Internal Tensions in Ellison's Invisible Man

Topics: Invisible Man

Upon analyzing this passage, one is able to better understand the functions of the innumerable societal and internal tensions in IM’s life. At the beginning of the prologue, IM makes clear that he is telling his story after the action of the novel has already taken place, from a small basement room, illuminated by 1,369 lightbulbs. For IM, this is a place of hibernation; of fighting silent battles, such as stealing electricity from the Monopolated Light and Power company.

IM begins his story in his senior year of high school, at the very dawn of his speech- making days, which grant him a scholarship to a prestigious Black university.

While at the university, he makes the mistake of showing Mr. Norton, a wealthy white benefactor, some unsavory parts of black culture at the university, introducing him to the Trueblood scandal as well as taking him to the Golden Day, a bar and brothel. As a result, Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college, becomes furious with him.

The action of the this particular passage begins shortly after this incident – IM is resting in his dorm room and contemplating Bledsoe’s hypocrisy after receiving a note that Bledsoe wishes to speak with him later. The Norton incident results in IM being expelled from the school, and sent to New York City to “earn his tuition” by Bledsoe, who has no intention of readmitting him to the college.

Upon arriving in New York, IM takes up residence with “Mammy” figure Mary Rambo, and ultimately in his own apartment when he begins his work for the Brotherhood, a communist organization dedicated to the creating the “rainbow” of the future.

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The Brotherhood uses IM much like a pawn throughout the novel, using his public speaking abilities to further their cause. The final scene of the book is a fiery race riot in the streets of Harlem, accompanying the transformation of IM’s approach to the combat of racism.

In the first sentence, the phrase “fine dust” alludes to the biblical verse “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”; a reminder of mortality as well as a hint at the doom of IM’s educational career. The word “hall” traditionally suggests a royal court or place of judgement, foretelling IM’s imminent judgement by Bledsoe. The “shaft of sunlight” mentioned in the following phrase is a symbol of the ever-present eyes of God, as well as the judgement they provide for IM’s actions.

The dust, associated with decay, is “stirred by her (the girl’s) hurried passing” suggesting that the girl is hurrying toward life, and according to the novel, to copulate atop the founder’s grave with her boyfriend, juxtaposing life and death as well as honor and shame, four characteristics warring within IM during the passage. The word “passing” similarly, could be misconstrued as “passing away”, only adding to the life vs. death motif.

The next sentence similarly falls in line with the life-and-death motif in the passage. For example, the word “disappeared” can be alternately defined as “passing or dying away”. In addition, the fragmentation of the sentence mirrors the abrupt nature of the girl’s disappearance. The diction used to illustrate the girl’s movements and tendencies conjures up a ghostlike image when described.

Bledsoe’s door, referenced in the next sentence, can also be seen as correlating this motif, representing a passage between the world of the living and that of the dead. This asserts the volatility of Bledsoe’s impending decision, and subtly builds suspense as to what IM’s fate might be.

The next sentence returns to the theme of sex being correlated with life – an alternate definition for the word ‘discovered” is the physical act of uncovering or baring oneself. That being said, the sentence also falls in line with the novel’s clothing motif, as well as the concept of rebirth upon changing clothes. This insinuates that if the girl would have been discovered spying on Dr. Bledsoe, that IM could have undergone a completely different transformation, altering the severity of Bledsoe’s actions as well as his fate.

Another connection to take into account is the chess term “discovery check”, in which one moves a piece to an area in which it is detrimental to various other pieces, hence, the dangers that would accompany Bledsoe’s discovery of the girl. If this were to happen, IM states that he would have it “on his conscience”. A definition for conscience is “conformity to what one considers to be morally good”. With conformity comes invisibility, indicating that if IM were to conform to mass morality, he would never have the opportunity to carry out his true intentions, which IM realizes later.

IM similarly invalidates the idea of having a peer spy on Bledsoe by convincing himself that he would be “ashamed” for anyone to know of the incident. Defined as “restrained by anticipation of shame”, one can make the connection to the physical restraints of IM’s ancestors – the shackles and chains used during the era of slavery. IM’s mental restraints prevent him from enacting free will; from obtaining the information he craves. He refers to his situation as a “predicament”, which in an alternate definition denotes “a status…assigned by a predication”, “predication” being an archaic term for “sermon”. Could this be foreshadowing the imminent sermon of Homer A. Barbee, which IM attends in the following chapter. Furthermore, could it be a nod to the restrictive policy of humbleness taught in the university chapel, as well as many other black churches?

The next sentence repeats the word “down” twice (“down the hall”, “down the stairs”). This word can be defined as “in low spirits and/or depressed”, as well as “shifting from an aroused to a calm state”, which create the air of solemn solitude surrounding IM as he waits for Bledsoe’s decisions about his future at the university. In a physical sense, it references the downward direction, which could allude to Dante’s Inferno, foreshadowing the hellish riot scene in the last chapter of the novel.

