Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man details the recollections of an unnamed African- American narrator living “invisibly” in a New York basement. Through his memories and thoughts on his experiences with racism and civil rights activism in late 1940s America, the novel offers insight and critique on many activist policies promoted by famous figures such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Analyzing Ellison’s usage of symbolic language can help in discovering the underlying messages of nearly every scene.
Color symbolism is a recurring device, subtly tying objects and characters to major themes and motifs. The color white represents the idea of metaphorical blindness and the narrator associates it with three particular characters: Mr. Norton, Lucius Brockway, and Brother Jack. These three men each possess their own ways of being blind, and the color white is almost always brought up when the narrator references their lack of awareness.
Mr. Norton, a Northern white philanthropic millionaire, is immediately described having “a shock of silk white hair” (Ellison 37), alerting the reader right away of his attachment to the color.
When Norton goes on to talk about himself, he describes how he feels his destiny intertwines with helping African-Americans become successful through the use of his abundant money. It becomes clear that he does not actually want to help African- Americans achieve equality so much as he wants them to become more like white people, and even more so to inflate his ego.
In the scene where Norton listens, enraptured, to Trueblood’s unsettling story of incest, the color white appears again and again to describe the houses, the ground, the bugs, etc.
This emphasizes Norton’s blindness towards African-Americans as people; he rather sees them as lesser creatures with perplexing morals who need to be corrected until they meet white people’s standards of acceptable. The narrator parts ways with Norton after his initial contact, but never forgets him and always associates him with the color white, proved by, after meeting “a tall austere-looking man in a white coat” (Ellison 245), he asks if the man knows Mr. Norton completely out of the blue. Norton is only the first character blinded with white, however.
The narrator encounters Lucius Brockway at Liberty Paints after being assigned to work under him in the basement with the chemical processing machines. Like Norton, the color of Brockway’s hair happens to be white, and his brand of blindness goes hand in hand with pride. However, Brockway is a black man, and therein lies their key difference. While Norton possesses a narcissistic pride that takes advantage of African-Americans (something he can afford due to his high status), Brockway has pride in his contributions to his company as a worker – he “helped… make up [the] slogan… ‘If it’s Optic White, it’s the Right White”” (Ellison 217). But Brockway’s pride still leads to his blindness, as evidenced by the suggestive slogan and by his claim that “[Liberty Paints’] white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through!” (Ellison 217).
Blind to the struggles of his brethren, Brockway focuses his attention on helping his oppressors run a thriving business where his employers themselves are blind to recognizing him as anything other than a lowly black man working in the basement. The reason for this blindness on Brockway’s part stems from the quote; raised in a racist society, Brockway’s self-absorbed personality allows him to be content with the white smothering the black as long as he meets his own personal standards of being successful and productive. The next person the narrator meets also has problems with egotism, but has influence and the advantage of being white on top of it.
Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, is the blindest of the three characters. The first hint of this occurs when he offers his contact information, and the narrator “[looks] at the white paper in [Jack’s] extended hand” (Ellison 293). The white of the paper symbolizes the path of blindness Jack will lead the narrator down when he joins the Brotherhood – Jack’s own lack of vision seeps down through the ranks of his organization. As the narrator spends time in the Brotherhood, it becomes clear that while Jack appears to work towards equality, he actually just wants blacks to assimilate into white culture and is blind to African- Americans’ double consciousness and their need to retain their own culture. He wishes to sweep the wrongdoings of whites against blacks under the rug and forget about them. Such methods are not effective, though.
The pivoting point for the narrator’s opinion on Jack triggers when, while Jack berates him for not following what he wanted the narrator to do, his fake eye falls out of its socket and into a glass of water. The “buttermilk white eye… [stares] fixedly at [the narrator] as from the dark waters of a well” (Ellison 474) and he wonders “[which] eye is really the blind one?” (Ellison 478). This scene marks the point at which the narrator becomes aware of not only Jack’s blindness, but the man’s unwillingness to see. Sometimes a person’s blindness occurs voluntarily. Jack does not wish to open his eyes and discover the true path to equality because that would mean giving up power, and the question of power is what all the blindness in the book boils down to, ultimately.
Norton, Brockway, and Jack are three characters in Invisible Man who see only what they wish to see in the world, and are helped in doing so by the color white. Color symbolism proves to be a subtle but effective way to hone readers’ emotions in a certain direction and Ralph Ellison has mastered the art, transforming descriptions of color into commentary on the state of racial equality in society. African-Americans and white people alike in the book are metaphorically blinded by the white-colored legacy left behind by their ancestors, and undoubtedly there were and continue to be people like that in America to this day.