Searching for Identity: An Analysis of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”
Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, both African American authors active in the middle of the twentieth century, took on the challenge of exploring and exposing the adversity that African Americans faced through their writing. They brought to light the issues of discrimination and the negative effects that racism was having on not only African Americans but society as a whole. Wright and Ellison, in their respective novels Native Son and Invisible Man, depict African American protagonists who are restricted by racism and struggle to develop their own identities in the early twentieth century, resulting in unwanted identities and, occasionally, a lack of identity itself.
Wright and Ellison both had similar encounters with racism that greatly impacted their writing. They were both natives of the southern United States and moved north to urban areas. Wright first moved from Mississippi to Memphis, then to Chicago, and later New York where he met Ellison, who had moved from Oklahoma (“Richard Wright”). When they met in New York, Wright served as a mentor to Ellison and helped him to grow as a writer (“Ralph Ellison” 1516). Wright’s influence on Ellison is evident through the similarities in their writing styles and content. They both reflect on their personal experiences with discrimination in their novels and many details in their novels are woven from their own encounters. For example, Ellison’s unnamed narrator in Invisible Man even mirrors his own migration from the south to New York City. By pulling from their own experiences, Wright and Ellison are able to make their writing come alive because such autobiographical techniques add depth, detail, and vibrancy.
The settings of the novels set up an environment that is restrictive for the black protagonists. Although Native Son is set in the relatively northern city of Chicago, Bigger Thomas still experiences repressive discrimination because he is black and perceived as inferior. Even though he lives in a place where race relations are better than race relations in the South, white supremacy and division are rampant. African Americans in the novel were restricted to living in the Black Belt, a neighborhood restricted to African Americans: “The car sped through the Black Belt, past tall buildings holding black life” (Wright 70). African Americans may have lived in the same city as white people, but they were not equal and still had to live in separate areas and neighborhoods. Similarly, in Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator experiences racism even after he moves to the North in New York. Initially he is taken aback by all the freedoms of African Americans when he first arrives in Harlem; his treatment here is so different from how he was treated at his black university in the South. He is in awe: “Then at the street intersection I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic—and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world” (Ellison 159). The simple scene shows such a contrast to what the South must be like since he is so shocked about what he sees, and it gives the reader an idea about the conditions of the South. This initial scene of the unnamed narrator describing Harlem makes it seem like such a great place full of freedom and equality for African Americans; in reality, it ends up being just as oppressive, because white people still control his life through their power and influence. While the physical location influences the black protagonists’ restrictions in both novels, the time period plays the more important role because of how race relations were in the early to mid-twentieth century. No matter where the African American characters go, they were going to experience racism and discrimination because of how widespread it was at the time.
As aforementioned, the setting traps the black protagonist in a limiting environment, which strongly contributes to the theme of an individual in a restricted society. This theme manifests itself throughout both novels as the racism the protagonists are constantly subjected to traps them in an internal struggle for identity. The setting, especially the time period of the novels lays the groundwork for the restricted society, but it is the vivid depictions of racism that both authors employ that paints the picture of a restrictive society. The racism that the protagonists face isolates them from other people and essentially society because they are divided from the white characters. As a result of the division and discrimination, they are kept from equal opportunities, further isolating them and fostering their individual struggles for identity.
Racism is a prominent feature in both novels that continually serves to raise internal conflict for the black protagonists because it restricts them by leaving them without identities. The restrictive society turns Bigger Thomas to a life of crime in pursuit of an identity; he reflects the racism and discrimination that he feels from white people back to them, “To Bigger and his kind white people were not really people; they were a sort of great natural force, like a stormy sky looming overhead, or like a deep swirling river stretching suddenly at one’s feet” (Wright 114). He expresses that white people are not even humans, just as white people felt like him and other African Americans are not even humans. Wright strengthens this idea through a simile comparing white people to an ambiguous natural power. This “natural force” is what restricts Bigger and makes him feel like he has no other option than to commit crime as both a way of finding an identity and overcoming the white power by breaking the rules set forth in their restrictive society. Similarly, Ellison shows how the unnamed narrator was trapped by society because he always experienced being told who he was, mainly by white people of power, and was never able to figure it out for himself: “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too… I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer” (Ellison 15). In reflection on his life, the unnamed narrator discovers how he was so trapped by society and the only way he could become free was by declaring himself an invisible man. His only escape from the chains of society was by retreating to the underground. Wright and Ellison show how white power oppresses their black protagonists, mainly through striking depictions of racism.
