Invisibility within Invisible Man
Almost all people do battle with the notion that, try as they may, the things they do remain overlooked by others. They feel unseen, as if belonging to a story where they’re just background characters. Or rather, some people care not about their impact, instead simply wishing for the world to notice and acknowledge them for who they really are instead of how they seem from a distance, if even then. Universally, people feel invisible on some level. In his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison explores this idea of invisibility and how it shapes his characters’ actions, thoughts, and motivations. This notion of invisibility spurs the narrator on at many different parts of the book, allowing for him to push forward and do all he can to be seen by the white man, but it also leads to some of his largest pitfalls and holds him back by creating a false identity in him. His choice to mold himself for the white man’s world often hurts him, and he is not enlightened until he truly acknowledges that the only way to be visible, to exist, is to remain true to oneself.
The story begins simply with an introduction by the narrator. Here he explains, in his own terms, that he is invisible. Of course, he does not mean this literally. Instead, he suggests that the fault is not with him by any deformity or defect; instead, it is with the people of society who look at him with a blind eye. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). They perceive the world differently than he does, refusing to look beyond what society proposes they think a black person should be. He does suggest that there are certain advantages to being cloaked from the world; however, that topic must wait to until later, when a more sound idea of the narrator’s situation can be known. Continuing in his prologue, the narrator clarifies that his purpose in writing is to explain to the reader his struggle over the idea of invisibility and what led not only to the spot but also the mindset he is currently at. Wishing to thoroughly illuminate his situation, the narrator promises to fill the reader in on his experience by starting at the very beginning of his journey. And so our story begins.
The narrator is introduced to us a black man who’s caught the eye of some important white men, namely his principal, through a pleasing speech he made. Here, the first glimpse of invisibility directed towards the narrator is shown. Appearing to receive a great honor, the narrator is asked to recite his speech to a group of white men. This thrills the narrator because it seems for the first time that he’s being seen and taken notice of. Unfortunately the night pans out quite differently that the narrator expects. Instead of simply reading his speech, he is forced into a violent spectacle with other black men. Afterwards, they still wish for the narrator to speak, and through mouthfuls of blood, the narrator delivers his speech to a crowd that clearly appears not to care. He is awarded a scholarship when he is finished, and again, the narrator feels visible. He thinks he’s accomplished this on his own: to have earned it, he must have been seen by the white audience. In reality, (the idea itself invisible to the narrator) the white people awarded the scholarship not because they saw his talent and thought he deserved praise. Instead, they forced him to go through a horrid day to amuse them and only awarded him at the end so they could walk away feeling pleased for helping out a black boy. They saw him just as a black person needing help, nothing past that.
Still, this allows for the story to progress forward, and places the reader in the future, where the narrator is attending his junior year of college. The narrator’s thoughts on invisibility here are simple: act the way the white man wishes and you will please white society. He remembers and tries to follow the instruction his grandfather left with him: “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” (16). Essentially, his grandfather said it was best to smile and treat the white men as they wish rather than raising the possibility of angering them and getting injured for it. The narrator’s own hope becomes that, one day, he will gain a position of power, such as the presidency of the college he is attending. He looks up to Dr. Bledsoe, the current president of the college, and assumes that because of Bledsoe’s authority and title, Bledsoe is considered visible. During his college stay, the narrator seeks to please the white men and act properly in order to achieve visibility. This point is emphasized when he speaks with Dr. Bledsoe in the late stages of his stay at the college. After listening to Mr. Norton, a white trustee, and taking him to see a sight that rather shocked and offended this visitor, the narrator is dismisssed. Confused, the narrator asks Dr. Bledsoe what he did wrong. He did exactly was asked of him, he acted properly, and did what was to be expected of a black man such as him. Dr. Bledsoe explains that it is necessary to direct the white man’s thoughts: black men must only show or say things that please white men, and must divert their attentions away from things that won’t. Dr. Bledsoe says, “That’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about…It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself…But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (140-141). In other words, he is stating that it is possible to achieve great things by being subservient to white demands, even if it means betraying one’s own ideal ethics. This point directly contrasts with the narrator’s future views on invisibility and stands out an amazing reflection of how the narrator changes into the man he becomes in the future.
