Invisible Man Ralph Ellison, 1952
Invisibility "touches anyone who lives in a big metropolis." (New Yorker, 5/2/94) “Black and Blue” Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) • published in 1952 • 1953 – won the National Book Award • 1965 – named the most distinguished American novel since WWII • Setting: begins in 1948, flashes back 20 years to begin the story in 1928 • “The invisible man is just that…neither black or white…he is a human being in search of his place in history past, present, and future. He is in search of his own humanity.”
***KEY IDEA*** • In analyzing the novel, note that IM moves from PURPOSE to PASSION to PERCEPTION throughout the entire novel • Modern/Postmodern themes
Possible Purposes: • 1. to depict man’s search for identity or “visibility” • 2. to explore Blindness (illusions, appearances, masks) vs. Truth (reality, sight) • 3. to present the stages a man passes through to enlightenment • 4. to explore the significance of the past on the present • 5. to examine how to retain one’s individuality within the community • 6. to chronicle the Black experience in America.
Notes on Ellison’s Style and Themes • 1. Style: echoes that of other African-American writers, particularly those involved in the Harlem Renaissance. • 2. Focus: the alienation of the African-American (and, by extension, the individual) in an ostensibly free society. • 3.Central question of the novel: “How can one person make a difference when all of the avenues to power are occupied by the duplicitous?” • 4. PICARESQUE NOVEL
Notes on Ellison’s Style and Themes (cont’d.) • Contemporary problems in racial relations are reflected in the following ways: • a. The taboo of white-black romantic relationships • b. Black power figures were often seen by other blacks as conspirators with whites. • c. The problem of stereotypical dolls and images of blacks • d. The benefits (and drawbacks) of the Communist party in America • e. The conflict between the assimilationists and the separatists within the black community
In his acceptance speech for the National Book Award of 1952, Ellison asserted that Invisible Man'schief significance is its “experimental attitude, and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction” (SA 102).
Allusions Galore • Ellison draws from: • the Bible • classical works in the European tradition (Dante, Eliot) • major works in the American canon (Emerson, Hemingway, Huck Finn) • African American literature and folklore (Uncle Remus, “Little Black Sambo” • African American historical figures (Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, etc.) • native American mythology • children's games and rhymes • his own experience
Invisible Man concerns the quest of an unnamed young black man for personal identity and racial community as he travels from South to North, from innocence to experience, from self-deception to knowledge, from a spurious visibility to an existential invisibility. These journeys take place in the immediate context of the late Depression, but, as they unfold, their implications extend backward in time to the Reconstruction, slavery, and the founding of the Republic, and outward from the protagonist's self to the social situation of black America and to the very nature of the democratic experiment.