Wright and Ellison both use color imagery wherever possible in their novels as a way to describe and identify people; as a result, the white society attempts to force chosen identities on the protagonists based on the color of their skin. Wright uses color to describe everyone in the novel, even the most insignificant and irrelevant characters that appear. Furthermore, he applies this same tactic to not only people but objects as well. For example, the description of a young girl includes, “She looked like a doll in a show window: black eyes, white face, red lips” (Wright 62). Indeed, just in a simple simile depicting a doll Wright used three different color words. By doing this, Wright emphasizes the significance of color by repeating it in the descriptions of everything; indeed, he develops color as an important symbol throughout the novel. Through the manifestation of color, he represents the division in America at the time and is able to emphasize the intolerance of whites. Wright’s steadfast repetition and emphasis on color mirrors the biased and intolerant vision of whites. By weaving all of the colors together, Wright develops color imagery; however, it is ironic how even though he places such an emphasis on color through the repeated imagery, he fails to paint a colorful world. He establishes a two-toned world of black and white; moreover, only rarely does he include colors other than black or white in descriptions (Faulkner 3592). The emphasis on color imagery helps the reader to understand how Bigger felt trapped and lose his identity in the overwhelming sea of colors that seemed to control his life.
Ellison also develops a strong pattern of color imagery in Invisible Man, but in a different way. While Wright throws it in the reader’s face by making sure to use color diction in nearly every sentence, Ellison uses it in a more subtle but equally effective way by employing color imagery but often more for symbolic purposes. For example, when the unnamed narrator is mixing paints in the paint factory, he only works with white paint because it is the most important one to the company, “‘White! It’s the purest white that can be found. Nobody makes a paint any whiter. This batch right here is heading for a national monument!’” (Ellison 202). His boss shows such enthusiasm for the white paint by repeating ‘white’ three times, which he follows up by showing its prestige since it will be used for a national monument. This emphasis is meant to mirror and be symbolic of the prestige of white people. Ellison is trying to convey that just as the white paint is superior to all other paints, white people are superior to all other people. He furthers his point in this scene when the unnamed narrator mixes the paint wrong, “The paint was not as white and glossy as before; it had a gray tinge” (Ellison 203). Even the slightest imperfection in the paint that makes it no longer the purest white yields this reaction from his boss, “‘What the hell, you trying to sabotage the company?’” (203-204). This is significant because it shows that something that is not the purest white is no good and unworthy. The smallest deviation from the color white in one batch of paint was hyperbolically able to sabotage the entire paint company. Ellison translates this idea to how white people felt about colored people at the time, and how even the slightest bit of color in someone makes them inferior. Ellison develops color imagery carefully in Invisible Man through repetition of color diction with underlying messages. Color imagery is an effective tool for emphasizing race relations since the issues surrounding racism and discrimination revolved around something as seemingly trivial as the color of someone’s skin. It is an overt way of showing the power of race over changing the protagonists’ identity.
Wright and Ellison also use a light and dark motif in order to emphasize the racial tensions in Native Son and Invisible Man. In Native Son, Wright uses snow as a recurring symbol throughout the novel. The snow begins to fall once Bigger kills Mary and burns her body, and it is often at night when the falling snow is mentioned. Wright creates a picture of the light, white flakes mixing and juxtaposes it with the dark, night sky: “Around him were silence and night and snow falling, falling as though it had fallen from the beginning of time and would always fall till the end of the world” (Wright 184). This shows the interaction between light and dark, white and black. The white overpowers all the darkness throughout the novel, covering the city and burying Bigger as he tries to evade the authorities. Ultimately, it is the whiteness that wins out as the snow finally stops falling once Bigger is arrested. Wright is trying to point out that he light presents obstacles for the dark; just as, the white people in society present obstacles for the black people.