After being expelled, the narrator heads off to Harlem. He hopes that after enough time has passed, and if he works up enough money, he will be able to return to college and continue on the path he was pursuing. Even after this huge bump in the road, the narrator stills believes that in order to be visible, he must become someone important, someone who holds a high position. Though he continues to work at his goal for the next few chapters, the narrator is faced with new visual manifestations of invisibility. He is shocked by not only the large numbers of black people gathering up North but also by the interactions he sees between the races. After accidentally running into a white woman, he is surprised by the fact that she apologizes. On many different occasions, he sees white people acting much kinder than he saw them act down South. Yet these events cannot be taken as true signs of progress for black people: they were still just seen by the color of their skin, not as individuals. The people up North just acted more compassionately, an idea the narrator mistakenly assumes for a sign that his race is more visible.
The narrator searches and searches for a job, sending out letters addressed to important contacts of Dr. Bledsoe, with words of recommendation. Time passes until, eventually, he only has one letter left and, knowing this is his last chance, heads out to a Mr. Emerson’s office. Here he speaks to a man, later to be revealed as Mr. Emerson’s son, who exposes a huge secret. The letter, meant to help the narrator, asked the businessmen to turn away the narrator because he had done some terrible crime against the school. Each document explains that the narrator must not be told of this, for his chances of returning to the college were impossible, and the college did not wish to deal with the backlash of him knowing this. This is an essential point for the narrator, for now he knows that there is no chance of him returning to the college and achieving his dream of being an educator or attaining a high position there. Ellison introduces something in this chapter that the narrator is unaware of. Until this point, no one has truly seen the narrator for who he was. In all of his account, contrary to what he might believe, he has been invisible. Not until now, with young Mr. Emerson, is he shown his situation in its true light. Mr. Emerson sees him not as black man in need of a job: he speaks honestly to the narrator, at no gain to himself. They speak person to person, with no preconception or blindness in front of them.
In order to help the narrator, young Emerson sets him up with a job at a paint factory. It is here that the narrator receives the injury that sends him to a hospital. When he emerges from treatment, it is almost as if he is a new person. It is at this moment that his definition of invisibility changes. He no longer believes that pandering to white men is the right way to go. Instead, he must do as he wishes; he will make himself visible some other way. “I am what I am!” he says to himself (266).
Upon seeing an eviction of an older black couple, the narrator gets fired up and gives and impromptu speech to a crowd. It is after this event that, finally, he discovers a way of becoming truly visible by joining a group called The Brotherhood after being approached by an impressed member. The Brotherhood is a group that speaks out for black rights and tries to create better race relations between the white and black people. The narrator agrees to join the group and, though at first skeptical, soon becomes happy with the fact that, by giving these speeches and making a difference, he will force white people to see him. He will be visible to all. However, things don’t go exactly as he plans. During his entire stay with The Brotherhood, he believes that standing up for his people and speaking publicly, where everyone will see him, make him more and more visible. He could not see that he was being used as an icon or for the black people rather than being valued for who he is. He was not important himself: the brotherhood just need a black man who could speak. For instance, when it is seen that he will be making speeches, a woman wonders if he is “dark enough” to be a representative speaker. The Brotherhood members also critique the narrator when he tries to speak outside of what the Brotherhood wishes. He has no true voice for himself. In a sense, he is just a puppet of the Brotherhood. In all accounts, invisible.
Things hit a turning point when, one day, the narrator takes on the identity of a man named Rinehart. It’s clear that Rinehart is his own man, and it seems as if he’s playing no roles others than his own and having a great time with it. This man takes on multiple different roles in society: a pimp, a briber, a priest. “His world was possibility and he knew it” (498). Rinehart holds much power and yet he stays completely himself, not submitting to anyone. This directly contradicts what the narrator assumed in the beginning of the novel, that by being submissive, he would gain power. It slowly becomes more apparent to the narrator that by embracing one’s self and ignoring the urge to be seen, a man can become content. After a while, tensions within the Brotherhood become entirely too much. When a riot breaks out, the narrator flees for his life, moving underground. It is here that our narrator decides to stay for a long while. It is here also that our narrator first addressed us and that he will address us one final time. Reflecting upon the past, the narrator offers up his final views on invisibility. He explains what he hinted at in the prologue, that sometimes invisibility can be an advantage. He can go about his business without anyone noticing him. There is a freedom the narrator has never felt before down in his hole, a freedom to do and say what he wishes, and that, to some extent, makes him feel visible.
In developing his central theme of invisibility, Ellison creates a character who is obsessed with being visible and allows the reader the exciting chance to follow along as that character struggles with this sense of invisibility. At first, the narrator believes that playing into the white man’s world is the best way to become visible, but ultimately he decides that being his own individual is better than trying to avoid invisibility. Ellison addresses this topic with brilliant balance, showing how the definition of invisibility can change not only from person to person, but within the cycles of a single man’s thoughts.
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