Battle Royale: When Two Societies Collide
Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” a narrative extracted from the novel Invisible Man, portrays the story of a young African American man who has been chosen to receive a scholarship and give a speech at a gathering of the town’s white male citizens. The gathering turns out to be a cruel battle between the blacks who are invited, all for the white men’s entertainment. The story itself, however, is an allegory that represents white society versus black society, and how they both support racism.
Throughout, the power that white men held over black men is extremely prominent. In the beginning, the powerful white males stand outside of the boxing ring, representing the powerful white society. The black men inside of the ring represent black society. The men who represent white society hold power over those who represent black society. The men in the ring are taunted and teased. At one point, the white males call out for a nude white woman to approach the blacks. They are forced to watch her, and to want her, but they can never have her. The woman is described to have a “small American flag tattooed upon her belly”, which supports the idea that she represents the American dream (1213). The American dream could not be achieved by blacks, and the whites were guiding that idea. Also, the white woman represents the notion that everyone should be attracted to the white race, even those of color. Black men were supposed to idealize white women, instead of black women.
Another way the white men secured power over the black men is through money. The whole reason for the fighting is a promise that the winner will be rewarded with money. At the end of the fighting, when the winner is announced, the black men are called to an area of the floor where coins had been scattered. The black men jump on the chance of getting money, but the floor is electrocuted. As the black men jump around trying to collect money, the white men are laughing, entertained by the pain they are putting the blacks through. The narrator describes the ordeal; “’Get the money,’ the M.C. called. ‘That’s good hard American cash!’ And we snatched and grabbed, snatched and grabbed” (1218). The white men make themselves feel superior by making the black men fight for money. White society, as symbolized in the white men, treat people of color as if they are inferior, supporting racism against blacks.
Along with the white men taking power over the black men, in the story, the blacks try to take power over each other. The narrator, who is deemed the invisible man, sees himself as better than all of the other blacks around him. He feels superior to them, and he even says it so; “But the other fellows didn’t care too much for me either, and there were nine of them. I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn’t like the manner in which we were all crowded together into the servant’s elevator” (1212). Because the narrator is well-educated, he thinks he is better than the other blacks. He thinks he is good enough to be like the white men. He, in his own way, is racist. Black society, represented through the other black men, seems to resent intellectual blacks. And intellectual blacks, represented through the narrator, seems to resent the rest of black society. During the fighting, the black men split off into groups to take down each other, but they always end up fighting on their own, because in the end there could only be one winner. The narrator describes the grouping; “It seemed as though all nine of the boys had turned upon me at once” (1215). The resentment each different type of black has for the other supports racism within the black community. The narrator only cares for himself, not for the other people in the black community. He is interested in furthering himself to the point where he will not be looked at in the same light of those he is a part of. The narrator is searching for approval from the white people, ultimately pinning him against every black person around him. The narrator says that “only these men,” referring to the whites, “could judge truly my ability” (1216). The narrator believes that only the white men can see his potential and that only the white men are the ones he should be trying to impress. This factor alone separates blacks from each other and tears the community apart. The story portrays not only a white versus black idea, but also an idea of black versus black.
In “Battle Royal,” the story of blacks being forced to fight one another in front of white men represents a larger idea of the members of black society being ruled by white society and being pinned against each other. The white society supports racism by acting superior to those who are not white. They treat blacks like animals who are there to entertain. Within the black society, racism lives too. The blacks look down on one another, and the narrator seeks approval of only the whites. He sees the black community, the community he is a part of, as something he should be ashamed of, something he should be trying to climb out of. This story shows how racism is present in both white society and black society, and how black people support racism by giving in to it and by giving into the white people that want to control them.
Ralph Ellison’s Portrayal of Brutality as Illustrated in His Book, Invisible Man
Violence that exists for the sole purpose of violence is simply just wasteful. Violence is used as an attempt to gain worldly power, material objects, or desired relationships. In literature, violence is often used in the same way, but more often than not, violence in literature is present to serve as a symbol for something larger and deeper within the writing. For example, in Ralph Ellisons’s Invisible Man, violence is a prevalent aspect of the piece, and the violence present is meant to represent negative African American stereotypes that white people applied to black people. Ellison’s novel throws readers into a world that encompasses senseless violence right from the start, but when a second glance is taken, it is clear that the violence is not, in fact, senseless, but instead it contributes to the theme of identity and breaking free of societal identities given to individuals.
In Invisible Man, Ellison writes of the Battle Royale, a scene in which a large group of white men essentially torture a group of black men for entertainment, a scene of seemingly senseless violence. While this event would truly be an inhumane, senselessly violent occurrence if it were to happen in reality, in the novel, it serves as not only foreshadowing, but also as a catalyst for all of the events to follow. As the numerous African American boys are forced to enter a boxing ring blindfolded, the narrator shares that “as we tried to leave we were stopped and ordered to get into the ring. There was nothing to do but what we were told” and this quote perfectly reveals that these boys, lost and blind, both metaphorically and literally, can not do or be who they themselves desire, but are forced to follow instructions by the white men around them (Ellison, 21). This foreshadows the rest of the novel, which is the story of the narrator progressing in life, while trying to adapt to his surroundings and assume whatever identity the people around him establish for him. We see this occur through the narrator’s reactions to the interaction between Jim Trueblood and Mr. Norton. As Trueblood tells Mr. Norton, a rich white founder of the college, the story of his incestuous acts and wrongdoings, the narrator become highly embarrassed, and worried about the reputation of the black man as a whole. We see this through his thoughts, “How can he tell this to white men, I thought, when he knows they’ll say that all Negroes do such things? I looked at the floor, a red mist of anguish before my eyes” (Ellison, 58). This reaction reveals that the invisible man is worried about the reputation of black men; he is aware of the fact that despite how specific individuals act, a white society will generalize African Americans and apply stereotypes and characteristics, good and bad, to not individuals, but to all men that are of the same color despite the fact that only a few men actually happen to be senselessly violent. At this point in the novel, it is evident that the narrator is stuck in a rut of allowing the people around him to give him an identity. This become especially prevalent when the invisible man moves to Harlem and is told, “Man, this Harlem ain’t nothing but a bear’s den. But I tell you one thing… it’s the best place in the world for you and me, and if times don’t get better soon I’m going to grab that bear and turn him every way but loose” (Ellison, 174). Naturally, the first event that the invisible man witnesses in Harlem is a large riot of black men led by Ras the Exhorter behaving violently and screaming at police- this is the stereotype of an African American man that the narrator must overcome as he enters the bear den himself. The violence that exists in Harlem, while is similar to reality, in the novel exists to provide an example of the types of reputations that the invisible man must overcome. When the first thing that he witnesses in Harlem is violence demonstrated by other black men, it is clear that breaking out of the binding African American stereotypes is going to be a challenge, a risky and hard task similar to fighting a bear, for the narrator.
