Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

The first chapter in Invisible Man (1952), “Battle Royal,” is frequently anthologized in literature textbooks here in America, so I’ve always been curious to know how the rest of the book turns out. The initial chapter works by itself and was first published in 1947. The book, which eventually went on to win the National Book Award in 1953, took another five years to write.

As is often the case with National Book Award winners, it is very experimental. This is partially based on two sources of inspiration: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (“I’ve recalled it often, here in my hole”) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (“And oh, oh, oh, those multimillionaires!”). Ellison has received some criticism for writing a book on black identity while using language and symbols derived from the oppressive culture. But this should be expected from anyone portentously named Ralph Waldo Ellison, right?

invisible-man

The unnamed black narrator in Invisible Man is definitely very well educated and self-aware, a contrast with characters in the works of James Baldwin and Richard Wright. With the gift of Ellison’s prose style, the narrator introduces himself:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

The man lives in a basement, sealed off but lit brightly, more brightly than any place in New York City. While I am not aware of any influence the the book had on current events, it was published and won the National Book Award before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which allowed for “separate but equal” facilities. In Plessy the Court had said that blacks were granted political equality, but no one could go so far as to grant them social equality. These themes of separation and social equality rise again and again throughout the novel:

And yet I am no freak of nature, nor of history. I was in the cards, other things having been equal (or unequal) eighty-five years ago. I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand.

After letting us know his current situation living underground, the narrator lets the narrative go back in time to when he was the valedictorian of his high school — leading to the brilliantly strange sequence of the battle royal. He is chosen to give a speech at his high school graduation, but before giving the speech, he and his fellow black classmates are forced to fight in front of the whites of the town as the whites drink and laugh. In the middle of all of this, a naked blond comes dancing through the room.

The creature was completely hypnotized. The music had quickened. As the dancer flung herself about with a detached expression on her face, the men began reaching out to touch her. I could see their beefy fingers sink into the soft flesh. Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom with the rest of the boys.

Eventually, he is granted the opportunity to give his speech. He does stumble at one point:

“What’s that word you say, boy?”

“Social responsibility,” I said.

“What?”

“Social . . .”

“Louder.”

“. . . responsibility.”

“More!”

“Respon-“

“Repeat!”

“-sibility.”

The room filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt distracted by having to gulp down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, heard debated in private.

“Social . . .”

“What?” they yelled.

“. . . equality-“

He has to immediately renounce what he said and blame his error on the stress. Happy with their work, the whites give him a suitcase and send him to college. This is where the battle royal ends and the book begins. But that doesn’t mean the symbols and the strangeness are over. We meet a host of characters whose symbolic backgrounds stretch all the way back to Homer (“Homer A. Barbee was blind.”). Things do not go well in the South, as his relationship with the benefactor whites sours as does his relationship to other blacks. Moving north to New York City, things are very different, but not much better (there, among other things, we get some Communist rallies that honor but still objectify the blacks). Underlying a lot of the movement is the knowledge of the narrator’s hiding place in the brightly lit basement and his sad realization:

“You’re a black educated fool, son.”

Ellison is a brilliant writer, pulling out loads of cultural symbolism to deconstruct the culture. It is one of the most sophisticated and right-now important novels I’ve ever read. And it’s been right-now important, now, going on nearly sixty years.

15 thoughts on “Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

  1. KevinfromCanada says:

    This is very interesting. Just today I was looking at my bookshelf and wondered “has Trevor read Invisible Man — because I haven’t and I think it might be time.” And then I turn to the computer and find the review. I will start the book tomorrow and respond with thoughts as soon as possible.

  2. Glad I could get it in there in the nick of time, Kevin!

    I’ve been sick lately, and while I read I didn’t seem to have the energy to write about what I read. Finally had to pull this one together today, so your comments when they come will greatly enrich the content of this post! I hope you enjoy roaming through all of the symbolism and social criticism as much as I did.

    By the way, the Canadian books arrived yesterday, and I’m anxious to begin!

  3. kimbofo says:

    This is one of those books I’ve long wanted to read. I had a second-hand copy when I was a teenager but never got beyond the first couple of pages: I was just too immature/naive to get my head around it. On a trip to New York last month I picked up a copy in a bookstore, but decided not to buy it at the last minute (I was worried about my luggage allowance!). Your review has now encouraged me to go seek out a copy…

  4. Glad to provide a bit of encouragement, kimbofo. I look forward to your thoughts!

  5. KevinfromCanada says:

    I am most grateful that this review finally motivated me to read this book, which has been on the “to read” shelf for almost two years. It is every bit as good as its reputation.

