The main task in everybody’s life is to find his own identity. It is not that easy as it may first seem. Once this task is fulfilled, strange as it may sound, man is no more ‘invisible’. What is ‘invisibility’ in this concept? It is not the physical absence of the body, nor the only metaphysical presence of the spirit. It is not a different level of the substance or the state of material non-existence. Though, it seems to me, that people, who label themselves invisible and have strong reasons for that, would rather wish one of the stated above kinds of invisibility.
The narrator of the novel “Invisible Man” thinks “You wonder if 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 part of all the sounds 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”.
It is a disaster to be cut dead by the world. It feels like the ship of your personality will never reach the promised land of individuality as it is stranded on the rocks of inhuman treatment. The problem doubles if the society hasn’t overcome the prejudice, be it religious or racial one or of any other kind. The problem is really great. That is why Ralph Ellison raised a problem of social difference and racism in this novel. It was a great thing that he has done as the book that was published more that fifty years ago and the impact it has on the society is still magnificent.
Astonishing the readers with grandeur and the depth of the thoughts, giving a great food for thought for both the discriminators and the discriminated and arising various disputes on the subject it was concerned with, Ralph Ellison’s novel “Invisible Man” served an incredible milestone on the way to a better and more human treatment of the black people. It built new bridges, opened the doors and crashed the old and outdated stereotypes of class division according to people’s skin. No more black people could be treated the same way they were before the book was published. It has done a great thing, it was like the light at the end of the tunnel that gave a hope of at last being seen, being heard and counted as people. It changed the prospective.
Being the representative of the black people, Ralph Ellison perhaps had to overcome a lot of difficulties in writing the novel. I guess, being fed up with the overall prejudice that reigned the society, it was hard for him to perceive the great power of the talent he possessed and then to realize it into the actual work. It wasn’t, as we know, the simple literary work, nor just a masterpiece of majestic style of writing and numerous characters. It was not a simple cry for help, an SOS signal. It was the call that aimed to waken the nation, to unfold its eyes and make it look at the everyday problem that has already turned into the routine for many… It took the author seven years to write that book but this rather long span of life was really worth it.
Having produced the great book which combined both love and hatred of the world, both dreamlike and real situation, Ralph Waldo Ellison gained a reputation of an outstanding writer, who made people not only read the book he wrote but also think about what is written there, thus we may truly state that he made an enormous moral achievement. And as a proof, the book won the National Book Award.
This award really meant a lot for the author as it was his first novel. To my mind, this book of Ralph Ellison will never be lost among other world classics. Having done a great work in overcoming racism, in future years, when no such thing exists, it may become an immense working and research material for both historians and psychologists, who would like to get to know more about such a fact as racism.
The novel is hard to read. It is difficult to watch the cruel scenes of the Battle Royal with its main part being the kind of a game, and a very cruel one, where the black teenagers have to fight each other until only one of them remains standing. They are blindfolded at that moment. I guess there is a deep symbolic meaning in that. One can explain that fact in many ways but I suppose that white men think that the black ones do not deserve to see the bright light of the white world. The white people incite the black ones to violence by rude racist words while they are pushing them into the circle with no chance of getting out of it.
The author managed to touch here the rotten nerve not only of the American society, which was temporary to him. He went far beyond the problem of the very racism. He explored the overall problem of hatred that ruled the modern societies, the cruelty, blood lust, despising people not only of the different skin colour but also of the different and lower social class and the keen feeling of own perfection. He makes us think why white people were so fond of keeping the black ones in the constant state of fear, confusion and terrible and scaring darkness. There is a great food for thought here.
Why namely it happened? Normally, people who are happy with what they are and what they have strive for bigger achievements, not for putting somebody down. Was is not the strong and haunting feeling of self imperfection and nonentity that made them do what they did to black people? Love cannot lead to aggression, nor can any aggression lead to love. So if there was any problem, it lay hidden only in them, not those, whom they teased. We must remember that in order to make things change one should first change himself. And that was one more worthy lesson that the author of the novel “Invisible Man” wanted to teach us.
I want to pay more attention to the symbolic meaning of some things in the novel. First of all, I want to stress the symbolic meaning of light in “Invisible Man”. At the beginning of it we discover that the nameless narrator manages to steel the electricity from the power company by filling his room with an immense number of light bulbs. I think that it is more than a mere revenge on the society that ignores him.