The violence present in Invisible Man can also be seen as the destruction of the community amongst African Americans, and can be used to illustrate the differences in people despite being of the same race. For example, when the narrator gets his first job at Liberty Paints, and he serves the purpose of “Keeping America Pure” with their whitest of white paints. While this is literally a company that makes white paints, it also serves symbolically as the attempt to cleanse American by getting rid of negative black characteristics. As the narrator and Brockway, two black men, work together essentially serving white people, we can see the impacts of the constant application of negative stereotypes lead to the actual materialization of them. When Lucius Brockway becomes so angry with the narrator that he begins to lash out violently, simply due to a suspicion that the narrator was part of a union, it is clear that there is something deeper that causes Brockway to behave in such a way. As he says “I knowed you belonged to that bunch of troublemaking foreigners! I knowed it! Git out!”, this reaction and the violence that follows suit illustrates the insecurities of African American men at the time; they lived in constant fear of being controlled by unions, by groups of white men, by the stereotypes society shoves onto them (Ellison, 124). In the same way, the narrator struggles with his insecurities and the pressure to succumb to identity that is placed on him; and while he fails for most of the novel, eventually the invisible man realizes that invisibility is his identity not because people made him that way, but because he owns it.
The violence present in Invisible Man can also be viewed as a result of and reaction to oppression; the “violence can be a way achieving sense of dignity and power in the face of ages of humiliating oppression” (Bryant, 224). Stephen B. Bennett and William W. Nichols gives this behavior a name called “creative violence”, and its presence in this novel adds to the meaning of the work by illuminating a negative consequence of the racism, oppression, and control of African American people by white people. This type of violence is literally introduced in the first few pages of the novel where the narrator beats a man to near death because of an insulting name. It can be assumed that this violent reaction was not simply a result of the one name calling incident, but instead was an explosion of violent reaction that had built up from years of oppression. Another example of creative violence can be seen through the character of Tod Clifton. Clifton is a character that is supposed to embody good characteristics; he is a charismatic leader within the Brotherhood and is an active member of the political world- he seems to have everything going for him. However, when he later begins selling sambo dolls, a black mocking item in and of itself, the full effects of the weight of the stereotypes placed on him, the oppression of his people, and the racism against any non-white person is illuminated. When Clifton violently attacks the police officer who then ends Clifton’s life, it can be assumed again that this one incidence is not the cause of the violence, but instead is a result of the years of hatred that built up and lead to an eruption of violence.
Invisible Man as a whole is filled with violence, and although violence is inherently negative, its presence in this novel is crucial for the revelation of several issues. First and foremost, Ellison was attempting to reveal that violent behavior is a stereotype thrust upon young African American men, an issue that is still relevant in today’s society, and that instead of trying to force black people to try to break free of this stereotype, the stereotype should cease to exist. These stereotypes put an unfair burden on black people; a negative impact can be seen through the destruction of community and relationships between people of the same race for mere interaction with oppressors: look to the confrontation between the narrator and Brockway. Lastly, the attempt of escape from the bondage that is stereotypes will only result in more violence, another point that Ellison is attempting to reveal through acts of violence committed by the narrator as well as Tod Clifton. Despite the fact that Invisible Man was written sixty four years ago, the point that Ellison makes is a point that still needs to be heard, and truly listened to by society today: violence is a result of a false stereotype that is placed upon black people and it must be lifted by the oppressors, not broken free of by the oppressed.
The Role of Illusion in Invisible Man
There are two types of illusions: optical and perceptual. Optical illusions are objects that are distorted due to the anatomy of the eye. Perceptual illusions are objects that are distorted due to the nature of the brain. A child hears a monster outside his window, but when the parent turns on the light, it is revealed that it is only a branch hitting the window. A survivalist develops frostbite in her leg and a ranger must amputate it before she dies. After the amputation, the woman sees the leg separated from her body, but can still feel it there. Perceptual illusions are an unconscious form of self protection, but too much protection can isolate an individual. In the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the main character, a nameless, faceless black man falls victim to the illusion that his identity is determined by others and as a result severs himself from society.
The Invisible Man is narrated by a character who recently discovers that he is unseen by others. The book is a recollection of moments from his past before he realizes his invisibility. From his teenage years in the South to a Negro college to a political organization in the streets of Harlem, the Invisible Man explains how the illusion began. He is looking back at his life and realizing that he has only defined himself as how others see him. Throughout the entire book, the Invisible Man tries to convince the reader that he is the victim of his illusion and little can be done to prevent his invisibility. One of the first memories of invisibility is when he performs a speech in front of white leaders in an event called the Battle Royal. Once in the event, he realizes that the event is actually entertainment for the rich white leaders. They urge the black youth to fight against one another and throw money at the beaten boys. The Invisible Man reluctantly fights with the hope of reading his speech. When the whites tell him to read his speech, he is bloody and bruised. He stutters words as the drunk white men laugh at him. At the end of the speech, he is given a scholarship to a Negro College and quickly forgets about the pain he endured. The speech was about “social responsibility” and “equality”, which he quickly regrets saying, which is ironic as he is standing among the men who instructed him to put aside his otherwise peaceful nature. He explains that he had never considered himself a fighter, but in the Battle Royal he becomes the whites stereotype him to be: an undereducated sycophant. Because the Invisible Man had not developed the illusion that he is invisible, he recites his speech louder to the white men as they drink, and talk as if they truly could not hear his voice. The men only make more noise and laugh at the blood spraying from the boy’s mouth. This scene is the birth of the illusion that his identity is malleable. He believes that he can submit to these men in order to be successful without neglecting his true self. The older Invisible Man recalls the scene by stating that he was happy to have received the scholarship thus proving that he still does not see reality.
