Race in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
The theme of identity is densely interwoven throughout Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Raising questions of how one’s identity is established and maintained, Ellison creates a vision in which external forces influence the understanding of self as much if not more than one’s own self-knowledge. Ellison’s inclusion of a racial as well as a psychological aspect of identity imparts his text with a rich and dynamic commentary on social conditions, standards, and the ways in which human interactions dictate and contribute to our overall sense of identity.
It is easy enough to see where social class in American literature and racial inequality blend, but it is not easy to see where they separate. For example, near the opening of the book there is a disgraceful scene where the protagonist goes to a function to give a speech and ends up, while being allowed to give his speech, forced to participate, for the amusement of upper-class whites, in a pugilistic free-for-all. This is powerful protest writing, and there is no doubt that it is directed primarily against racism, but it also contains, to an indeterminate degree, a protest against the exploitation of the poor by the rich, i.e., it is also directed against class inequality.
Summary of Racial Elements
It is beyond the scope of this summary to attempt to unravel the intertwined strands of protest against both racial and social inequality in this book, but it should be mentioned that the Blacks in this book constitute not only a race, but a class. Ellison was familiar with Marxist terminology (witness the character of Brother Jack). He would have been fully aware of the distinction that is mentioned here. There is a Hobbesian quality to the world that Ellison depicts; with respect to social class in America it appears to be a “war of all against all”. Behind every good impulse there seems to lie something not so good. There are members of the upper class who seem to be benign in their attitude, but beneath the appearance of benignity there lurks either a smug sense of patronizing superiority and/or emotions of the most squalid kind.
Importance of Ellison's Invisible Man
Invisible Man has been deemed “the most important and influential American novel since World War II, and, arguably, the most important twentieth-century American novel”. Ellison’s work remains a widely studied and highly regarded text in the American canon, and its implications on subsequent literary endeavors and movements is evident in the many authors claiming Ellison as influential to their own writerly development. Having achieved timeless and classic status, Invisible Man remains relevant even after decades of sociocultural and political change.
In Invisible Man, we are introduced to the titular protagonist through his narration of the novel, which begins with the powerful assertion, “I am an invisible man”. Our narrator, we come to find out, isn’t literally or physically invisible, exactly. He describes himself as composed of flesh and bone and possessing of a mind just as any other person; however, he describes himself as definitively invisible “simply because people refuse to see me”.
Our narrator’s assertion regarding the dynamics of his invisibility is an especially important factor in the establishment and understanding of Ellison’s thematic qualities. From the title Invisible Man, one might approach the novel from the perspective that our titular character is literally invisible, and that we will learn of his experiences and challenges with moving about his world as such; however, Ellison quickly denies this presumption. Our narrator’s invisibility is not of his own design, but is rather the product of reactions from his environment. Our narrator becomes invisible because of the refusal of the people around him to “see” him.
Ellison presupposes that the act of being seen, and indeed of seeing, is integral to the formation of one’s identity. People outside of ourselves somehow have the power to create our identity for us, either through their actions or lack thereof. Consequentially, we have a role in contributing to the identity formation of the people we come into contact with, however mundane or profound the interaction may be; apparently, our affirmation of another’s existence and the ways in which we express that understanding affect the other in ways we cannot design or predict.
- Because people refuse to see our narrator, he understands himself to be invisible.
- It is not his reaction to others or his actions that create his invisibility; that is, it is not an internally mediated mechanism that births his invisibility.
- External circumstances mediate and confirm the narrator’s invisibility, and inform him about his transparent status in the social stratosphere.