I guess that he made it out of despair. The person, who thinks of himself as of an invisible creature, isn’t really sure that he deserves sunlight. And the hero reassures himself that he is at least able to manage to make use of such a convenience of the civilization as light. Besides, he claims that light is truth and truth is light. Along with the light the hero enjoys music that seems to make his body vibrate. Another important thing in the novel “Invisible Man”, I think, is the calfskin briefcase that was presented to the narrator because of his success. That briefcase was of incredible value for him as he represented and symbolized his education.
The person who gave the briefcase to the narrator was the superintendent and he said the following words to him. “Take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office. Prize it. Keep developing as you are and some day it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people.” Then the hero finds the scholarship in the briefcase that could admit him into the Kingdom of further learning. “My eyes filled with tears and I ran awkwardly on the floor”. Such were the emotions of the narrator at that very moment. That calfskin briefcase was the only material thing that he carried in his life along with courage, love, strength and other virtues that he possessed.
We should not forget that the nameless man is a well-educated person, that all this ‘invisibility’ was not simply a fruit of an ignorant man’s mind, but of a person who is intelligent enough to question the problem of being and existence from both psychological and philosophical point of view and to seek the necessity of it. That well-developed character represents an author’s mouthpiece, I guess, as there are many lines that link together the past of Ralph Ellison and the narrator. For example, after receiving a college scholarship, the hero goes to a southern African American college and Ellison himself attended Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute founded by Booker T. Washington.
Rising the problem of the crying social injustice, the author went far outside its borders. If we look at the novel at different angles, we may see many different facts. One of them, for example, is a strong feature of courage that the narrator possesses. It takes much strength and courage, I think, to admit that, despite your intelligence and your existence itself, you are considered nonexistent by many people.
At first the narrator feels like tormenting himself when he tries to write down all that he wants. “So why do I write, torturing myself to put it down? Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled ‘file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget.” But as the character develops and matures, he begins to treasure his invisibility. He claims that “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen.” But who knows if that was self soothing or realizing the value of being invisible…
One of the most important and symbolic things in the novel was the narrator’s grandfather’s advice. “Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight… Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” These words that were pronounced by his grandfather had a great impact on the narrator. Perhaps he didn’t understand all the deep meaning of them until he was betrayed by his Brotherhood. Then suddenly the advice became totally clear to him. It was like the light at the end of the tunnel that made the road seen and not that scary. I guess, there words helped author to shape his destiny and to make it into one that he wanted it to be, not the one that world wanted.
In my point of view, the only one thing that kept the author on the float all the time was his values. If it were not for them, he would have sunk into the dusk of the overall hatred that ruled the society and would never be able to come back from that horrible net. I think that for us, as for people who are lucky to grow up in far more righteous times, this novel was a great opportunity to see that our life is better from the one that the narrator has experienced.
Of course, every one of us is sometimes cut dead by any other or even by the entire world, but still, we can hardly call ourselves totally invisible. Still being present in the society, the social injustice is not that sharp as it used to be during the narrator’s times. For us, I think, was not that easy to understand and value the advice of the hero’s grandfather as it might have seemed too coarse. But still, as it was proved, it has its own merit and helped the narrator a lot in shaping his individuality.
We should also remember that the hero, along with his development, began to value his invisibility. And if we think of it from our own point of view, we may also find it sometimes helpful. Of course, it is insulting when people don’t give you the recognition that you deserve, but let’s look at it from the other angle.
If you constantly remain in the shadow, if you fail to strike someone’s eye, it means that people do not expect anything of you and instead of living up to people’s expectations, you may live according your own values. This so-called ‘invisibility’ presents you with enormous free time and space for self development. And it is up to you what to fill it with. One may either use it the way the narrator did- to fight the world that ignored him and then become visible, or you may remain in the shadow if the sun rays which reach you there are enough for you to get warm and to feel alive.
Ralph Waldo Ellison have written an incredibly deep and meaningful novel. Though being not an easy one to read, embracing the problems of men’s cruelty, brutality, hatred, and injustice, it holds the reader in the firm grip until the last word. Arising the deep feeling of hearty compassion, it gives everyone a chance to inspect his own values and their credibility and importance one more time. While discovering what it takes to become happy in this life, the reader also discovers that one cannot reach it by humiliating others.
Crashing the old and worn-out stereotypes of ‘white’ and ‘black’ identities in the novel “Invisible Man”, Ralph Ellison teaches us a great lesson. In order to be happy, to be recognized and valued by others, one has got to learn to love. Love is the only thing that our life has to be filled with.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.