As the Invisible Man walks through the streets of Harlem, he sees white men throwing an old black couple’s possessions out the window of the apartment the couple could not pay rent for. The Invisible Man makes a speech about the event as it is happening and a man named Brother Jack asks him to join a political organization. Brother Jack promises him a new name, past, clothing, style, and home. The Invisible Man agrees and for a short while grows famous in Harlem. It isn’t until he makes a speech that the organization does not allow him to recite that he realizes that he is a tool. They ostracize him and once again he loses his identity. The reality of the situation was that the Invisible Man was not simply given a new identity, he was stripped of what was left of his past. He was told to forget who he once was and even given a new name. He became exactly what others wanted him to be, but when leaves he sees the reality: in his pursuit to find himself through others, he sees that others only see him as a tool. Since the story is recollection of memories, the Invisible Man is just now, as the reader is hearing the man’s past, destroying his illusion. While his invisibility benefited him for a short period of time, he admits that he had always felt like a puppet to others. With the newly found evidence to support the claim that he his identity is not only invisible to others, but also himself, he will be able to find it himself.
When the parent showed the child that the monster outside was really just a branch tapping the window, the child realized that there was no threat and he could safely go to bed. The ranger covers the survivalist’s amputated leg with a mirror. This prevents her from going into shock and stops the perceptual illusion that she can still feel her leg. When illusions are prolonged (if the child refuses to go to bed in his room because of the monster), the brain unconsciously develops more reasons to believe that the illusions are reality. When the illusions become prevent one from socializing, eating, sleeping, and other necessary human activities, they evolve into hallucinations. Illusions, whether they are developed in his own mind or by society, haunt and torture the Invisible Man. The Invisible Man’s illusion is not a monster under the bed that can be revealed with a light switch, his illusion is his own identity. He defines himself as how others see him, but that changes from person to person. As the story develops, the Invisible Man distinguishes reality from his illusion as he begins to realize that his identity is his own. Just as the parent turns a light on for the child to see that the monster is an illusion, the Invisible Man isolates himself in order to reveal reality. Through isolation, one may find true identity as he or she is untouched from other’s prejudgments.
Overcoming Obstacles On The Way To Future Prosperity In The Invisible Man By H.G. Wells
The course of one’s journey lies in the things that they learn along the way to the destination. Although many may argue otherwise, adversity proves to be a large determining factor into one’s future. In all periods of life, there are hardships that we must all face as children and adults. The real challenge however, is what and how we gain from conquering those trials. Whether it be financial, hardships, or any other relevant hardships that may be a burden on life. But in any scenario, they force one to adapt to the situation by pushing himself and overcoming the adversity presented. By overcoming these obstacles, one is able to develop their character to some degree. Adversity may be painful at the moment, but pain is temporary. Pain will eventually subside, and something else will take its place. Development in character results from change. And change happens either intentionally, or unintentionally. However, when change happens unintentionally, a notable shift in character occurs.
When an unexpected shift in environment occurs, one is forced to adapt in order to thrive at their fullest potential. The Great Depression, a time of financial crisis, forced millions of Americans to reconsider their lives. People were struggling to be financially stable. The Great Depression did not request a response – it demanded it. As a result of the Depression, they had to adapt to the environment given to them, which the people of America had no power over. This adaptation happened through adopting new methods of financial stability. This era created the highest amount of millionaires to be recorded in American history. This shows that even something as daunting as adversity plays a large role in motivation. Without the hardships the presented by The Great Depression, people would not have thought about the tactics they did to become the millionaires they are today. In fact, most people that grew up in this era subconsciously adopted conservative lifestyles. Therefore, adversity forces one to reconsider their lifestyle and change for the better.
Adversity can stimulate, spark, and trigger a growth in a way prosperity cannot – hardships occur for the better. In The Invisible Man, when the narrator is forced to leave the college by Dr. Bledsoe, he is left with no other choice but to leave for New York. Although he is hesitant and unsure of what awaits him in Harlem, he is forced out of his comfort zone. To his surprise, he is welcomed by the Brotherhood and the Invisible Man is able to make a name for himself. The conflicts experienced by the protagonist force him to reconsider his stance on all aspects of his life. With Bledsoe’s wrongdoings, the Invisible Man is able to recognize and analyze adversities that come his way as the book progresses. In contrast, prosperity that one is given automatically does not always provoke character growth. For example, because of Mr. Bledsoe’s high position at the college, he tends to misuse his power. A man that lives a life of prosperity does not face any major adversities that rouse a newfound character strength. Instead, he focuses on retaining the power given to him, with Dr. Bledsoe being the best example of this. Bledsoe accuses the Invisible Man of actions outside of his control, betraying a student of the school and ultimately, betraying his own race. When an unexpected shift occurs, although not accepting at first, one is forced to learn for the better.
Since the first books, characters have always ended for the better or worse for their own situations. Adversity forces one to an unexpected craze, but if he can overcome this, he will everlasting prosperity. Adversity may be a rude awakening, but it is effective.
A Breakdown of Ralph Ellison’s Book, Invisible Man
Invisible Man Final Paper
Generations from now, the world will be a completely different place. Just a few decades ago, computers were invented and were a new piece of technology for the future. Now, society cannot survive a day without modern technology. Similarly, Invisible Man (IM) in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man builds upon his past to become the character that he ends up becoming toward the end of the novel. A character that contains outward conformity but questions inwardly would be IM, as he deals with a lost identity as well as being manipulated from the other characters around him due to his invisibility throughout the proceedings of this novel. These themes of manipulation and identity searching are demonstrated throughout the novel with an increasing tension between outward conformity and questioning inwardly of IM as well as establish the meaning of the book that identities can be established by the surroundings in which one lives.
