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.
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