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The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

By Snuggiepants | Books | July 1, 2010 |

By Snuggiepants | Books | July 1, 2010 |

So you read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Congratulations, it’s considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, said to have engendered a cultural tidal wave on this country upon its publication. (Two pieces of trivia: it was the only book Ellison saw published, the others were published after his death. It’s also the novel that the College Board likes to ask questions about SO much on the AP English Literature Exam that it’s been used 16 years since 1970, more than any other work, including Shakespeare.)

So what’dja think? I’ll comment a bit on it, then put forth some discussion issues for everyone to gnaw on.

From the beginning, the middle, and the end of the prologue, these quotes stand out:

You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.
Please, a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.

All dreamers and sleepwalkers must pay the price, and even the invisible victim is responsible for the fate of all. But I shirked that responsibility; I became too snarled in the incompatible notions that buzzed within my brain. I was a coward…

Because while Invisible Man defies a pat summary (you can do it, but you would miss so many other layers of this story), these quotes seem to be a great starting point for the story and understanding the man himself, our unnamed narrator, “Jack-the-Bear.”

First, as the narrator goes on his odyssey of identity, he brings us in contact with a wide variety of characters, all of them seeming to use the narrator for their own ends and never seeing him completely. The white founder of the black college who is devastated in his personal journey to right white wrongs (say that six times as fast as you can) by the incestuous black sharecropper; the school administrator, Dr. Bledsoe, whose actions are breathtakingly cruel; the white “Brother Jack” who runs the organization for equality but seems pretty happy to ruthlessly cut people out when need be (and it took me a while to figure out he was white). There’s Lucius Brockway, the black man who works in the paint factory and with whom our narrator puts a few drops of black paint into a vat of pristine white, and then finally Ras the Exhorter, organizing blacks in Harlem, the literary symbol of Malcolm X and others before him who first started the black nationalist movement. Were you struck by the way each character deals with the narrator? The way he is affected by them?

This is a much more specific issue, but I’m fascinated by large phases of human movement and Ellison encapsulates one of the largest our country has seen when the narrator, born and raised in the South, goes to Harlem to find what he hopes will be work, success, even visibility at last. Of course, he does not find any of those things and the fact that he lives in what he describes as a “hole” in an old apartment building basement should strike us accordingly, but this movement from the South to the North in the 20th century was a significant one for millions of African-Americans and nicely documented within this novel. He also seems to dip his toes into every single American strata of society, from a millionaire’s cocktail party to a sharecropper’s shack. I’m curious if Pajiban readers found other significant landmarks of American history/social strata contained in Invisible Man.

Related, but: This was published in 1952. He wrote it throughout the 1940s. The differences between then and now should be obvious, but what’s more interesting to me are the subtle issues that don’t seem to have changed much — a distrust of others not like us, a desire for identity in a multi-cultural society. How did Ellison seem to address those issues? One anecdote I’ve often heard is that in the South (historically), white people don’t like/didn’t like blacks as a group, but tended to like (and sometimes love) them individually. In the North (again, historically), white people claimed to like blacks as a group, but tended to have issues with them on an individual basis. I didn’t come up with that comparison, I’ve just heard it discussed. Do you see evidence of this in Invisible Man?

And because I know some people were assigned to read the “Battle Royale” chapter as students, why do you think Ellison chose to include that scene in the novel? How did it fit in the overall story arc? This was a scene of black men fighting each other for the entertainment of white men. Did he ever depict black men fighting white men?

I saved this bit for the last: We now have an African-American president, something I’m not sure Ellison imagined in the 1940s, when segregation was still going strong. Is the invisible man visible at long last? Or is this just a first step toward true equality? Is it the inevitable result of our society becoming more and more diverse and WASPs losing hold of the traditional power structures?

Have fun kids, discuss away! And for those interested, next month’s Pajiba Book Club selection will be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; mswas will be leading the discussion.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.