IM seems to feel as though he knows where he is going in life at the beginning of the novel, but as the novel progresses, IM becomes uncertain of his future and there is an increasing tension between outward conformity and inward questioning. IM is manipulated constantly throughout this novel and he doesn’t seem to realize how the members of the society around him are actually treating him. In the beginning of the book, IM receives the “scholarship to the state college for Negroes” which he sees as a great turn of events from the battle royal in retrospect of his future, but the college scholarship will only cause IM to be manipulated more and more as time progresses (Ellison, 32). IM’s excitement does not accurately reflect the turn of events which will unfold, as he will lead himself down paths that will not turn out in a positive manner in essence toward IM’s future. IM’s scholarship to the college for Negroes will evidently allow him to meet Mr.Norton, who he has to drive around for the week he visits the college. During the week of driving Mr.Norton around, IM is requested to take Mr.Norton to Trueblood, where Trueblood explains his life story and Mr.Norton seems mesmerized by the story he tells. IM respectfully follows along with everything that’s unfolding, but when IM is thinking to himself about the situation and how Trueblood basically hypnotized Mr.Norton by the traumatizing nature of his story, he states “…but he was listening to Trueblood so intensely he didn’t see me, and I sat down again, cursing the farmer silently. To hell with his dream!” in order to demonstrate his frustration (Ellison, 57). IM’s anger toward Trueblood speaking with Mr.Norton is one of the first locations of the book where IM’s inner questioning becomes tense in correlation to his outward conformity. IM is also manipulated when he is unknowingly expelled from the college and sent to Harlem with seven letters. Because IM believes that he is sent to find work aside from college to complete and once he is done that he will return to college, IM believes that the letters that Dr.Bledsoe has enclosed are supposed to aid IM in finding this job. However, once IM realizes that he was manipulated into being sent to Harlem after meeting with Mr.Emerson’s secretary, IM feels trapped and as though he does not know who he is or will become in the future. The letter states “I beg of you, sir, to help him continue in the direction of that promise which, like the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler” in order to bounce IM off of the college and into the working class of Harlem (Ellison, 191). IM does not know how he could have possibly done anything wrong in order to get expelled from the college, but he conforms to the expulsion and continues to find work in Harlem. However, IM never actually did anything to become expelled, Dr.Bledsoe manipulated IM’s weak ability to recognize the situation around him and forces him out of the college, as Dr.Bledsoe knows that if IM were to stay in the college, he could eventually change the future of the African American civilization, which no one except IM wants to occur. IM realizes Dr.Bledsoe manipulated him and tries to find work somewhere, so that he can at least continue to live there, as he has nothing to go back to. Once IM starts work in the paint factory, and he is knocked unconscious by the explosion, he is again manipulated in his temporary-vegetable state. IM was lobotomized without consent, as the factory hospital needed someone to test their electric shock treatment on. After he is lobotomized, the man dressed in black asks IM some questions, such as “WHAT … IS … YOUR … NAME?” and “WHO…ARE…YOU?” in order to see if the lobotomy was successful (Ellison, 240). IM’s lobotomy demonstrates how vulnerable he was to the society surrounding him, so vulnerable that he was lobotomized without anyone even asking him, and IM never seems to question it. This demonstrates the fact that IM was still trying to figure out who he was going to be in the future, but lobotomizing him most likely ruined his future plans but led him on a path to discovering the world around him. Evidently, IM joins the Brotherhood after living with Mary, and the Brotherhood manipulates him into working for them, when at the end of the novel IM realizes what the Brotherhood is actually trying to accomplish, which was take advantage of IM in order to gain their own benefit, IM became very distressed. IM has been conforming on the outside to the brotherhood, Dr.Bledsoe, and many other characters throughout, when inside he has been questioning whether or not he should be conforming, as well as inward questioning of his own true identity.
As proven through IM’s life in the South and the North, one’s identity can be created based on the surroundings in which one lives, whether inward questioning and outward conformity has great tensions or not. IM was already feeling strong tension between inner questioning and outward conformity, so when he was forcefully lobotomized, he was forced on a new identity based on the surroundings. This is evident in that IM could not even respond to questions such as “WHAT IS YOUR MOTHER’S NAME?” and “WHO WAS YOUR MOTHER?” although, even if his lobotomy did not take place, he wouldn’t have been able to answer the question “WHO…ARE…YOU?” because he had not learned his true identity (Ellison, 240, 241). Because IM wouldn’t have been able to answer the question of who he was whether the lobotomy took place or not, the question still represents a turning point in the story in that IM sees that he can change his identity to whatever he wants it to be, even though it will evidently be forced upon him. After the lobotomy takes place, IM is taken to Mary, where he learns his new identity based on how Mary treats him, in that she wants IM to be whoever he wants to be and she knows that IM will do something beneficial to the African American civilization at one point or another, or so she thought. Once IM makes the speech to try and save the elderly couple from being evicted, he is called to have coffee and cake with one of the members of the brotherhood, where he is manipulated into believing he needs to be in the brotherhood, and conforms into joining the brotherhood. The tension between inner questioning and outward conformity is strong when IM is accepted into the brotherhood as well, as he is questioning himself about many aspects of why the brotherhood would want him, such as “Why should he want me as a speaker?” in order to demonstrate how the identity Mary has allowed him to have has made IM very vulnerable (Ellison, 294). IM questions himself as to why the brotherhood would want him to be a speaker for them due to the little effort he actually put in when making the speech to save the elderly couple and also due to how insignificant that speech was in relevance to why IM believes he is in Harlem. After IM accepts to join the brotherhood, they force a new identity on him and tell him that he needs to move out of Mary’s house and into the hotel in order to stay in the brotherhood. IM doesn’t question this act outwardly to a great extent, but he does not know why he is being manipulated into moving out of a perfectly fine house under a strong woman’s roof. His incapability to realize who he is and when he is being manipulated has allowed his identity to be transformed again, reinforcing one of the main ideas of the novel that identities can change depending on what the surroundings are.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison takes the life of IM and throws many situations at him, allowing IM to shift his identity from certain ideals to others. Some of the main themes of the novel include the strong tension between inner questioning and outward conformity as well as the idea that identities are able to change if one is to be vulnerable enough to allow any individual to manipulate their current identity and change themselves into someone different. IM never seems to establish a true identity, but he does know that he is an invisible man.
Post Colonialism in Invisible Man
Postcolonialism deals with the lasting impact of colonization, or simply the aftermath of colonialism. Colonialism is the altering of everything of the colonized, for example, their values, standards, culture, and system, in the form of the colonizers. The ideology of the “civilizing mission’ and sense of superiority of the colonizers in which they had for their ways of living and in their system was the reason behind this alteration. The colonizers considered and thought of the natives as inferior and “savages”, or “niggers” and their ways of living and their system short of any worth or value.