Ellison presents the light and dark motif in another interesting way through his invisible unnamed narrator. Instead of being lost in the darkness that the white society has put him in, the narrator embraces the light in order to confirm his invisibility, which is the identity he has searched for his entire life: “I now can see the darkness of lightness. And I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form” (Ellison 6). He learned to embrace the light, which represents the white society, in order to make his own identity of invisibility. Instead of trying to overcome the light with his own darkness, he faded into the light so that his new identity of invisibility could be confirmed, “Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well” (Ellison 7). Although he has managed to acquire an identity by his own means, he was still driven to it by the power of light. Ellison does this to show the unnamed narrator’s struggle for identity was able to come to an end by not only embracing his blackness but light as well to secure an identity. The light and dark motif used by Wright and Ellison accentuates the power struggle between African Americans and the white society.
Wright and Ellison also investigate the implications of racism in their novels is by introducing foil characters for the black protagonists. These authors use white characters to create contrasts that are the exact opposites of Bigger and the unnamed narrator. They do this in order to create a stark juxtaposition between characters to mirror the divide in society during the early twentieth century. Wright develops a contrast between Bigger Thomas and Mary Dalton, for example. Obvious differences exist such as race, gender, and wealth. Furthermore, Mary is oblivious and proves to know little about blacks. Although she tries to befriend Bigger, it is insulting because she does not take into account his feelings or wants; she is unable to relate to blacks because of the way society conditioned her to view them. She is a symbol and her ignorance represents the ignorance of whites in the early twentieth century (Bradley 2018). Similarly, Mr. Norton in Invisible Man tries to befriend the unnamed narrator and pretends to understand his situation. While it seems like a nice gesture, in reality, it offends the unnamed narrator because it comes off as condescending and insensitive to his situation. Mr. Norton does not realize that he does not want his pity; he just wants his own freedom and equality. Mary and Mr. Norton’s oblivious ignorance clashing with Bigger and the unnamed narrator’s uneasy and offended responses lead to conflict that highlights the underlying racism of society.
In Native Son, Wright consistently uses animal similes to build and showcase the racism of society. Wright often compares the African American characters in the novel to animals through the use of similes; furthermore, this works to dehumanize blacks by portraying them as subhuman. The comparison is simple but effective because it is repeated so frequently throughout the novel; also, it is powerful because it brings to the readers’ attention the main idea that white Americans think less of African Americans, which is the source and drive for racism, segregation, and discriminatory acts. For example, a bystander describes Bigger, “‘He looks exactly like an ape!’ exclaimed a terrified young white girl who watched the black slayer” (Wright 279). In this simile, by comparing Bigger to an ape, he becomes less human because of the association with an animal. Specifically, it draws a comparison to a primitive ancestor of the human species, which makes it seem like he is an underdeveloped human. This strengthens the idea of white supremacy as this exact simile and other similar ones are repeated multiple times throughout the novel. It burns the idea into Bigger’s mind that he truly is lesser than the white people verbally attacking him. Wright is able to stress racism through his use of literary features.
While Wright develops a focus on animal similes to put emphasis on racism, Ellison develops the symbolism of the Sambo doll. The Sambo dolls are little black dolls made out of paper and appear in the novel when they are being sold on the street. Clifton, the man selling them, is dancing them around like puppets, “A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper…which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face” (Ellison 431). Ellison uses the Sambo dolls as a symbol for African Americans, and the strings that are making the dolls dance and move around are representative of the white society, who has a hold and control over African Americans at the time (Jarenski). This showcases the situation of the individual restricted by society because it takes it to such an extreme since the puppeteer has sole control; all movements are controlled and restricted by the one in charge. This adds to the idea that African Americans are oppressed by white people.
The racist environments that Wright and Ellison create have a negative impact on their black protagonists. The segregation and persistent discrimination that they are surrounded by oppresses them. They are kept down by the racist society and not given the same chances. For example, Bigger acknowledges his unequal opportunity because of his race, “‘I could fly a plane if I had a chance,’ Bigger said. ‘If you wasn’t black and if you had some money and if they’d let you go to that aviation school, you could fly a plane,’ Gus said” (Wright 17). This shows how the racist society oppresses not only Bigger, but all African Americans because of their lowered social standing on account of their race. The unnamed narrator in Invisible Man finds himself in similar situations as well. For example, throughout the novel his various jobs include servicing white men as their driver and being restricted from higher level office jobs and forced to take a job in a paint factory. His opportunities are limited. Owing to the racism and discrimination that the black protagonists are consistently battered by because of their environment, they become oppressed and have little to no freedom or equality.
