An Importance to Appreciate Oneself in The Book Invisible Man

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

The Blindness of Invisibility

At some point in our lives every single one of us has been invisible, whether we were aware of it or not. In a society that is so obsessed with visually stimulating and strict labels, it is difficult to express ourselves beyond our outer appearances. Every day people present themselves with masks in order to hide their true selves from the rest of the world. Whether they do so subconsciously or out of an active fear of judgment by their peers, people have become carefully guarded in their own personal expression. The many personas people adopt effectively render them versatile and at times likeable but also rob them of a sense of identity. The nameless protagonist of Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, faces the same challenges of personal identity on his quest to not only discover who he is, but also his purpose and potential. Both the masks that he wears as he is forced into many different roles and the utter blindness of the world, including his own inability to see the truth, limit him in his process. By the end of the book, the invisible man has discovered and learned to appreciate himself, while also coming to terms with his own invisibility through clearer vision of the world and insightful wisdom gained from his ultimately successful hero’s journey of self-realization.

While the narrator believes he knows who he is and what his life will entail in the beginning of the book, the Battle Royal is one of the best instances of the narrator’s lack of vision in both a literal and figurative sense. The narrator, who aspires to be a Booker T. Washington-like figure by demonstrating black servitude, is invited to a meeting of the town’s leading white citizens on the pretense of giving his graduation speech about humility, only to be forced to participate in a battle royal with his schoolmates. Even as he is grouped with the other young men, the narrator admits, “I felt superior to them in my way” (18), proving the superiority complex he has that has blinded him from recognizing his own invisibility. During the fight, the young men are forced to wear white blindfolds, clearly symbolizing the blindness they face under the rule of white men. Even as anarchy unfolds in the ring as the white men watch for entertainment, the narrator continues to think only of his impending speech: “I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability?” (24). The narrator is so focused on pleasing the white men because he believes it will advance him in society. Once the fight is finally over, the men unveil a rug covered with coins, telling the young black men “you get all you grab” (26). Another man even refers to the narrator as Sambo, a derogatory stereotype that dehumanizes the protagonist despite his best attempt to impress the wealthy white men. The electrified rug is a symbol of the way that white men effectively blind the narrator throughout his journey, although much of the narrator’s blindness is self-afflicted as he comes to learn.

The narrator continues with what he believes to be his sense of vision when he is sent to college on the scholarship granted to him by the same men who forced him into the Battle Royal. The college was founded as a place for African Americans to get an education, but while the purpose of universities should be to allow students to explore all subjects and ideas, the college is revealed to be a narrow-minded place that serves to restrict the true potential of students under the guise of progression. The narrator recognizes this in his appraisal of the bronze statue of the college founder set on campus. While the founder appears to be lifting a veil from the eyes of a slave, the narrator remarks, “I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding” (36). Instead of truly progressing the race, the college seems to only encourage blindness and subservient behavior in African Americans. The invisible man also notes that the statue is even more menacing because of its “empty eyes” that “run with liquid chalk” (36), describing the white excrements of birds that soiled the statue. Once again Ellison utilizes the motif of African Americans being blinded by and made subservient to white people.

After demonstrating good behavior throughout his schooling, the invisible man is assigned to drive Mr. Norton, one of the wealthy white benefactors, on a tour around the expansive and admirable campus. The invisible man is attentive and careful to Norton’s needs and he dutifully follows the white line of the road, a symbol of the importance placed on following the ways of white men. Mr. Norton tells the invisible man that even though he is only a student his destiny is central to the fate of the human race. In response the invisible man thinks, “But you don’t even know my name” (45). Mr. Norton’s own ignorance displays his true blindness towards the narrator as the man behaves as if he knows him without truly knowing the first thing about the invisible man. At one point in their drive, Mr. Norton also claims, “The campus is part of my life and I know my life rather well” (38). This statement becomes truly ironic as they drive through a part of the campus that Mr. Norton has remained entirely unaware of: cabins and shacks remaining from slavery still inhabited by poor blacks. Norton is “surprised and confounded” (47) at the sight and in total disbelief, his idealistic image of the college meant to raise up African American kind now soiled by the lingers of slavery and poverty. He had been so blinded in his own fantasy that he had failed to see the true nature of the college, and afterwards he is quick to want to forget it all and return to his blissful ignorance and false sense of accomplishment. The narrator himself is also shaken by the experience, aware of the impact of disillusionment. While he had driven following the white line with such ease before, on their return the narrator notes, “Now even the rows of neat dormitories seemed to threaten me, the rolling lawns appearing as hostile as the gray highway with its white dividing line” (99).