They used the power of colonial oppression and force to impose their ideals onto the natives. Invisible Man explicitly represents various aspects of colonial oppression by symbolizing racism as an obstacle to individual identity. “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was (258). ” This quote from the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man reveals the problematics of post-colonial identity, including the relationship between personal and cultural identity and such issues as double consciousness and hybridity. Throughout the story the narrator struggles to arrive at a conception of his own identity, he finds his efforts complicated by the fact that he is a black man living in a racist american society. Through the postcolonial lens it is understood that a character’s self image is damaged and they are felt as othered or strangered by a dominant cultures. Ellison’s portrayal of the narrator displays a character that struggles to accept the subservient role that has been placed on him by dominant society. The narrator’s depicts a feeling of invisibility, in the sense that the world is filled with blind people who cannot and will not see his real nature. When the grandfather says, “I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country,” the narrator is haunted by his grandparents slave history. (258). When he accomplishes anything in the white man’s society he does not know how to feel. He feels as though he does not fit in with his African American community because of this subservient role that has been placed on him but, at the same time it is clear that he is not part of the dominant society either. With this displacement, Ellison shows the way many African American’s felt during his time.
They didn’t know whether to accept the damaged self image that was being forced on them and live a peaceful life, or fight for equality. Due to the narrator’s feeling of being lost, he accepts what he thinks is his best option, that being his place with the dominant culture. Throughout the story the narrator is an example of a person that is described and treated with racial discrimination and prejudice. In the beginning of the story the narrator says that he was told that he took after his grandfather; it is that similarity that gets him to a place where he can confront racism, exploitation, and abuse to define his individuality. When he is given the scholarship to a black college it is another form of the dominant group identifying and labeling him as “other” or stranger. It is basically saying that although he should go to college he is not good enough to go to a white college because, the scholarship was to the state college for negroes. Ironically, it is the scholarship that opens the narrator’s eyes to the racial injustices he was put through. If it wasn’t for the scholarship, he would not have understood that his grandfather was telling him that by pretending to be submissive he would be opened doors that would contribute in the defeat of the discrimination and racism they faced. He no longer accepts the broken image that society tried to force on him.
A Comparative Study of Ralph Ellison’s Battle Royal and Prologue with Excerpts from The Invisible Man
Black & Invisible
Is it possible for a man to be invisible? Did African Americans go through racial torment even after the placement of the Thirteenth Amendment? In the novel The Invisible Man, the narrator guides readers through how it f eels to be unseen by the world around them and the racial experiences he faced as a black man in the 1940-1950”s. In Ralph Ellison’s “Prologue” and “Battle Royal” excerpts from The Invisible Man Ellison helps create a clear understanding of how he experienced racism and racial cruelty, how it is to be figuratively invisible and how being invisible affected him.
In the chapter “Battle Royal” the narrator experiences racial cruelty and constructs a vivid picture through words of his experiences to help readers understand exactly what he was going through . Before the fight at the Battle Royal the narrator is blindfolded. While waiting he hears white men yelling racial slurs and threats involving him and the other black man around him such as “I want to get at that ginger-colored nigger [and] tear him limb from limb,” and “let me at those black sonsabitches” (Ellison 17). The narrator faces this cruelty again after the fight when the other men and he are award money and riches on a electrical rug. Before being signaled to grab the money he hears a white man make another racist comment, hearing “these niggers look like they’re about to pray; ” then, after being given the okay the narrator jumps for the first gold coins he sees and suddenly “A hot, violent force tore through [his] body, [causing him to] shake like a wet rat, [to his surprise] the rug was electrified” (Ellison 21). The white men sternly insisted they should get the money yelling “pick it up, goddamnit, pick it up” before trying to force and push them onto the rug (Ellison 21). The white men continued to behave this way for a long time before they decided stop.
Eventually many years later the narrator falls victim to becoming figuratively invisible and explains how it is to readers in the “Prologue” by generating an understandable concept. He describes to readers that he’s not physically invisible yet people refuse to acknowledge his existence “only [seeing his] surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination” (Ellison 3). The narrator tells of how its can be an advantage when wanting to passively “fight against [the sleepwalkers] (the men) without them realizing it” and how he’s “been carrying on a fight with Monopolated Light & Power for some time now, using their services and paying them nothing at all, and they don’t know it” (Ellison 4-5). He also goes over how being invisible has its disadvantages as well because of the way “[it’s] often rather wearing on the nerves,” and how it causes a man too “often [question] and doubt if [they] really exist” (Ellison 3-4). The narrator explains that ever since he became invisible he feels alive and believes life otherwise is death.
As a final point in the “Prologue” the narrator goes through a situation where he’s invisibility effectively causes him to snap and nearly almost kill a man. He explains how “he began to bump people back” due to the resentment produced from doubting your existences which comes along with being invisible; therefore, causing a altercation one night when he accidentally bumps into a white man (Ellison 3-4). The white man called him an insulting name and cursed at him when he asks for an apologie. The words finally get to the narrator and he begins to beat him senselessly “[kicking] him repeatedly, in a frenzy because he still uttered insults though his lips… [than] in his outrage got out a knife and prepared to slit his throat” (Ellison 4). He then remembers how he is invisible to the white man and his attack was just nightmare in the eyes of the white man so he leaves him alone and continues on.
In Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal” and “Prologue” from The Invisible Man the unnamed narrator helps form an understandable concept of how it is to be figuratively invisible and how being invisible affected him, racism, and racial cruelty. As a young man the narrator is put into a fight at the Battle Royal where he experiences racism, being surrounded by racial comments and threats. He also experience racial cruelty when him and other black man are forcefully pushed on to a electrical carpet for amusement. The narrator then explains to readers how its is being invisible and how it has its ups and downs; on one hand you can use it as an advantage while on another it can drive a man insane. Lasty The narrator tells how being invisible effects him mentality and how that gets him caught up in a physical altercation with a white man; he beat the white man to near death and briefly decides to kill him and later releases and the eyes of him he is invisible so he lets the white man live and leaves. To conclude the narrator shows that being a black man in the 1940’s-1950’s is tough but being a unseen black man is a challenge of its own.
