Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: Apathetic Illusion
Any action that humankind takes is a decision that could lead to either progression or degeneration. A civilization is comprised of a system that is created to serve the well-being of a people, not a corrupted one that has been succumbed to indifference, lack of morality, deception, and materialism, etc. Looking back at history, we can discuss the struggles of African Americans during the early 20th century. The novel Invisible Man written by Ralph Ellison, is about the trials and tribulations of a colored man struggling through life who simply wishes to fit in and contribute to society any way he can. He is met with obstacles every way he turns. It is not a pleasant world that the author has created. It is clear that there is a deeper layer behind the meaning and message of the novel. A person becomes a part of a marginalized group and experiences the indifference or apathy from other groups in society. The world depicted in the novel is unpleasant, where it becomes a battlefield for a colored person who has to struggle to fit into society. Apathy is a dangerous phenomenon in the world, and the novel depicts its dangers where division and prejudice among black and white people have caused a rift within a society where the misery and struggles of African Americans have become the norm.
Hate and bigotry toward people of color, and at a time when African Americans were still considered as Negroes during the mid-20th century, the historical contribution by colored people from the past appeared to have been disregarded. There is a melancholic quote from the novel about the people we have forgotten who contributed to the world, and they are usually overlooked: “The men who made the railroads and ships and towers of stone, were before our eyes, in the flesh, their voices different, unweighted with recognizable danger and their delight in our songs more sincere seeming, their regard for our welfare marked by an almost benign and impersonal indifference” (Ellison 88). The narrator laments on the history of the African slaves, and some may argue that he tries to victimize himself because he is suffering as well indirectly. He may not be in chains, but the main character has to struggle to survive in the world around him constantly.
In a world where apathy has become the norm, people can manipulate others to get what they want. In other words, people are used for devious purposes. Usually, most people do not go out of the way unless there is some agenda involved. When the main character joins the Brotherhood, which supposedly exists to fight against social injustice, it has its own agenda and restrictions. He realizes that the Brotherhood is not really about taking care of Harlem or the black movement. “Everywhere I’ve turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my own good—only /they/ were the ones who benefited. And now we start on the old sacrificial merry-go-round. At what point do we stop?” (Ellison 391). There was a scenario where the main character is manipulated to thinking that certain white men care about him because they are willing to offer him a scholarship for college. However, he is humiliated by them after he is forced into a boxing fight with other black men. The white men were humiliating black people because they were enforcing their own mindset of the world where a person has to struggle to get what he/she wants.
The main character was forced to accept the ‘dog-eat-dog world’ mindset, where each person has to struggle to achieve something. Every way the black man turns, he is met with obstacles and deceit, and these things become normal in an apathetic world. The theme of responsibility is brought up time and again throughout the novel. We are responsible for how the world is shaped because we make a decision to either bring about change or remain accustomed to the status quo. If we do not accept responsibility in one way or another, then “apathy becomes present to some degree in everyone. Everyone had sometimes had a chance to get involved when another truly needed help and has chosen non-involvement or denial of responsibility” (Sharpe 298). In the novel, there is a moment where the main character was about to kill someone with a knife but made a choice not to. The character stresses that ‘All dreamers and sleepwalkers must pay the price, and even the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all. But I shirked that responsibility” (Ellison 12). If we do not work towards change, then we face the price of what we see in the world today. Apathy or lack of indifference is more prevalent than it ever was. For example, the majority of people simply walk past a beggar or homeless person on the street. People are living comfortable and luxurious lives because of the materialism around them, and they are totally unaffected by what they see on the side of the street or sidewalk. At a certain point in the novel, there is a dream sequence where the main character is trapped in a metal box and glass. The symbolic image of the man inside a machine is highlighted throughout the novel several times. We can also infer that the machine is referring to technology and the rise of materialism, leading to apathy or indifference. “Behold! A walking zombie! He’s learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He’s invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, and the perfect achievement of your dreams! The mechanical man!’ (Ellison 74). Even though the issue of race is one of the main themes of the novel, it hints at other subtle meanings. “Today amorality is exhibited by society tolerating: lies, innuendoes, cover-ups, and distortions by our politicians, riots, unruly protests, destruction of other peoples’ property, leaking of classified documents, fake news, half-truths, and double standards” (Levitt). There are those who have become blinded to the destruction they are causing to people around the world due to the fact that their lack of morality and apathy has become prevalent in a degraded world. The events that took place during the civil rights movement were just the beginning of social inequality. Today it has spread throughout society, whether it comes to social classes, economic disparity, conflict of opinions, and the rise of leftism, etc. The problems that the main character of the novel faced have not been diminished. In fact, they have been taken to a whole new level in a divided world today.
