The Briefcase 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”.
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