The Motif Of Invisibility As The Driving Factor In The Novel Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison
Representation in media and industry is a constant topic of discussion these days. Being “seen” has taken on an entirely new meaning. Society has made a lot of strides as far as inclusion. Due to social media and cable television, the average person is exposed to a number of different types of people and cultures.
Historically, segments of society were more segregated, to the point where mainstream society is completely oblivious to the experience of other walks of life. In the book “The Invisible Man,” the term invisible is used to describe black society and culture, because of the lack of awareness of the black experience by well off whites.
In his novel, “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison conveys this idea of invisibility through the way it shapes the main character’s thoughts and actions. At different points during the book the main charcter is motivated by his “invisibility” to do what he can to be seen white people. This feeling of invisibility has a negative impact on his own self worth. He chooses to shape his image with the goal of the acceptance of white people. He eventually comes to the realization on his own that in order to be seen, one has to truly acknowledge who they are and be themselves.
In the novel, “Invisible City,” Julia Dahl uses the term invisible in a slightly different way. It’s similar in a sense because in both novels, it signifies not being seen by mainstream society. The main difference between the two is that in “Invisible City,” the people who are “invisible,” are invisible by choice. The Hasidic Jewish committee uses isolation and non-inclusion as a source of power. It actually makes them stronger as a community.
In “Invisible Man,” the author explains in the beginning why the main character is invisible. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (page 3). He’s explaining that the world fails to look beyond the stereotypical perception of what black people are. Early on, he talks about impressing important white men, mainly his principal, through a speech he gives. The author is asked to recite his speech to a group of these white men. He’s actually excited to finally be seen by white people. Instead of just reading his speech, he is forced into a violence with other black men. Afterwards, they still request the main character to deliver his speech to a crowd that does not seem to care. He is awarded a scholarship when finished, causing him to feel visible again.
He unconsciously values the opinion of white people more than he values his own, simply because of the rush he gets from finally being seen. In “Invisible City,” the Hasidic Jewish community has such a strong sense of identity that they only value the opinions and views of those in the group. Both similar conditions, but drastically different responses to the condition. In “Invisible Man,” the author mentions advice his grandfather gave him. “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” (16). The main character is told that it’s better for him to smile and do what the whit man says, rather than make them angry. The Hasidic community in “Invisible City,” doesn’t feel the same burden to appease the outside world, despite not being seen.
The narrator in “Invisible Man” continues seeking visibility during his college years. He receives advice from the University President, a black man named Dr. Bledsoe, on how to deal with white men. Bledsoe says, “That’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about. It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself…But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (140-141). The constant need to be seen and acknowledged by the outside world inevitably leads to self-hate.
The narrator’s feelings toward invisibility eventually start to shift and evolve. As a result of his life’s journey he understands that his opinion of himself and his people are more important than anyone else’s. After seeing an older black couple get evicted, the narrator gives a fiery speech to a crowd. He shifts the value he places on being seen by white men toward being seen by his people. Much like the Orthodox Jewish community in Dahl’s “Invisible City,” the narrarator leans into the power dynamics of group identity. He joins a group called The Brohterhood, that speaks out for black rights in America. He believes these speeches are his key to gaining new visibility.
In all actuality the narrator is not any more visible than before. The Brotherhood is just using him as a spokesman, without actually valuing his ideas. Additionally, The Brotherhood members critique the narrator when he attempts to speak outside of The Brotherhood’s ideas. He again finds himself feeling invisible.
One day the narrator decides to take on the identity of a man named Rinehart. The new Rinehart persona isn’t submissive to anyone and makes his own decisions in life. It’s a noticeable contradiction between his original sensibilities and his new personality. The narrerater comes to the conclusion that the burning desire to be seen is not helpful to him as a person.
Toward the end of the novel, Ellison explains that sometimes invisibility can be an advantage. In “Invisible City,” the invisibility of the community makes even the local government and police force careful about getting involved in their business. The narrator in “Invisible Man,” also expresses how being invisible allows him to go about his business without anyone noticing him. He goes into hiding after riots break out in Harlem, and in doing so finds a freedom he has never felt before. Being able to express himself freely without worrying about acceptance from anyone is liberating to the point where he does not feel the same need to be seen.
Ellison uses the main character to illustrate identity issues facing many blacks in America through his use of the term “invisible.” Due to the way blacks in America have been treated historically, there’s a need to want to be seen as more than what others may think of you. Your self worth becomes tied into the recognition of other cultures, and consumed with proving yourself. Dahl uses the term invisible similarly, but the characters take pride in their isolation. They don’t feel the need to assimilate to mainstream culture the way many in the black community do. It’s likely due to the vastly different experiences of both groups. Ellison sheds light on the historical context that led to this type of mindset.
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