explode with laughter, pointing from him to the doll, rocking”(Ellison 433). The laughing man has realized that the narrator is a puppet of the Brotherhood before even he has. After the man laughs at the narrator some policeman arrive and attempt to stop Clifton from selling the dolls. However, Clifton doesn’t comply with them and they shoot him in the streets.
Clifton’s participation in the mistreatment of African Americans shows another theme prevalent throughout the novel of minorities perpetuating hatred against minorities. Many of the antagonists in the novel, such as Dr. Bledsoe, Brother Jack, and Tod Clifton, are minorities and yet they still find ways to exploit racism to their advantage without helping minorities. Dr. Bledsoe uses racism to keep his position in power at the school at the exploitation of African Americans less powerful to him, and even claims that “he’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where he is”(Ellison 143). Brother Jack is an Irish man, who were similarly persecuted in America, and yet he still uses the narrator as an object in order to get the black vote for his political party. And Clifton is a black man and yet he actively perpetuates racial stereotypes. With these antagonists, Ellison reveals to readers that racism is not only maintained in society by racist majorities but also by minorities turning against each other for their own selfish gains.
After Clifton’s death, the Brotherhood hosts a funeral for him which gathers the attention of all of Harlem. At the funeral, the narrator is hired to give a speech that will boost the status of the Brotherhood to Harlem and gain them a multitude of supporters. Like the Sambo dolls, “Clifton, the narrator, and all of Harlem are being made to dance to the tune of the Brotherhood”(Warren 42). Like the narrator, the Brotherhood is utilizing Clifton as a way for them to grow in poll numbers. The Brotherhood wants to reduce Clifton to a tool of their success. However, the narrator begins to rebel against the Brotherhood and decides to mourn the death of Clifton instead of fulfilling the desires of his political party and rallying more supporters of their cause.
After the funeral procession, the narrator returns to the Brotherhood where they inform him of their anger that he did not weaponize Clifton’s death for their cause. During their meeting, Brother Jack reveals that he has a glass eye in order to disorientate the narrator while he explains to him why he did not properly utilize the funeral in order to “organize the anger” of the crowd(Ellison 465). He tries to explain to the narrator that he knows how the narrator is treated because of his glass eye. Here the hypocrisy of the Brotherhood is shown once again as Brother Jack attempts to convince the narrator of the similarity between his glass eye and the narrator’s skin color. Brother Jack is trying to compare which can be easily replaced with a “perfect imitation”(Ellison 476) and something that the narrator can not change about himself. Once again, society continues to overlook the struggles of African Americans in America. By making the comparison between their physical differences, Brother Jack reveals his lack of sympathy and understanding of the narrator’s hardships.
After Clifton’s funeral, Ras the Exhorter, an enemy of the Brotherhood, tries to rally the people of Harlem together against the Brotherhood. After surviving an attack from some of Ras’s men, the narrator realizes that he needs to hide himself from them and decides to disguise himself. After buying a pair of sunglasses, he is immediately mistaken by a woman for a man named Rinehart. The narrator continues to build his disguise by wearing clothes similar to the descriptions of Rinehart the woman gives him. After he is finished with his disguise, he immediately fools everyone who sees him into believing that he is Rinehart and continues to learn about the life of the real Rinehart. He learns that Rinehart is a gangster, a police briber, a reverend, and a pimp.
Ellison uses the ease at which the narrator is able to hide his identity from the world to show easily black identity is overlooked by society. Because of the color of his skin and his accidental disguise, the narrator becomes a man whose identity is decided by anyone who views him. The narrator’s identity is controlled by people he has never met before who believe that just because he slightly resembles a racial stereotype then he automatically is. Rinehart is the embodiment of all of the racial stereotypes of minorities maintained through literature and ideologies promoted by society. The world has replaced the narrator’s identity with whatever stereotype they desire to view him as. Once again, the narrator has been revealed to be an object of society’s racist ideologies. The narrator is able to possess all of the personas of Rinehart without having his own identity.
The narrator of Invisible Man is a man whose identity he has no control over. Society constantly tries to mangle his identity into whatever shape or form they require from him. The world does not see him for who he truly is but sees him as whatever stereotype they desire to see him as. They do not see him as a real person but as an object of their racist ideologies. They view his name as something easily bendable to their will instead of something pivotal to a person’s entire identity. By simply holding the ideology that minorities are less human than themselves, society is able to completely smother the culture and presence of minorities as easy as Optic White paint is able to make a chunk of black coal appear white(Ellison 217).
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