Though the president of the college, Dr. Bledsoe, is the kind of powerful African American that the narrator aspires to be like, he is similar to many of the white men that the invisible man meets in that he is selfish and manipulative. He carefully plays the part of a humble servant to white benefactors while displaying a powerful and assertive control over the students: “He was our coal-black daddy of whom we were afraid” (116). The narrator watches him interacting and observes, “I watched him smiling at first one and then another of the guests, of whom all but one were white; and I saw him placing his hand upon their arms, touching their backs…” (114). Bledsoe wears a mask of humility and preaches about the importance of hard work and obedience, all false pretense that masks his own selfish craving for power and control. Although the narrator recognizes Dr. Bledsoe’s sculpted personas, he still believes humility and submission will lead him on a similar path of success in his own life.

The narrator embarks into the wilderness with faith that Bledsoe’s connections will guide his disillusioned quest, but on his departure he unintentionally encounters the vet he met at the Golden Day, who becomes his wise advisor by giving him crucial advice he fails to comprehend until his journey is over. As the narrator recognizes that he is venturing into the unknown, the vet encourages him to follow his own will in life, saying, “Be your own father, young man. And remember, the world is possibility if only you’ll discover it” (156). Although the vet warns him to stay away from the Mr. Nortons of the world, the narrator shakes off the advice and continues to pursue his idea of the American Dream. In New York, the narrator visits the office of a Mr. Emerson, where he meets the man’s repressed homosexual son who has faced a similar role of invisibility in society. Emerson’s son takes on the role of advisor as well when he warns the invisible man, “The only trouble with ambition is that it sometimes blinds one to realities…” (184). The narrator doesn’t know how to interpret this information as he has been ambitiously chasing his ideal of success his entire life and still doesn’t recognize the falsehood of it. While Emerson and the vet had warned him to “learn to look beneath the surface” (153), the narrator is still fooled in his pursuit.

Upon discovering Bledsoe has deceived him, the protagonist begins working at Liberty Paints, whose epitomical slogan is “Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints” (196). His assignment is to prepare the optic white paint intended for covering an American monument. The brilliant white color is achieved by mixing black drops of graduate into cans of paint, creating the “purest white” (202). Through this process it’s clear that the black dope is entirely essential to the white paint and yet it remains invisible, an allegory for the treatment of African Americans in a white-dominated society. When an accident at Liberty Paints leaves the narrator with a concussion, the invisible man is forced to confront his worst fears in the factory hospital. He imagines that the doctors put him in a glass box and practice lobotomy, castration, and electrical shock therapy on him. These imaginations reveal his fear of losing his manhood and willpower, as well as his spite for those who have manipulated him. Upon emerging from his rebirth in the hospital, the narrator reaches an epiphany: “I was no longer afraid. Not of important men, not of trustees and such; for knowing now that there was nothing which I could expect from them, there was no reason to be afraid” (249). The narrator celebrates this small victory by enjoying yams, a treat he had previously denied himself of because he had been trying to project an image of a successful and servile man who did not partake in the old Southern customs. He sadly realizes, “What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?” (266). He now understands that he has been shaping himself to be someone who was not truly him and was only what society wanted him to be, a breakthrough that provides him with clearer vision through his continued voyage in the wilderness.

