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The Book Club

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

1. Understanding the perspectives of the narrator. Quite evidently, the “invisibility” of the narrator – inferred from the book’s title – is augmented by the absence of the protagonist who takes centre-stage, and recounts his experiences chronologically. Drawing parallels between this individual and Ralph Ellison himself would be constructive in terms of identifying allusions and inspirations for people, locations and events; nonetheless, the atmosphere in the preface sets the ground for the rest of the text. Using the symbolism of light and brightness (as opposed to darkness and chronic oblivion), the reader is encouraged to – along with the narrator – evaluate the judgements and decisions undertaken by the latter (somewhat like a bildungsroman, given that the author already knows what is to come) through his life and various societal interactions.

2. Background of (racial) tensions within the novel. To amplify the conditions of the divided American society, as the author plods through his day-to-day activities, he is unconsciously – at times – sucked into spontaneous tensions or racial conflicts that erupt between members or groups of the community. These include the humiliating “battle royal” the young black men are forced to go through, the unfortunate trips with Mr. Norton at the college’s outskirts, the explosion in the paint factory, the fanatical actions undertaken by Ras the Exhorter, riots, as well as the various works of the Brotherhood. All these instances aggravate the delicate post-war stability, worsens the fight for equality (negotiating between superiority and inferiority), and puts into proper perspective the tough challenges undertaken by the unnamed African-American gentleman.

3. The recurring theme of invisibility, in quotes. The introduction (in the Penguin Classics version) by John Callahan succinctly expounds upon the theme by explaining that “nationally, as Ellison’s metaphor of invisibility implied, in life as well in fiction, the ‘high visibility’ of African-Americans rendered them vulnerable as a group, and invisible as individuals”. In additional, it is noted from the text: “Well, I was and yet I was invisible, that was the fundamental contradiction. I was and yet I was unseen”, and “I was simply a material, a natural resource to be used. I had switched from the arrogant absurdity of Norton and Emerson to that of Jack and the Brotherhood, and it all came out the same – except I now recognised my invisibility”.

4. Rinehart the enigma. Rinehart never does actually appear in the novel – an “invisible” character – but assumes a number of different roles and identities, as a briber, gambler, pimp, preacher et cetera; which proves to be confounding for the protagonist. He appreciates the freedom that the Rinehart disguise presents him with, but soon understands that this lack of tangible form reflects a loss of individuality. In the bigger picture, he sees this metaphor as a perspective that he has been compromising his personal growth and maturity for the “greater good” of the community.

5. “Invisible man”. The narrator is a curious character: he is highly intellectual, possesses great oratorical skills, is extremely introspective, and in the beginning highly respectful of authority; though the reader is constantly reminded of his invisibility – along the path of his development – with his continuing anonymity. His respect and faith in authority, with his complementary innocence, allows him to become a disciple to Dr. Bledsoe and in Harlem an effective black spokesperson for the Brotherhood. Especially through his formative years emerging as his high school’s valedictorian and harbouring high hopes of doing great, positive things for the Brotherhood, the invisible man – as the narrator – allows the reader to interpret the events and judge the people around the character. With the benefit of hindsight, it is only nearing the end when the narrator begins to comprehend the limitations of his social roles, and begins to take a stand.

6. A foretelling of the future at the Golden Day tavern. “ … you both fail to understand what is happening to you. You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see – and you, looking for destiny! It’s classic! And the boy, this automaton, he was made of the very mud of the region and sees far less than you. Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the score-card of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less – a black, amorphous thing. And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force … ”.

7. The institutions associated with the narrator. Given the nature of the text, considerable emphasis has been placed upon the institutions associated with the narrator – namely the all-black college and the Brotherhood – and forces the reader to evaluate the genuine intentions of their members. He realises he has never really been “seen” by Dr. Bledsoe or Jack in his quest to “make history” and make a difference in the community; especially by the half-blind latter who has probably never really seen him, and has only been making use of his skin colour and speech-making abilities to advance the Brotherhood’s causes. Dr. Bledsoe and the all-black college seem more interested in advancing their personal interests through their continued subordination to the whites, with the former more concerned about his individualistic, pragmatic goals; while Jack and the Brotherhood – with their scientific methodologies – seem oblivious to the actual plight of the Harlem residents, and intent on philosophical ideals instead.

8. Blindness and darkness. Blindness is a recurring theme of the novel, and the symbols include the Reverend Homer A. Barbee, the supposed blindness of the school and Dr. Bledsoe, as well as the semi-blindness of Jack. Correspondingly and contrastingly, light and sight are seen as symbols of enlightenment and knowledge, as evidenced from the opening scene with the illuminated surroundings of 1,369 lights, when the narrator explains “the truth is the light and light is the truth”.

9. His grandfather’s teachings. “I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to 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 … ”.

10. The briefcase. The narrator is constantly carrying this briefcase, which was obtained from the pointless “battle royal” in the beginning, and eventually contained a coin bank in the design of a black man eating the coins, documents given to him initially by the Brotherhood, Tod Clifton’s Dancing Sambo doll, and the filed steel from Brother Tarp. Not only is it a collection of his different experiences and continuous learning journey, it becomes a tool for empowerment, defence and gradual growth.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.


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