Sunday, September 5, 2010

Required Work: Invisible Man

Right out of the gate, my professor decided to start the semester off with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It is the longest book of the semester, and also the only one that is a required work on the reading list. Obviously, it is truly a great thing to be able to benefit from an expert’s opinion when it comes to any books from the list. Ideas were presented that I would have never thought of. And since this is an intense book (with a capital "I"), it really helped to be able to process it with other students and therefore gain further insight into Ellison’s world.

The following is my attempt to put my notes together in a coherent format that will hopefully benefit everyone. I do wish we were spending a little more time on the book, but from the looks of the syllabus, the class will have to move on if we are going to cover everything.


Oh this is complicated.

I guess I’ll go ahead and start with the Bildungsroman: a German word that describes a novel that explores the moral and psychological growth of the main character, usually from adolescence to adulthood (For this novel, this genre is appropriate, but there is still some debate over whether it works for Huck Finn. On the one hand Huck does decide he would rather go to hell than to turn Jim in. But on the other hand, the novel does not follow him into adulthood, and he doesn’t change completely. My advice: pick one viewpoint and argue it well). The novel begins with the nameless main character graduating from high school and delivering an excellent speech…so excellent in fact, that he is offered the chance to deliver it again in front of some very important people. He does eventually get the chance to deliver that speech, but only after being forced to take place in a battle royal where young black men are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the entertainment of rich white men. I’ll spare you the terrifying details (I’ll let you discover those little gems on your own), but throughout the entire episode (which lasts a horrifyingly long 18 pages) the narrator keeps wondering when he will be able to give his speech. He is so focused on receiving approval that no matter how much he is put through, he just wonders when it will all end so that he can have the big moment he is promised.

So the narrator starts from a young man who is desperate to please, and ends up as the invisible man: he realizes that everyone seems to have their own agenda and plan for his life, none of which end up working for him. In fact, not only do they not work for him, but they all seem to end in disaster. He definitely changes both morally and psychologically before the novel’s end.

But of course, since this is a book by an African-American author written in the early 1950’s, the racial themes and social justice issues cannot be ignored. The novel can be described as a social commentary, or even a protest novel in the same vein as Richard Wright’s Black Boy (who Ellison actually worked for at tone point in his life). The only problem with the novel being associated the genre of protest novels is that Ellison was attempting to go beyond what protest novels were doing during his time. Ellison wanted to move beyond the anger and resentment of protest novels and couple it with artistry and creativity. Of course, he was criticized for this (by black and white people), but I think the novel is still plenty angry, and why can’t a protest novel also be creative? Anyway, the point is that this is a tricky genre when it comes to this book.

Another genre that I find very intriguing when it comes to Invisible Man is that of the epic. There are even various references to The Odyssey that I will bring up later in the theme section. The narrator goes from attending an all black college in the Deep South to becoming a great lecturer for the Communist party in New York City. When that also falls apart on him, he is literally forced underground.

The thing about an epic is that by the end of the story, the hero has accomplished feats so amazing that he has literally made a name for himself. He has become so great that poets will sing of his name for the rest of time. But at the end of Invisible Man, the narrator still doesn’t have a name. His name is often referenced, and he is even given names by other characters, but in the end he just embraces his invisibility. Definitely a genre worth looking into for this book.


I’ll go ahead and throw out the easy one: unreliable narrator. Pretty much anytime the narrator is not omniscient, they are unreliable. Add to the fact that this guy has been severely hurt and damaged over and over again, and the reader is dealing with someone that cannot be trusted to give a clear-headed objective account of his own past.

While the narrator is being expelled from college, the college president, Dr. Bledsoe, explains to him that "The white folk tell everyone what to think- except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about." Later on, towards the end of the novel, Brother Jack is reprimanding the narrator for going forward with an action without passing it through the committee first. Brother Jack has to explain the narrator that when it comes to helping the community, "[They] do not shape [their] policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. [Their] job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them." This is interesting on two fronts: 1. the first instance is a black man talking about white people while the second instance is a white man talking about black people. 2. In the grand scheme of the entire novel, the narrator is really telling the reader what to think. With the examples he has given us, it really is no surprise we have a hard time trusting him.