Briefcase Symbolism in Construction of Identity
Despite the termination of slavery following the civil war in America, oppression continued to exist through prejudice without any necessary halt. In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, a black man in his youth stumbles upon the troublesome route of self identification as he voyages from the South to Harlem, New York. As a result of the evident complexity in portraying the abstract idea of identity with accuracy, Ralph Ellison utilizes the symbol of a briefcase throughout the novel to permit the distinct comprehension of such a higher notion. The contents within the briefcase reflect the changeability of the narrator’s identity as he attempts to adapt to a prejudiced American society.
The acceptance of the scholarship contained in a briefcase initially demonstrates the narrator’s childish naivety prior to his journey to Harlem, New York. As the narrator delivers his speech in a boxing arena, he utters the phrase “social equality” rather than “social responsibility” (10), angering the white man and thus, provoking the narrator to eliminate the word equality from the initial phrase. The narrator’s elimination of the word he evidently perceives with justice demonstrates his conformity to the ideals of the white man. These ideals are inclusive of the blacks’ subservient status, which the narrator inevitably overlooks through conformity. Undoubtedly, the white man remarks that the narrator “[made] a good speech and some day [will] lead his people to the proper paths” and therefore hands him a briefcase with a scholarship to the state of college of Negroes, leaving the narrator “overjoyed” (32). The narrator’s delight with the scholarship, despite the white man’s neglectful perception of his race, demonstrates his inability to comprehend the white man’s true intentions. Thus, he may be described under the characteristics of a child who often views the actions of others in a positive manner, or rather is constantly under an illusion of the real world. The narrator’s illusionary comprehension of intentions triggers his fluid adoption of various identities.
The narrator’s ambitious attitude with regards to the possession of the recommendation letters within his briefcase uncovers his respect for the identification of a college student. As the narrator took his packet of letters, he “drew a feeling of importance from reading the important names” (163). The narrator displays a presumption in which the recognition of his significance is only made probable through the association with other significant figures. Thus, the narrator inevitably displays an honourable attitude towards his college identification, which has authorized him the right to such associations. As the narrator succeeds in reaching several trustees’ secretaries and receiving encouraging responses with his recommendation letters, “he sw[ings] [his] briefcase with confidence” (168). The narrator is portrayed among a causal and effectual relationship between his self confidence and the secretaries’ confidence in him. This relationship reveals the direct correlation assumed by the narrator between his confidence in the college and his potential to thrive among a community of successful, well respected men. Ultimately, however, the narrator is succumbed to the pursuit of a different identity as his faith in the college diminishes under disgraceful circumstances.
The narrator’s unsteady attitude towards the Brotherhood’s packets placed in his briefcase demonstrates the developing paranoia regarding the acquisition of yet another form of identity. As Brother Jack thrusts the package in his hands, the narrator is “about to toss it boldly into the street when upon looking back [he] sees him…gesturing toward [him] indignantly…and drop[s] the package into the briefcase” (331). The narrator’s initial refusal to accept the packages from Brother Jack emphasize the implanted expectation for betrayal that the narrator has developed through past experience with Dr. Bledsoe. In addition, his ultimate acceptance of the Brotherhood’s membership following his observance of Brother Jack’s disappointing response indicates a commitment through regrettable conformity rather than self derived verdict. The acceptance of the packets from the Brotherhood provoked the epiphany among the narrator of a “new phase…a new beginning” (335). The narrator’s defiance of the initial feelings of hesitancy concerning the acceptance of a new identity illustrates his persistent naive approach. Despite his failure for identification with the college, the narrator recovers idealistically through the formation of more superior ambitions. The narrator’s idealistic thinking, however, is put to cease as he comes to recognition with the unavoidable stereotypes of his race.
The broken iron bank pieces that the narrator carries in his briefcase following his attempt to rid them reveal the improbability of his formation of a unique identity. The cast iron bank which the narrator hoped to utilize to terminate the ringing sound was in the figure “of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared at [him] from the floor” (319). The existence of the iron bank affirms the existence of racism in the society that the narrator lives in. In addition, the narrator’s ideal and essentially juxtaposed utilization of the iron bank as a resolution for terminating the sound mirrors his ideal prosperity through different identities. When the narrator attempts to rid the iron bank, he has it returned by a black man, who accuses him of being “some king of confidence man or dope peddler” (330). The prejudice of this black man demonstrates the blindness experienced by not only white members of society, but also of those of the narrator’s own race. This perseverance of stereotypical thinking emphasizes the futility in the narrator’s pursuit for universal, racial equality. Though the narrator carries the symbolic burden of the iron bank in his briefcase throughout the novel, he ultimately eliminates this burden as he distinguishes the meaning of true liberty.
The narrator’s final disposal of the briefcase as a guide for the transition out of the hole reflects his transition away from an illusionary existence. The narrator essentially comprehends why the “[briefcase] was heavy, remembering Mary’s broken bank pieces” (539-540). The narrator’s recognition of the weight the iron bank has placed upon him demonstrates his recognition of the inevitable racism that has been weighing him down. The narrator makes a physical and metaphorical step away from the oppressive nature of his society as he finally drops the iron bank. As the narrator attempts to light his way out of the torch near the novel’s ending, he realizes that he “would have to burn every paper in the briefcase” (568). As the narrator separates himself of the briefcase, he as well separates himself from all preconceived notions and stereotypes. He leaves behind his invisibility and permits himself a life in the light of his own decisions.
Throughout the novel, the narrator’s briefcase accumulates into a psychological baggage as he, reflectively adopts various identities and conforms to other individual’s opinions in a blind manner. As the narrator blindly accepts the scholarship to the College of Negroes in his briefcase, his character is initiated under a naive description. This triggers the adoption in addition to the resentment of following identities, including that of association with the Brotherhood, demonstrated through the packets in his briefcase. Ultimately, the narrator recognizes that the adoption of others’ identities will not yield his own formation of an identity. This is emphasized efficiently through the iron bank pieces in his briefcase. As the narrator finally utilizes the symbolic components within the briefcase to see in the darkness, he manages to plight against the forces controlling his character. He manages to recognize the need to reckon the past and separate himself from those who simply wanted to “Keep This Nigger-Boy running”.
