Review of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

** spoiler alert ** This book is an experience. It is also a comment on society. I will try and outline some of the value I have found in this book. Consider giving it multiple readings.

What is most striking about the main character is that his self, often formless, subject to dramatic changes and abuses, stands in for the entire race; is, in a sense, an universal man.

His shoes could be filled by countless others – and this is the reason he makes such a compelling impression, even with his ‘invisibility’ which is both an amorphousness of his physical appearance and a undefined self. His journey and distinctive personality, anger and dreams, embody the cultural atmosphere in which he is embroiled: that of the South, and eventually that of Harlem. By examining his actions throughout the novel, it is possible to gain a chilling perspective of the African American’s historical struggle for recognition and equality. What becomes apparent from looking closely at his actions and reactions within the framework of the novel is that his Fate is not random, the disasters he continually comes up against are not mere accidents, but he is in fact towed forward by a purpose. I challenge you to find another character like the Invisible Man in a book today, whose journey unfolds like a dream, only after it has expired does it make any sense. It is a unique work in that way, because it is just a nightmare. A very meaningful nightmare full of the types of impressions we are wont to forget.
Since his dreams epitomize the dreams of the Common Man, his struggle is no different than the Union workers he tries to avoid; his position is the same as the frantic street preachers chanting jeremiads that he shuns in the beginning. It is only after the loss of faith in his idol, Dr. Bledsoe, and his immersion in the backward North, that he assumes an attitude of disgust for the system of inequality imposed on his people and finds courage within himself to enact change.

Since Ellison meant the Invisible Man to be the figurehead of a social movement, he placed his narrator’s final destination underground such that the revolution he seeks be of an underground nature. If you are thinking of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground you are on the right track. Essentially, the only effective revolution must take place under the controllers’ noses, under the cover of darkness, making use of the handicap and the advantage of invisibility inflicted upon them through the twisted psychological blindness of the oppressive white society. – This is one of the fundamental conclusions, one of the most thoroughly employed themes in the novel. Locating the narrator underground furnishes an additional advantage to his situation as an invisible citizen, becoming separated by the flawed social system, detached from the world of the upper crust further accentuates the observation that progress comes only with sacrifice and through suffering. The narrator’s perspective, though subject to vast changes throughout the length of the novel, finally settles on the supposition that his numerous misfortunes were the result of his vital progress as a reasoning individual and as an experienced observer of the warped mores and inherent flaws of American culture, that without his inevitable surrenders, unendurable agonies, and countless humiliations, he would have been able to achieve nothing.

Thus, the Invisible Man comes to realize that no other method exists to reach his goal, that his developing tendencies for violence are a result of his punishments, and that the only surefire path to freedom, equality and the fruit of his work lies in a self-destructive affinity of sacrificing for the greater good of the downtrodden members of his race, of standing in for those that refuse to fight for themselves.

The first clue the reader might receive that the Invisible Man may suffer from a self-destructive personality is in the prologue, wherein he brutally beats and nearly kills a man for calling him a derogatory term. However, he realizes that he had actually been completely invisible to the man – or so we are led to believe – and so the man had only been cursing an entity he could not understand or distinguish. Therefore, the narrator takes the slur as a personal affront, and is apparently looking for any excuse at all to act out his frustration against the people he sees as blind. It is only after the terrible forces of fate have changed him that we come to understand that the narrator is capable of true violence in the name of his purpose. At first he is not willing to take the risks, in fact does everything he can to avoid possible mishaps. However, in reality the true spirit of the Invisible Man lies buried beneath the comfort afforded by assurance in the benevolence of Fate, in the plausibility of his dreams.

His desire to speak his mind is the critical exponent of the danger he must face. No matter how often he flies in the face of the oppressors the ramifications of his actions will send him reeling back to his place. Yet the desire to act on his impulses, to not accept his situation is what propels the Invisible Man forward. Despite his many compromises and the unforeseen consequences, he is continually impelled forward by the knowledge that the state of affairs is entirely wrong and he seems to be the only one capable of initiating change.

Yet, often the narrator’s inability to cause the necessary ripples, to garner assistance or to coddle a sense of familiarity and conspiracy with those like him, and the constant pressure exerted upon him by the external forces of the tyrannical society of which he is a part accelerates his blossoming disloyalty and simmering resentment. He simply cannot resign himself. The Invisible Man’s final decision to go into exile beneath the streets of the city is a result of his inability to relate to his fellow man. In a sense he seems to have lost faith in the capacity of our culture to change. Still, the reader cannot help but feel that he has not rolled over to die. Ellison’s message seems to be to act underneath the radar, or in the words of the narrator’s grandfather: ‘overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’

One facet of the narrator’s invisibility involves his voice. He is not allowed to defend himself, and his inability to take control of hazardous situations is largely the result of his vocal impotence. The narrator’s tone throughout the course of the novel reflects the pent up frustration caused by this lack of acknowledgement – equivalent to a lack of respect. The Invisible Man’s yearning for visibility and his penchant for speechmaking equate to the proponents of jazz, the symbols of positive contemporaneous African American influence. Ostensibly, the concept of jazz has always evolved as a subdued form of resistance in the African American community, paralleling the Invisible Man’s philosophy.