Now for another somewhat obvious theme, but one that is a little more fun. The novel is full of references to the eye/seeing/invisibility (it’s in the title and the first line of the book)/blindness. On the first page, the narrator explains how people don’t see him, and throughout the novel we realize that no one really did. Everyone seems to only see in him what they can get out of him for his own purpose. The general public seems to be blind to him as a person. He is also blind to the fact that everyone is just using him. He is so needy for both approval and attention that he blindly follows all authority until the circumstance explodes in his face (at one point, there appears to be an actual explosion). Then there are the allusions to the eye. In order to keep from getting away from myself, I’ll just list them and try to keep from explaining each one in detail: 1. Brother Jack’s fake glass eye pops out, 2. Homer Barbee, the preacher who gives an incredibly moving speech about the founder of the all black college the narrator attends turns out to be blind, 3. Homer the poet, who is attributed the authorship of both The Iliad and The Odyssey, is believed to be blind, 4. The narrator works for Liberty Paint for a very brief time, and their specialty is Optic White (which interestingly enough can only be made by adding ten drops of black to a white mixture),and 5. Many many more that I have probably missed.

All of these issues with eyes and blindness could be why the narrator has such a natural inclination and talent towards making powerful and moving speeches. He uses the power of his words to move people. Of course, Homer Barbee does that as well, and as much as he is attempting to move those students towards respect for the founder, at the end of the day he is still blind (in more ways than one). For Invisible Man, a blind man making a motivational speech seems more like someone trying to pull something over on some eager and gullible students. In other words, it is another instance of someone telling someone else what to think.
And now, fun with names!
The narrator: doesn’t have a name, but is given a few. Even more interesting as it appears that Ellison took great care in the names he gave to all of his other characters. Also, in The Odyssey, Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is "Nobody," (or "No one," depending on your translation).Homer Barbee: as already mentioned, Homer is the blind poet we credit with The Odyssey. Jim Trueblood: he embodies a lot of the stereotypes white people attributed to black people at that time – illiterate, incestuous, poor, etc. Oddly enough, he eventually gains more support from the local white people than he does from blacks. Brother Tod Clifton: The word "Tod" means death in German. In Old Welsh, "Clifton" means bridge between two mountains. When he dies near the end of the novel, it could mean the death of the purpose the Brotherhood wished to accomplish through him.And that is really the best I have. I would mention some others but I fear the rest of what I have sounds like I am reaching.


Really only a few quick (hopefully) points I want to make here.

This book was published two years before the Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, where the idea of separate but equal was pretty much found to be not true in the U.S.

As mentioned before, Ellison was friends with Richard Wright and even worked for him, although he did not entirely agree with all of Wright’s political views.

The college that the narrator attended appears to be modeled after the Tuskegee Institute, which was an all black college at the time, and also the college Ellison himself attended. Booker T. Washington, whose name actually comes up in the novel at one point, was at one time the president of Tuskegee. When the narrator reaches Harlem, he ends up as a sort of rival to the fanatical black nationalist Ras the Exhorter, who does not believe that black people should be working with white people. This rivals a similar conflict that happened in history between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Interestingly enough, it mirrors another rivalry that would happen later in history between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

Ralph Ellison’s middle name is actually Waldo. That’s right; he was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, someone else whose name comes up twice in the book. The first time he is mentioned by the white trustee that he is driving around the college. The narrator mentions that he has never read any of his work, but intends to. The second time it is the name of a different white trustee the narrator is attempting to get a job from upon arriving in New York. He doesn’t get the job, making the point that you can’t depend on your namesake. This hints at the final point the nameless narrator will learn at the end of the novel – you have to make your own way.

So that is Invisible Man. It makes such a difference when I have a professor explain pretty much every little thing to me.

Sadly, I don’t have that luxury with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. I did read it awhile ago for a class, but I have since forgotten a few things and thrown away my notes. Even so, I will do my best. I can take the time to do it because my class will be exploring poetry for the next two weeks. Also, it is my first request from a fellow student who will be taking the exam in the spring. Honestly, I was avoiding doing it, and this gives me a reason to get it over with.

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