Connection Between Name and Identity in Invisible Man and Bamboozled
The giving of names is an attribute unique to humans. Eager soon-to-be parents ponder the dilemma of “which name will suit our unborn baby the best” even before they find out the gender of the fetus. Often, these names are chosen based on what qualities the parents want their child to have: Lily for a pure and beautiful girl, Justin for a fair and kind boy. In both Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Bamboozled directed by Spike Lee, The Invisible Man, members of the Brotherhood, the Mau Maus, Manray, Womack, and Delacroix all have their names somehow altered, though not by their parents. The altering of the names of these characters also alters their identities in profound ways.
The attachment of a common word or title to a name (such as Professor Dumbledore or Professor Stephen Hawking) serves to unite an assortment of people. In Invisible Man, members of the Brotherhood, a deceitful organization that claims to raise poor people up in society, are referred to as “Brother.” This title not only creates the illusion of equality within the Brotherhood, but also ties members into the mindset of the Brotherhood and attempts to suppress individual thought. After the Invisible Man organizes a impromptu funeral for Tod Clifton, an ex-Brotherhood member, he is interrogated by Brother Jack and Brother Tobitt. Brother Jack is sardonic as he repeatedly ridicules how the Invisible Man acted “on [his] personal re-spon-si-bility” (464). After all, by the time Clifton was peddling Sambo dolls in the streets, he was no longer aligned with the Brotherhood’s ideology, and therefore no longer useful to the Brotherhood. The Invisible Man took it upon himself to put together a funeral and give a eulogy expressing the injustice that Clifton faced. Brother Jack continues to emphasize the controlling nature of the Brotherhood by telling the Invisible Man that “the committee makes your decisions… What’s happened to your discipline?”(472). Discipline in this case is not the upholding of one’s own morals; it is the submission to the Brotherhood’s principles. By requiring members to call each other “Brother”, this organization rids people of individual thought, and therefore identity.
Although groups are sometimes seen as single entities and not as composed of individual people, the unification of a group under a common name given to individuals can help strengthen their identities. In Bamboozled, the rowdy members of the Mau Maus, an insurgent rap group, all include “Blak” in their names: Big Blak Afrika, Double Blak, Mo Blak, Smooth Blak, and One-Sixteenth Blak. Smooth Blak, the only female member, suggests while swigging Da Bomb Malt Liquor that they “from here on, henceforth and whatnot, should spell black: B-L-A-K, not B-L-A-C-K.” Using stage names that include “Blak” unifies the Mau Maus and also emphasizes their “blackness”: One-Sixteenth Blak, who is technically fifteen-sixteenths white, pleads at the end of the movie, “Why didn’t you kill me? I’m black!” The act of taking the ‘c’ out of the word ‘black’ is an act of rebellion, which Smooth Blak alludes to when she mentions that the Mau Maus “ain’t never conformed to any of the white man’s rules or regulations.” The Mau Maus and the Brotherhood both attempt to function as unified groups and disrupt society, and both believe that society will benefit from their actions. Though the natures of the two groups are very similar, the attitudes are very different. While the terms “Blak” and “Brother” both serve to unite a group of people, the word “Blak” itself promotes rebellion and gives the Mau Maus a clear, exaggerated identity, whereas the title “Brother” stifles mutiny and rids Brotherhood members of identity.
The assumption of a new name allows the user to be someone they are not, much like the way IM and Pierre Delacroix believe that their names will get them one step closer to gaining success by masking their true selves. Delacroix is the only black TV writer at the television network CNS, and his endeavour to appear as sophisticated as a white man is first seen in his ridiculously French sounding name. His given name is Peerless Dothan, which Delacroix must have found too uncultured to share with the world. Delacroix is also excessively proper and speaks too-proper-English, throwing around phrases like “you have a grand day.” He believes that success can only be achieved by correcting his black background with white-out. Delacroix sees Junebug, his father who works as a comedian, as a “broken man” simply because of the way he embraces black culture and doesn’t “say that stuff [Hollywood] wants [him] to say.” While Junebug refuses to comply with what white men want him to do, Delacroix refuses “to end up where [Junebug] was” and tries his best to assimilate into white society. IM’s desire to shed his background and blend into a whiter, more civilized society, is evident even before he starts working for the Brotherhood. When traveling to New York, the Invisible Man imagines his meeting with important white men in which he “would speak softly, in [his] most polished tones, smile agreeably and be most polite” (157) in an attempt to please them. After the Invisible Man’s initiation banquet at the Chthonian, he explicitly states, “I had a new name and new problems. I had best leave the old behind” (316). This statement is the signal of his transition into a new world and his acceptance into white society. Both the name ‘Pierre Delacroix’ and the name the Invisible Man is given by the Brotherhood serve as vehicles for their conformity to the white mindset. Both work at organizations where the majority is white, and both try to integrate themselves into white society. To them, this integration is a denotation of success, even if it achieved under a pseudo identity.
Like slaves who are renamed by their masters, the Invisible Man, Manray, and Womack are all given different names by the people who attempt to control them. As soon as the Invisible Man begins his work for the Brotherhood, the first order of business was to assign him a new name. The Brotherhood asserts its ownership over IM by requiring him to assume a new name and new identity, which is evident when Brother Jack tells the Invisible Man, “You are to answer to no other, understand?” (309). This way, the Invisible Man plays into the Brotherhood’s plan; the new name and identity allow the Invisible Man to become the perfect spokesperson for the Brotherhood. Manray and Womack, street performers who scrounged around for a living, are no longer Manray and Womack in “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” — they are Mantan and Sleep-n’-eat (which are not coincidentally the stage names of two famous blackface performers during the ‘90s). Delacroix needs Mantan and Sleep-n’-eat, not Manray and Womack, in order to achieve his goal of broadcasting the most offensive show possible. Manray readily accepts the role that Pierre Delacroix constructs for him. However, Womack’s “are you kidding” attitude is apparent as Delacroix introduces him to Dunwitty as Sleep-n’-eat — his smile disappears, his eyebrows raise, and his forehead creases with concerned wrinkles.
