Invisible Man is a complicated book to describe. The structure of the novel is frequently compared to a jazz composition, with themes and their riffs weaving through complicated patterns and distortions. I think that is a helpful comparison. If the title of the piece is “Invisibility” the riffs would be about the problems of vision in all its many permutations.
The opening line: “I am an invisible man,” contrasts with the opening of Moby Dick "Call me Ishmael." In Moby Dick the quest is seemingly straightforward, i.e. Captain Ahab’s vendetta against the white whale and the hopeless quest to find him. For the invisible man the quest is amorphous, his white whale is his own namelessness. His identity is constantly in flux as he tries to make sense of belonging to a nonsensical world.
A leitmotif running throughout the novel is the problems of mistaken identity. The protagonist “sees” himself as the next potential Booker T. Washington, an illusion that slowly dissolves. Mr. Norton, the white college trustee, has had his illusions of the peaceful cultivation of the black race shattered when he’s confronted with the brokenness and complexity of the black lives that live beyond the campus boundaries. Out of sight out of mind, he has no frame of reference for life existing outside of his imperialistic vision.
Perhaps the most significant riff on identity is when the protagonist, after suffering a traumatic accident in the paint factory is cocooned/coffined in a small medical apparatus. The staff hover around him talking about the theoretical success the prefrontal lobotomy machine will have. As the disembodied voices talk above him he hears the voices agree that his psychology is not at risk, because it’s doubtful how much psychology he possesses in the first place…it’s a win win situation: they get to try out their new machine and “society will suffer no traumata on his account.” (366)
“There was a pause. A pen scratched upon paper. Then, ‘Why not castration, doctor?’”
The scientific cultivation of the black person has been transformed from an idyllic college campus to barbaric medical experimentation. In each instance the black person is matter to be changed and transformed, but without personhood to tether it to humanity. As the protagonist undergoes horrific shock treatments, biting his lips to smother his screams, his body convulses with the pulsating electric.
“Look, he’s dancing, “ someone called.
An oily face looked in. ‘They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot boy! Get hot!” it said with a laugh.” (368)
Despite the electric shock therapy and the unequivocal claim that the result will be a “complete change of personality,” the protagonist emerges largely intact. The only thing missing is his name. And now for the first time he must wrestle with his own invisibility. His name has become meaningless, he has been transformed from a man with a dream and the possibility of hope into “blackness and bewilderment and pain.” (372) As he’s pressed over and over to answer questions, his lack of identity begins to haunt him:
“I wanted freedom, not destruction. It was exhausting, for no matter what scheme I conceived, there was one constant flaw—myself. There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two are involved with each other. When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” (376)
Another significant theme is confusion that leads to violence. The first instance of this thematic cycle is within the first chapter when the protagonist is asked to read his high school graduation speech at a boxing match for the white spectators. His speech argues that “humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress,” and as he makes his way to the ballroom he’s swept up along with the young black boxers getting ready for the fight. I say “swept up” because the majority of the action in this book happens without the volition or consent of the protagonist. He’s merely flotsam in the endlessly meaningless chaos.
As he’s pushed along with the nine others into the servant elevator, the atmosphere is tense and without solidarity. Our protagonist assesses his compatriots and finds them wanting:
“…I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington…I felt superior to them in my way, and I didn’t like the manner in which we were all crowded together into a servant’s elevator.” (29)
As the doors open they are led through the haze of cigar smoke toward the center of the room and pushed into place. And there standing in front of them is a naked blonde woman, gyrating slowly to the music “the smoke of a hundred cigars clinging to her like the thinnest of veils.” (32)
Only, part of the entertainment is the boxing match, the other part is the humiliation of the black male in all aspects of his personhood. Will the black boys look at the woman? Can they control themselves in the presence of a naked gyrating woman, their control or lack thereof being evident in their thin boxing shorts? The protagonist feels a wave of “irrational guilt and fear.” In Black Like Me, the author John Howard Griffin, who had dyed his skin black to experience racism in the south, was cautioned to never look directly at a white woman under any circumstances. In Mississippi he was told to avoid looking at movie posters if they happen to have a white woman on them, any direct gaze was enough to run the risk of lynching.
“I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed on her belly her thighs formed a capital V. I had a notion that of all in the room she saw only me with her impersonal eyes.” (32)
Their looking creates a layering of objectification. The subjugation of a black man in the south circa 1950 is almost taken for granted…but with the arrival of the blonde, the objects are equally engaged in objectifying the woman standing before them as the white men surrounding them. The protagonist sees the woman before him as a sexual object and as such he dehumanizes her. The description of the woman exposes the irony of the American “dream”. Although the woman has the American flag tattooed across her belly, her “V” is not for victory, but an ironic reminder of subjugation.
In Shelly Eversley’s essay “On Female Invisibility in the Novel” she argues that one of the most under explored aspects of Invisible Man is the concept of vision.
