The Role of Women in Invisible Man
Women play a vital role in the shaping the development of Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. Just like the narrator, society depersonalizes women and treats them as if less than human. Both white and black females throughout Invisible Man are virtually invisible and underdeveloped replicating several established stereotypes of women in the mid 20th century. The purpose of the female characters in Invisible Man is to assist the narrator in recognizing the fundamental realities of his invisibility, yet the representation of the female characters is constantly sacrificed to further the self-revelation of the Invisible Man. Additionally, Ellison developed two themes defining women in Invisible man: of or relating to motherhood or sexualization.
Most women are depicted as highly sexualized and obsessed with the sexual stereotypes of black men. Those women who are not overly sexual automatically become a nurturing motherly figure. While Ellison explores the humanity of black men in society, he remains utterly blind to the humanity of women – often depicting them as one-dimensional and purely a symbol of motherhood or sexualization. The narrator lost what little recognition he had towards women beginning in the first chapter: Battle Royal as he began to align with manhood and brotherhood. The Battle Royal scene is suggestive of how in which the narrator gains his self-identity through a confrontation with a woman. Planted in a ring encircled by onlooking white men, the narrator and other black boys glanced forwards upon a beautiful, naked women in the center of the ring. This scene was designed to highlight the control that white men had over both women and black boys and their willingness to dehumanize for personal entertainment. The female dancer is described by the narrator as ‘The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon’s butt. ‘ (Ellison 19). The woman is a mere mask, illustrating something anything but human. Usage of the word “the” instead of a possessive word such as “her” implies possession of the women by both the black and white men in the room. The only control the women had during her dance was her ability to entrance her audience: “this creature was completely hypnotized” (Ellison 20).
These themes of dehumanization and possession continue as “[the men] caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes” (Ellison 20). Black females were considered to be of the lowest social order both within their own community and that of American society. Regardless of their race, women are considered to be inferior and invisible, just like Trueblood’s wife, Mattie Lou and the exotic dancer in Battle Royal. Briefly in Chapter 2, the narrator and Mr. Norton pay a visit to an ignorant sharecropper, Jim Trueblood, during a driving tour of the campus. The narrator makes it know that people tend to be drawn to this man and his story due to his sinful acts of incest with his daughter, Mattie Lou. The story is well known around the campus, however, often “never mentioned above a whisper” (Ellison 46).
Although much controversy on campus, Trueblood’s wife and daughter remained one dimensional and inserted by Ellison as merely a brief sexual encounter. The actions inflicted by the women in the household were never heard by the reader and were left alone to be ashamed and forgotten. Mr. Norton, representing the white community that wants to improve the status of the black community, does not ask about the well-being of Mattie Lou. Instead, he seems fascinated with the rape and requests Jim Trueblood to “[to] go where there is shade” (Ellison 51) to share his whole story. Like several white males that came before him, Norton becomes obviously excited with his ‘intent stare’ and ‘bright burning eyes’ as he derives pleasure in his identification with Trueblood and his incestuous actions.
The rape of Mattie Lou is an example of both the white men and Jim Trueblood participating in establishing a sexual precedent for men to express ownership of women. This encounter further highlights the invisibility and insignificance of Mattie Lou as she never receives help from the white community nor her own community, because of her race and gender. Once again, Ellison has avoided establishing an identity, now this time for a group of black prostitutes in order to exemplify their social position and their lack of individuality. The ones that do hold a name – Edna, Hester, and Charlene – are dehumanized because of their profession as “… women in short, tight-fitting, stiffly starched gingham aprons” (Ellison 66). The prostitute’s lack of individuality has deemed them as invisible and worthless to society, further allowing Ellison to utilize their characters as sexual objects for the entertainment of men, both black and white.
Mary Rambo shared a unique position in the novel: she was the lone, motherly female character, playing one of the most significant roles in the protagonist’s search for his identity. Mary Rambo was first introduced into the novel upon noticing the Narrator stumbling out of the subway and collapsing onto Lenox Avenue. Upon collapsing, Mary assists the narrator off the streets and into her home, immediately displaying striking motherly tendencies: “you take it easy, I’ll take care of you like I done a heap of other” (Ellison 252). Seeing him as a hurt and confused man who needs help, Mary bring the narrator into her home, where she then cooks for him, and nurses him back to health.
After he meets Brother Jack and begins to work for the Brotherhood, he begins to see Mary through a different lense. She becomes a source of embarrassment and shame for him, urging him to try to shatter her image, as symbolized by his impractical attempt to get rid of the cast-iron bank. Despite the strength and comfort she provides the narrator, he treats her, like all of the other women he has encountered, as a shame and embarrassment to their gender and society. In the end, he leaves Mary without a goodbye, confident that she will survive and be alright, having gone through similar experiences with other black men she has taken in. Ellison essentially inserted Mary Rambo’s character to merely develop the narrator’s character and provide him with a temporary home in which he can recover before he continues his search for his place in society. In Chapter 24, the narrator finds himself looking for a woman to sexually manipulate. In his search, he comes across a woman named Sybil. He knows that she is an unhappy wife, which makes her an easy target for manipulation, as he intends to sabotage the Brotherhood.
The narrator realizes that Sybil holds no information and she is more interested in the narrator fulfilling her fantasy of certain black stereotypes. To Sybil, the narrator is essentially a domesticated black rapist there to carry out her sexual fantasy. On the narrator’s end, he had intended to use Sybil as a pawn in his pursuit to sabotage the Brotherhood. Ellison develops Sybil’s character intending to emphasizes the idea of Black men being objects. Unknowingly, Ellison once again avoids establishing the depth of identity in Sybil and uses her merely to help the narrator understand for the first time in his life that he is truly invisible. The theme of using women as a pawn for the potential development of personal identity is evident throughout the novel, helping to explain the narrator’s intentions of invited Sybil to his apartment in the first place. While seeking to discover the role of black men in society, Ellison continually remains blind to the humanity of women.
Throughout Invisible Man, he often depicting women as either a symbol of motherhood or sexualization, without allowing either of their characters to be remotely dynamic and two-dimensional. Both black and white women are blatantly stereotyped and are exploited and used by men who seek to further their own interests and desires. In the Prologue of the novel, Ellison’s protagonist defines the narrator’s hardship as one in which ‘‘people refuse to see me” (Ellison 3). While following the path to making the narrator finally seen by society, Ellison “refuses” to view the strengths of women and let them also be acknowledged by society.
Ultimately, Ellison attempts to highlight the invisibility that the narrator and other black men in the mid 20th-century experience; however, he falls short in representing the same for women, making them just as invisible in the eyes of society.
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