    And, as a 60 year old, rich, white guy, I think that is pretty much all that I should say. The book certainly does an excellent job of conveying the notion of “invisible” and most of my thoughts are devoted to contemplating what contribution I have made to that invisibility.

    Since you are retreating on this New York in fiction project, Trevor, I’d say The Age of Innocence should be moved up the list — there is a wonderful winter in New York stretch that would be timely. In the meantime, I’ll continue contemplating what Ellison has to say about my behavior.

  6. You know, my wife read The Age of Innocence last spring and loved it. When deciding which book to read next, I often pull it out, only to put it back on the shelf, knowing I’ll soon get to it – but I haven’t yet! Soon, though, soon!

  7. KevinfromCanada says:

    I admit that I am one of those readers who think Edith Wharton has been badly mistreated. I’ll be interested in your thoughts on The Age of Innocence when it gets off the shelf. Like your wife, I thought it was an exceptional book.

  8. The Age of Innocence is an exceptional work, quite brilliant. I also recommend it highly.

    That aside, Trevor, do you think The Invisible Man works as a work of fiction in its own right? I’m not American, and these issues though very powerful in the US don’t have quite the same resonance for me as they would for an American reader. That said, I have recently been considering trying some Ellison and had given this one some thought. What do you think?

    Hope you feel fully recovered by the way.

  9. Thanks Max. Regarding your question about The Invisible Man standing up outside of the U.S., you’ve got Kevin’s good word from Canada. I know Kevin has spent time in the U.S., though, so I’d be interested in a perspective from someone like you.

    I think it does stand alone. The skill in the narrative make it admirable on that level, and Ellison succeeds, I think, in portraying his feelings even to the likes of me – someone who has not got nearly the same background. Of course, I am very aware of the Civil Rights movement and have seen its effects throughout my life. I guess I have to ask you to give it a go and then let me know if it works. I think it will.

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    Max: The problem is that Invisible Man is pretty much the only book that Ellison wrote — so if you are going to try him, this is the book. He went off into the academic community and lecture circuit — which caused a lot of people (mainly blacks) to dump on him (I’d say he made a pretty good living, but didn’t write much) — and never published another work of signifigance. I do think this book is worth reading, even for those who don’t live in the U.S. I certainly found references that suggested where Obama is coming from — even though this book is more than 50 years old. If you are interested in exploring that theme, troll the New York Review of Books site — they published an amazing article in October which looked at how Obama and James Baldwin came to their political (and literary) positions. I think it might be the best journalism I have read this year — and only regret that I don’t know how to post a link.

    I also appreciate your comment on The Age of Innocence. It is an exceptional book that deserves more attention, although I am sure Trevor’s spouse will point that out.

  11. I agree with Kevin about that article. Here is the link.

    And while I hadn’t thought about it, Kevin brings up a good point. Ellison’s other novel was Juneteenth, which a few of my die hard read everything friends read and didn’t really like. At one time he had around 2000 pages for that novel, and it was never really finished. He did of course write several essays, but I think that starting with Invisible Man would help bring those essays into context.

  12. KevinfromCanada says:

    Thanks for posting the link Trevor — I am embarrassed that I forgot it was Colm Toibin who wrote the article. I do think it is a most perceptive account that links a literary figure with a political one — and that does not happen too often. More important, I think it describes a context about what we can expect from Obama.

  13. I have Ellison mixed up with another writer, the novelist I was thinking of has written at least three novels.

    Hm, I’ll have to go back to the bookshop I last saw the titles in and see who it was now, I could have sworn it was Ellison but based on your responses Kevin and Trevor I plainly had my authors confused. I wonder who I was considering reading.

    Well, I’m now considering Ellison, so I guess that’s something…

  14. James Baldwin, I had confused him with James Baldwin, god alone knows why. I must have thought Baldwin wrote The Invisible Man, and then on seeing Ellison’s name continued with the impression that the same author had written Invisible Man and Go Tell it on the Mountain.

    Given the title of Ellison’s book, there’s something grimly ironic in that particular piece of confusion.

  15. KevinfromCanada says:

    I find the confusion quite understandable (even with the irony of the titles). Ellison’s name is often linked with Baldwin, although Baldwin was certainly more prolific. Both also came under criticism from some for not being “black” enough — a criticism that I am certainly not qualified to comment on. Personally, I find Baldwin to be the better author, not just because he published more (and that is certainly a factor) but because I think his time in Paris gave him a deeper view of life in America. In no way is that a slight on Invisible Man — it is a book that certainly deserves to be read and provides much thoughtful material for considering the state of the U.S. today. Trevor deserves much credit for bringing it back to our attention.

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