“More than a literal question of seeing, the protagonist’s life depends on his ability to ‘learn to look beneath the surface’ and discern reality despite ‘mirrors of hard, distorting glass’ (153, 3). Such discernment requires he learn to distinguish salient meaning from stereotype.” 1
The protagonist imagines this blonde woman as a type of mythic siren, “calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea.” (32) This image presupposes a level of agency, but as a clarinet begins to softly “moan”, something about the song snaps him out of his reverie and allows him to see the world around him more objectively. Both the black men and the woman are pawns in this horrific game of chess. He notices now specific men in the throng of lascivious white faces. One man, in a particularly disturbing simile is described as “clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda, wound his belly in a slow obscene grind.”(33)
Gradually, the focus of interest shifts from the physiological predicament of the boys to the dancing blonde and as the circle tightens their “beefy” fingers begin to reach out for her flesh. Mistaken at first for a siren, the protagonist now sees her lack of agency. Her inability to escape and her equal subjugation. She tries to gracefully dance away from their groping fingers but is eventually caught and carried out of the room, hoisted above their heads like a prize. And as she is carried away he sees her for the first time:
“…above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom with the rest of the boys. Some were still crying and in hysterics.” (34)
This has just been the prologue to the fight. The theme of distorted vision and confusion has been set up and now we circle back for a riff. In the first rendition the boys think they are about to fight each other, but instead are forced to contend with themselves and their own sexuality. In the second rendition the boys again think they are about to fight each other, but being blindfolded individualizes the experience where they are battling blindly against a bloody melee of flesh. And once again they are goaded by the white onlookers:
“See that boy over there? one of the men said. [before being blindfolded] “I want you to run across at the bell and give it to him right in the belly. If you don’t get him, I’m going to get you. I don’t like how he looks.”(34)
The irony here is the emphasis of vision. The boys won’t be able to see anything blindfolded. This is the black man’s predicament: There is no solidarity in a ‘dog eat dog’ world. He has been fear-mongered into an automaton, mechanically obeying another’s commands based not on rationale but biased opinion; the white man controls everything by his preferences: he doesn’t like how the other boy “looks.”
Within this paradigm there is no sight. The protagonist feels “blind terror” he “wanted to see, to see more desperately than ever before, but the blindfold was as tight as a thick skin-puckering scab and when I raised my gloved hands to push the layers of white aside a voice yelled, “Oh no you don’t you black bastard! Leave that alone!” (36)
Throughout the novel this will be repeated over and over again, the idea of pushing aside the “white” in order to be able to see. And always in response the disembodied voice of a white man unwilling to relinquish control. There is a dichotomy between those who have the power to see and be seen and those who do not. With vision comes dignity.
“Blindfolded, I could no longer control my emotions. I had no dignity. I stumbled about like a baby or drunken man…A blow landed hard against the nape of my neck. I felt myself going over, my head hitting the floor. Streaks of blue light filled the black world behind the blindfold.” (37)
Ellison said once that he didn’t set out to write a protest novel, and I think the “black world behind the blindfold” is what is the differentiating factor. This isn’t simplistic racism, it’s not as easy as black vs. white. It’s a broken system that throws all interactions within the body politic into confusion. Throughout the fight everyone fights everyone hysterically in “complete anarchy.” “No group fought together for long.” Embedded within the text is an allusion to the failures of both Marxism and Black Nationalism that the protagonist will contend with throughout the novel.
For Ellison, the problem of the Invisible Man is complex. He argues that invisibility comes from two basic facts of American life: The first is racial conditioning which leads white people to make judgments about black people as inferior and ultimately subhuman. The second is the “formlessness of Negro life wherein all values are in flux.” 2
“The boys groped about like blind, cautious crabs crouching to protect their midsections, their heads pulled in short against their shoulders, their arms stretched nervously before them, with their fists testing the smoke-filled air like the knobbed feelers of hypersensitive snails.” (38)
The values are in flux, not because they lack solidarity as the Black Nationalist would argue, but because they have lost their dignity as humans. The protagonist realizes slowly the fighters have been pulled off the mat one by one until it’s just him and the largest brute in the group. As they dodge and parry he leans in and whispers “Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize.” But in this moment his opponent has come to believe that this fight is worth fighting for, that despite the puppetry, he chooses to fight: one black boy against another.
Ultimately, the protagonist will find himself again in the same predicament, blindly fighting against another black man for the right to live, only to find himself buried alive in a coal cellar, left alone with his nightmares.
Written in 1952, this book has a timeless quality about it, which perhaps isn’t a good thing. Ellison challenges the reader to go beyond discussions of racism and begin to ponder what disembodied voices are guiding our societal prejudices for better or for worse.
It’s a fallacy that racism is on the wane. Racism is a protean entity, always in flux. “A changing ideology with the constant and rational purpose of perpetuating and justifying a social system that is racialized.” 3 Our standards must evolve with the times rather than being permanently entrenched in a Slavery/Jim Crow era paradigm. Three years after Invisible Man was published 14 year old Emmett Till was murdered for having a conversation with a white woman in a grocery store. In 2014 a 12 year old black boy, Tamir Rice was shot repeatedly by a police officer while playing with a toy gun in a park. When black bodies are objectified as predatory it creates a vision problem. Christian Smith And Michael Emerson argue in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America that our framework for describing racism needs to change. Instead of racism, they argue for a more complex understanding of racialization:
“It understands the racial practices that reproduce racial division in the contemporary United States are ‘(1) increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most Whites.’ It understands that racism is not mere individual, overt prejudice or the free-floating irrational driver of race problems, but the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups.” 4
In the prologue, the Invisible Man says that what ultimately leads to his invisibility isn’t something inherent in his biochemical makeup, but rather something intrinsic in the eyes of those he comes in contact with. It’s an “inner eye” problem. A choosing to not see by choosing to not look. In the end, the relevance of this book is a reminder to choose to see. To wrestle with our own identity and the visibility of those around us. No matter what echelon of society you belong to, whether visible or invisible, we humans in our “absurd diversity” all have a role to play.
1. Eversley, Shelly. "Female Invisibility in the Novel." Bloom's Guides: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, ed. Harold Bloom, Infobase Publishing, New York, 2008, pp 57-58.
2. Ellison, Ralph. "Working Notes for Invisible Man." Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: A Casebook, ed. John F. Callahan, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, pp24
3. Emerson, Michael, and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press, 2000.