The Invisible Man’s every action and every word involves a risk. Slowly, however, he gains some measure of confidence in his dealings with others. At first he watches how he addresses whites. When he arrives in the North he knows that to show his education in his speech could be fatal. It is only after he has been crushed by the weight of Northern racial oppression that he speaks his mind. Directly antagonistic comments begin to become more and more frequent in the novel, as the narrator becomes more and more willing to take the risk of raising his voice. The Invisible Man himself senses the change– ‘I had been talking beyond myself, had used words and expressed attitudes not my own… I was in the grip of some alien personality lodged deep within me,’ he says.
Seemingly, the Invisible Man is finding his voice. He is finding the power within himself as it begins to dawn on him that he has no identity. The emptiness inside him becomes the source of his power and the impetus of his striving.

Almost all the intrinsic conflicts in this novel are working beneath the surface, like the sizzling discontentment and rage within the narrator’s psyche. There is everywhere something written between the lines. The first chapters of his life that he had spent as a servile African American youth with glowing prospects he ultimately begins to see as wasted years, naïve indulgence of the worst kind. Had he been searching for a purpose for his life from the very beginning, things would have gone differently.

In a sense, Ellison’s main character is trapped in an insufficient society, where men cannot live with dignity or attain their dreams. Therefore, the only choice for him is to die in pursuit of the cause. The Invisible Man gives up his life to ‘hibernate,’ as he calls it, and wait until the right moment to act, when the political and social climate suits his purpose. But what the Invisible Man forfeits is not the life he wants. What use it is to live in a world where nothing is available to you, and you are reduced to a ghost?

It does not take a keen observer to conclude that Ellison’s treatment of his main character is borderline sadistic. In a sense, the hand he drew over the keys when he typed out the Invisible Man’s life is the hand that wracked and ruined him; the hand is the synecdoche for the social structure that makes men invisible or enacts their doom. It could be deduced then, that the Invisible Man’s self-destructive, stop-at-nothing mindset is produced for him by his surroundings. It is an evolutionary trait in a world in which he is not acknowledged. In order to become the necessary part of the revolution in civil liberties, he must be the catalyst for violent change; it must become his elemental existence.

Dostoyevsky does the same thing with his protagonists. They go through the torture of scandal and humiliation, believing all the time that they are right, and society mocks them, beats them, or locks them up until they either admit they are wrong or die. The era Dostoyevsky knew was not all that different in some ways from the place described in Ellison’s novel.

Many critics have indicated that each obstacle the Invisible Man staggers over represents the death of a former self. Each time he reawakens from the chaos that has torn his former self down he awakens as a new man. This intrinsic quality is analogous to the continuous strain of African American culture, lurching forward through history, through slavery and violence, always coming through changed but never satisfied… This is the characteristic most clearly defined by the narrator’s journey. Each episode of the novel allows the Invisible Man to surmount another demon inherent in the system he is fighting against. Each trial allows the narrator to take another step toward discovery, to inch deeper within himself, to access more aggressive solutions to the problems he faces.

His struggle for meaning symbolizes the untapped potential in every human being and pierces to the core of the eternal human endeavor. And despite its disturbing tone, its overarching theme is one of optimism, looking forward to a peaceful future for all Mankind. Ellison’s masterful weaving of an identity shaped by anger and discontentment shines light on the predicament of a nation suffering from psychological civil war. Invisible Man represents the pinnacle of expressing through satirical exaggeration with terrifying power the disgusting nature of our own Humanity. This revisionist narrative seeks to iron out the creases still left in American society as the lingering effects of ill-resolved racial tensions finally float to the surface. However, the most astonishing aspect of Ellison’s novel will always be the narrator, a latter-day African American Odysseus, simultaneously the most vital individual of his time, as well as a nonentity. The Invisible Man works as a scarcely perceived force in Ellison’s nightmare allegory, even as he takes up permanent residence in our minds. His character gains momentum and self-worth while at the same time losing everything. It is only when you have nothing to lose can you show true bravery, and make the necessary sacrifices. You may be distressed by the unresolved issues of the novel, but what has happened is enough to show progress, what has been gained is a foothold: even within hibernation there is the seed of a revolution. Even the Invisible Man does not know if all he has done was worth it, if he is any better off than if he would have just submitted to the way things stood – ‘I do not know if accepting the lesson has placed me in the rear or in the avant-garde,’ he says. As the Invisible Man is tucked away in his bright manhole, impotent with rage, we are left with his tale, and can only wonder if his struggle will ever end.