The reason for these renamings is that both the Brotherhood and Delacroix wanted to make their puppets conform to a certain image, a certain view that the public wanted to see. Eventually, the Invisible Man, Manray, and Womack can no longer stand to put on performances. Working under these identities while holding on to their true individualities presents conflicts. A job that is “a hell of a lot better than tap dancing in the street for pennies,” according to Delacroix, requires Manray and Womack to become characters that are racially offensive. Mantan and Womack begin to detest the black makeup that they must put on and the even blacker characters they must play. When Womack confronts Manray about quitting the show, he puts on one last performance. Womack crosses his eyes and says with a deep, unintelligent voice, “What you want me to do, massa? Anything for you, massa… Anything to make you laugh, massa.” When the Invisible Man discovers the corrupt motives of the Brotherhood, he plots to overthrow it, to “overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins… agree them to death and destruction” (508). Strangely, the “optimistic chorus of yassuh, yassuh, yassuh!” (509) that the Invisible Man imagines after hearing of the sacrifice of Harlem from Brother Hambro is evocative of Womack’s last performance. Because these characters experienced inner conflicts of identities and their subsequent goals, none were able to truly accomplish what they wanted, and “this waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc, has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves,” as is said in The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.
In Invisible Man and Bamboozled, the reasons behind characters’ sobriquets reveal much about both their true identities and the ones that they wish to adopt. The Mau Maus and the Brotherhood both require members to include a certain word in their names that promotes unity, though the meaning and purpose behind these words are very different. The Invisible Man, Manray, and Womack are all given different names by their superiors, and these names serve to conceal their identities and squeeze them into a mold of sorts, an image that people want to see. The Invisible Man and Delacroix both assume different names in order to conform to white society. Without names, people become lost, because names mark a concrete state of being, written on birth certificates. With alternate names, people also become lost, confused between who they really are and who they seem to be under these pseudonyms. Just as how identity can suggest a name, the name can give rise to the identity.
The “Invisibility” in the novel by Ralph Ellison Essay
Invisible Man is the famous novel by the American author Ralph Ellison. The novel represents the integral part of the American literature. Invisible Man plot has a symbolic meaning in its background and the definition of the “invisible” should not be understood in a straightforward way. The novel’s plot does not consist of any fantastic elements. Quite the opposite, it touches upon the real keen social problem of the American society of the XX century.
Invisible Man is devoted to the life of Afro-Americans in the United States. However, the author uncovers the problem a little bit differently from the typical literature works and speeches of the activists of that time. The narrator of the novel tells us that he is “invisible”.
However, it is not his physical stance. Rather, he feels this way because his existence is ignored by the society. He says that “when they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me” (Ellison n.pag.).
The “invisibility” to which he refers is caused by not his actions or behavior but rather by the attitude of people towards him. In his speech introduced in the Prologue, he tells us that he is invisible simply because people refuse to see him (Ellison n.pag.). The race discrimination of the Afro-Americans in the United States had been the urgent problem for decades. However, the authors like Ellison tried to shake people’s minds and to make them “see” the black people.
“The bewildered and nameless hero of “Invisible Man” longs desperately to achieve a personal success and to help his people. But his role as a man acted upon more often than acting, as a symbol of doubt, perplexity, betrayal and defeat, robs him of the individual identity of the people who play a part in his life” (Prescott par. 8).
In the “battle royal” episode, the example of the attitude of the white Americans to the black Americans can be seen.
“Blindfolded, the Negro boys stage a “battle royal,” a free-for-all in which they pummel each other to the drunken shouts of the whites. “Practical jokes,” humiliations, terrors–and then the boy delivers a prepared speech of gratitude to his white benefactors” (Howe par. 2).
The force which the white used towards the narrator is explained by the overall madness and blindness of the social minds. The narrator tells us that he fought “automatically” because everyone did (Ellison n.pag.). The “battle royal” episode shows us that the violence provokes further violence.
The episode of the meeting of the main character with Mr. Norton represents one of the most important elements of the plot. Mr. Norton is the wealthy Boston citizen and the sponsor of the college.
The narrator describes him as “a Bostonian, smoker of cigars, teller of polite Negro stories, shrewd banker, skilled scientist, director, philanthropist, forty years a bearer of the white man’s burden, and for sixty a symbol of the Great Traditions” (Ellison n.pag.). Mr. Norton is “blind” as he cannot see the real side of the life of the Afro-Americans in the United States.
Although he spends a lot of money for charity, his good actions do not yet tell about his world outlook. Mr. Norton is the successful well-educated person but he lives in the world the reality of which is far from the reality of the Afro-Americans. That is why he becomes the marionette in this situation. In fact, it becomes obvious that the amounts spent by Mr. Norton only contribute to the further discrimination and exploitation of the blacks.
In his talk with the main character of the novel, he tries to explain him his vision. However, it can be hardly done if he lacks the real understanding of the problem. He mentions that the fortune is pleasant but the main character, the “invisible man”, wonders how the fortune can be pleasant if his parents, grandparents and relatives experienced the hard way of life, so, the fortune is painful (Ellison n. pag.).
It is not surprising that they misunderstand each other. Mr. Norton belongs to the absolutely different social layer. It is hard for him to realize all the life troubles which the main character and the other blacks suffered. In spite of the fact that Mr. Norton is sincere, he is not able to help because he does not see the actual reality and the main character remains “invisible” to him.
In order to summarize all above mentioned, it should be said that Invisible Man is the outstanding work by Ralph Ellison. The metaphor of “invisible” is used by him to reflect the life of the Afro-Americans in the American society of the XX century. In the Prologue, the main character explains what it likes to be the “invisible” as he is seen by people’s eyes but not by their minds.
In the first chapter, “the battle royal” shows the attitude of the whites towards the blacks clearly representing the race stratification of the American society. In the following chapter, the character of Mr. Norton is introduced to the readers. Mr. Norton is another example of the person who cannot see the real life of the blacks, though he intends to make his own contribution to the overcoming of the social problems in the United States.
Ellison, Ralph 1947, The Invisible Man. PDF file. Web.
Howe, Irwing 1952, Review of: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Web.
Prescott, Oliver, “Books of the Time”. The New York Times. 16 April 1952. nytimes.com. Web.