As a result of these feelings of oppression, a common theme of fear arises in both Native Son and Invisible Man. Indeed, fear begins to consume the lives of the oppressed black protagonists. Wright describes the fear and oppression of African Americans, “They hate because they fear, and they fear because they feel that the deepest feelings of their lives are being assaulted and outraged. And they do not know why; they are powerless pawns in a blind play of social forces” (Wright 390). He shows here how their fear comes about as a result of their oppression since their lives are violated by the intervention by white people. They have no say in their own lives and identity. In turn, it is the fear that Bigger felt that turned him to violence to gain an identity. In Invisible Man, the unnamed narrator’s eventual realization of his fear is what sets him free to find his identity. He realized that everything he ever did was in reaction to the fear he felt; it controlled his life, “I didn’t understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear” (Ellison 47). Nonetheless, it is the fear he constantly felt that came from his oppression and always held a grip over his life. Once he became aware of it, he became his own person and broke free from the identity given to him.
The culmination of the racist environment that oppresses and instills fear in the black protagonists rests in the struggle for an individual in a restricted society to develop an identity. Wright develops this through Bigger, who searches for an identity. He feels lost in a sea of white since he is unable to be recognized by any white people in society. Throughout Native Son, Bigger struggles with his only identity being black, “It made him live again in that hard and sharp consciousness of his color and feel the shame and fear that went with it, and at the same time it made him hate himself for feeling it” (Wright 347). The only recognition he ever received from anyone was about his race, and it is not until he accidentally finds himself on a spree of criminal activity that he gains notoriety and along with that, an identity. On his path as a criminal, he feels liberated from the chains he was always trapped in, “never had his will been so free as in this night and day of fear and murder and flight” (Wright 239). Although it is not the identity Bigger wanted, he is happy and satisfied because he is finally noticed by white people; indeed, he feels pride at the fact that white people are paying attention to him, “The papers ought to be full of him now. It did not seem strange that they should be, for all his life he had felt that things had been happening to him that should have gone into them. But only after he had acted upon feelings which he had had for years would the papers carry the story, his story” (222). It is then when Bigger feels he has gained an identity because of the fact that he is recognized. This recognition from the white community that now fears and hates him gives Bigger the satisfaction of having his own identity.
Ellison explores the same search for identity through the unnamed narrator. The protagonist is so lacking in an identity that his name is not ever told. This dissociates himself from the reader as well as from himself. The reader follows him on his journey through life where he is always defined by what people tell him and the identity that other people tell him to take on. When he joins the Brotherhood, he is told, “This is your new identity” (Ellison 309) as he is given a new name and a new person to become and act as. He never had the chance to be his own person and claim his own identity. His environment kept him down. It was not until he was able to embrace his invisibility and realize its power that he found an identity that he was comfortable with in the underground, “I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning” (Ellison 571). He managed to find peace and happiness away from all the people who tried to control his life; indeed, they could not reach him in the underground. Ellison shows the extreme lengths that the unnamed narrator had to take in order to escape. He emphasizes how letting go of what society was telling him and embracing invisibility allowed him to find an identity as an invisible man, “So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man” (573). It is important to recognize how the unnamed narrator reached a point of finding an identity, and Ellison even takes it to such an extreme point when he writes, “I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility” (6). This shows the true power of identity by equating identity with life.
Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison expose through their respective novels, Native Son and Invisible Man, the struggles that African Americans face in the discriminatory society of the twentieth century United States. Furthermore, they demonstrate the adverse effects of such prejudice, including a loss of identity and the inability to find one. Through their protagonists, these authors show the dangers of racism; society as a whole is able to have such a negative impact even on determined individuals by taking away something as simple, personal, and natural as an identity.
Bradley, David. “Richard Wright.” Black Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1992. 2018-2020. Print. Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Faulkner, Howard. “Richard Wright.” Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Ed. Carl Rollyson. Vol. 7. Pasadena: Salem Press, 2000. 3588-3596. Print. Jarenski, Shelly. “Invisibility embraced: the abject as a site of agency in Ellison’s Invisible Man.” MELUS 35.4 (2010): 85+. General OneFile. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.
Ed. Nellie Mckay and Henry Gates Jr. New York: Norton, 1997. 1515-1518. Print. “Richard Wright.” American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, et al. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Biography in Context. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper & Bros., 1940. Print.
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