When the narrator joins the ranks of the Brotherhood he thinks he has made a progressive breakthrough, believing the Brotherhood to be the greatest good and idealistically imagining that “it would change the course of history” (406). His first night in the Brotherhood is marked by his arrival in a building called the Chthonian, a reference to beings who inhabit the underworld. This is symbolic of his descent into the underworld as he is immersed in the manipulative schemes of the Brotherhood. Like many others he has encountered, the Brotherhood fails to see the narrator’s true self and instead views him as an object they can bend to their will. They let him believe he holds power and importance in the Brotherhood while secretly controlling his every move, even going so far as to give him a new name and new identity. The Brotherhood is cold and scientific and has no respect for the individual, which represents a major conflict in the narrator’s journey for discovery of his true identity. The control that the Brotherhood exhibits is paralleled by Brother Clifton selling Sambo dolls, a representation of a black obsequious figure that dances and entertains at its master’s will. Made to dance by invisible strings, the Sambo doll’s every action is manipulated by its holder much like Clifton and the narrator have been manipulated by the Brotherhood. This manipulation stems from Brother Jack, who is charismatic and seemingly pure of vision, a figure who the invisible man respects and willingly follows out of admiration. However, the invisible man comes out of his own blindness upon realizing that the true nature of Brother Jack is one of manipulation and selfish desire, as well as racist tendencies. Upon the narrator seeing Jack’s true self, Jack’s glass eyeball suddenly pops out of his face, “a buttermilk white eye” (474), revealing his literal and figurative blindness to see the narrator as an individual. Though he originally believed Jack cared for the plight of African Americans, the invisible man is now able to recognize the falsehood of the Brotherhood and realizes, “I was simply a material, a resource to be used” (508).

The protagonist’s new understanding of the Brotherhood does not yet free him from the temptation of multiple personas. Rinehart is a representation of the endless possibilities of wearing masks because he is able to pass himself off as a runner, gambler, briber, lover, and Reverend. The protagonist is enchanted with the idea of Rinehart as he reflects, “The more I thought of it the more I fell into a kind of morbid fascination with the possibility. Why hadn’t I discovered it sooner? How different my life might have been!” (509). He recognizes how beneficial the masks could be in freeing him from any obligatory duties he owed to himself or others, though it is a temptation that would move him away from self-realization. When the invisible man seduces Sybil out of revenge, he stops himself and thinks, “Such games were for Rinehart, not me” (523). The invisible man resists the temptation of playing the part of someone else and is able to see Sybil, the tempting femme fatale, as an individual instead of an object. This triumph is crucial in his process as has obviously gained clearer vision of his identity and his relation to the world around him.

After conquering this latest trial in his journey, the invisible man rushes to Harlem where a violent race riot is unfolding. Although Ras the Exhorter is a violent extremist who adds terror to the panic, the protagonist comes to the realization that the riot is not his doing but the Brotherhood’s, an attempt to destroy the community of Harlem so that they could turn their “death and sorrow and defeat into propaganda” (558). As he confesses this discovery, he falls down a manhole in his escape attempt, only to find himself in utter darkness where he literally becomes invisible amid the blackness. Down in the darkness he is forced to burn the contents of his briefcase to make light, and in doing so he effectively sheds all of the masks he has worn throughout his journey. By burning the false pretense of his many identities, the narrator is now able to discover his own true identity free of the manipulative influence of others. The protagonist’s plunge into the manhole represents his fall into the darkness of the unknown where he is at the lowest point of his existence.

Following his descent, the narrator is able to hibernate and heal as well as reflect on his journey in privacy. With a clear conscience of self he reflects, “I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. 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 another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself” (573). He is able to clearly see his own self worth and no longer feels the same anger or bitterness that had plagued him throughout his journey. The narrator is finally ready to face the world again with his newly-gained vision, stating, “I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole. I’m coming out, no less invisible without it but coming out nevertheless” (581). Not only does he now accept himself, but he also celebrates his identity and uniqueness he has come to recognize.

The protagonist of Invisible Man begins his Hero’s journey in a state of complete blindness, but through his trials he gains new wisdom and clearer vision in accomplishing self-realization. He begins his journey so narrowly focused on his set path in life and being who others want him to be rather than being himself, but through time he gains new clarity and is able to recognize the extent to which he has been limited by his and others’ blindness. In an ironic twist, the protagonist only truly learns to see himself clearly when he finally understands his own invisibility.

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