If we look back at the prologue of Invisible Man and understand what the narrator is actually trying to say, we know he has suffered because of his race and color. However, it is a cry out to humanity that has lost touch with reality and the ability to really connect with others. ‘Apathy, distrust, boredom, and indifference are the end result of invisibility as this is articulated by the author of the Invisible Man in the prologue of the novel” (Johnson 24). The narrator says that people refuse to see him. The people he comes across in the story do not make any attempt to look beyond the veil of what lies before them. Their minds are already polluted with prejudice, division, and a sense of superiority (regarding the white people the narrator comes across throughout the novel). Many readers may ask why is the character put through so much conflict, obstacles, and misery. Some would say the novel is a story about the survival of a Negro in a hostile world. The character’s life is a reflection of us in one form or another. Just as the Negro continues to find ways to conform to society, we too find ways to conform to society in the modern and complex world we have today. So this begs the question if the world depicted by Ralph Ellison is really any different from our current one, and if anything has changed from the mid-19th century to the current 20th century.
Apathy has become a major problem in the modern world, combined with the lack of indifference that has existed in one form or another for centuries. However, it only started to become widespread from the early 20th century. In Invisible Man, what the narrator faces and the kinds of indifferent people he confronts throughout the novel can be relatable to anyone who has belonged to a minority group or the less fortunate members of society. It makes us wonder why apathy has become the norm today. If we look at this from a psychological perspective, “apathy comes from a human being experiencing something that they simply cannot handle. Instead of the brain attempting to reconcile and comprehend, it performs its own convoluted coping mechanism: a numbing or getting used to the cause of the distress” (McKim). The suffering of African Americans became normal for the general population, especially for the whites. They did not feel any impact on changing it, and they went on with their busy lives. Unfortunately, for the narrator in the novel, he decided to isolate himself from the world since he became so convinced that humankind had no place for him. He experienced apathy from people different than himself at a time of division and hate. He was mostly treated as inferior as compared to the so-called “superior white race.” This manner of division is still prevalent in our world today because “when you are a member of a marginalized community, it is easy to feel at once the indifference, casual or studied, of the world passing by, and, too, the way you can never quite blend in, for you become visible precisely at the moment you break societal rank, the moment you step where your class is not supposed to” (Bellot). This is why the novel of Ralph Ellison still resonates with many readers today. If people do not associate with other people as equal to themselves, apathy will continue to be an epidemic in the world.
If people do not associate with other people as equal to themselves, apathy will continue to be an epidemic in the world. Other people may explore if the author’s point of view, and the narrator’s point of view were the same. That is a very good possibility to ponder upon since ‘Ellison’s outlook was universal: he saw the predicament of blacks in America as a metaphor for the universal human challenge of finding a viable identity in a chaotic and sometimes indifferent world” (Seidlitz). The main character ends up in a manhole at the end of the novel, and he accepts his situation as a man who has been broken by the fabric of society. In Ellison’s view through his novel, the United States has become a perplexing and cruel world for the unfortunate groups of society. There are numerous people belonging to different cultures, societies, and lifestyles. So why do we oppose a certain group of people who pose no threat to us or those who look different from others? The author Ralph Ellison masterfully highlighted this during a powerful moment in the novel Invisible Man when it is asked that why a Negro in war is treated as an equal as compared to a Negro living in a city that is just trying to get by in life. Why would the main character place himself in defeat at the end of the novel? Some interpret it as a kind of triumph for the character, whereas others see it as a form of defeat. The character may have seen himself as invisible, but isolating oneself from the world is not a form of justice for a colored man who has been wronged by society for a long time. Life for colored men was not easy for centuries, not even after when Lincoln abolished slavery through the Thirteenth Amendment. It is possible that the author was hinting about social divisions that fluctuate according to certain circumstances in the current society.
What makes the story of the Invisible Man tragic is that the main character of the novel has no apathy towards the world, yet he is forced to struggle in an apathetic world. The man has both an optimistic and pessimistic worldview about humanity as he goes through his trials and tribulations. He tries his best not to impose any ill will on anybody, however, at one point he does attempt to try to kill a man who insulted him, but he does not. If he had murdered that person, he would be no different as the people who hated him simply because of the color of his skin. The author Ralph Ellison has lived long enough to witness the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Would the novel Invisible Man be interpreted differently if it was written in the 1970s? No, but perhaps Ralph Ellison may have had a different method in telling his story. It would have been interesting to ask the author if his worldview changed before his death in the early 1990s. The world had changed, and the African American people became more inclusive in society. However, there are still no shortages of literary works based on slavery, racism, and prejudice today. Readers need to be reminded of the untold stories of African Americans because we still have a lot to learn about their stories. If apathy is reduced in the world, we may no longer need to be reminded of the pain and suffering that so many have endured over the ages.
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