The sentence alo references “someone unseen”, adding to the motif of invisibility and reiterating that anonymity of blackness. Similar to sentence two, this girl is made out as a phantom. This could be the beginning of IM’s inability to decipher and form healthy relationships with women, as we see later on, especially with the women who seduce and fetishize him.

IM then describes what he hears in the hallway: “A girl’s sweet, hopeful voice”. The term “girl”, however subconscious it may be, may reinforce IM’s feelings about women. When used as a descriptor for a grown woman married or unmarried, it can act as a term of offense and infantilization, as if IM latently wishes to afflict others with the indignity of being called “boy”. The words “sweet” and “voice” are in accordance with the running music motif in the novel, and draw back to the term “predicament”, conjuring images of sermons and spirituals.

IM then “hurries to his dorm” before his expected arrival at the impending sermon to be given by Rev. Barbee. Dorm, alternately defined as a noun, can simply mean sleep itself, suggesting that IM must put aside his developing opinions about race (or leave them dormant, if you will) before attending the service, which preaches humility and submission to whites. IM then “lays” on his bed, contemplating what is to come. Besides the physical, straightforward act of laying on one’s bed, the word “lay” can be interpreted as the act of betting or wagering, reflecting the gamble he made on his educational future by bringing Mr. Norton to the Golden Day.

Additionally, “lay” can be defined as the act of burying or “laying to rest”. This could hint at the probable death of IM’s educational career as a result of his mistake. Hearkening back to the sex/life motif of the passage, the term “lay” can also be defined as a vulgar term for the act of copulation, symbolizing life and new beginnings, juxtaposing the morbidity of the suggestions of the previous definition. Perhaps the most topical definition of the word “lay” is to “put strands in place and twist to form a rope”, alluding to the lynchings of black people prevalent during IM’s era.

This could suggest that by laying down, he is surrendering his future to the will of Bledsoe, allowing him to “lynch” away what chances he has at academic excellence. IM then closes his “eyes”. An obscure definition of the word eye is an undeveloped bud, usually that of a potato. This alludes to a future chapter in which IM refers to the sweet potato as a quintessential southern food, and almost feels as if he is a caricature whilst eating them. As a symbol of IM’s eyes, these “buds” connote the infancy of IM’s ideas about what a black person should behave like so as to “make nice” with the whites. The word “eye” can refer to the calm place in the center of a hurricane or tornado as well. This reflects IM’s initial ignorance of the tempest of race relations at the time of his being enrolled at the university.

The use of the word “tension” in the next sentence raises the question – of which of the many “tensions” present in IM’s world does he speak? Could it be the simply defined “inner striving and unrest” of IM’s soul in dealing with the impending news to be given to him by Bledsoe? The passive-aggressive hostility between blacks and whites of the era? The differing opinions about the “model black citizen” within the black community? Or perhaps “tension” could refer to a desirable quality, defined as “the balance maintained within an artistic work between two opposing forces or elements”? This tension is the very framework of the entire novel, illustrated in a single sentence.

The word “hall”, used in both the sixth and eleventh sentences, indicates a “castle or house of a Medieval king or noble” or a “large, imposing building for semi public purposes”, by its first two definitions. This paints the university as a place of judgement and inferiority for IM; a place in which in which it is difficult for him to control his own destiny. The use of the word “stiffened” connects to the slang term “stiff”, meaning “dead body”. This foreshadows the death of IM’s college experience, as well as his imminent rebirth as a citizen of New York City.

IM is then startled by the prospect of Bledsoe already having made a decision, having sent someone to usher him to Bledsoe’s office. An alternate definition can be applied to the word “sent” – “to cause a prisoner to be carried or conducted to a destination”. This is indicative of his physical and mental entrapment inside the university, as well as within his societally-induced presumptions about black conduct. To “send” can similarly be defined as “to ordain as a blessing or punishment”. In this case, IM sees it both ways. His educational career may be over for now, but post-expulsion, IM views the incident as an opportunity to make a life for himself.

The image of the “door opening and closing” mentioned in the next sentence creates a push-and-pull image that mirrors the tension of this passage, and ultimately the entire book, reiterated by the repetition of the word “tense”. The terse, rapid nature of sentences fourteen and fifteen mirror IM’s frantic frame of mind, and his hesitation toward change.

The next sentence is the only time within the message that IM directly references the Golden Day. One of the first definitions of “golden” is blonde, hearkening back to the promiscuous dancing woman in the first chapter, and the uneasiness with which he looked upon her. This reflects the “good times” juxtaposed with tension and seediness within the Golden Day. Another definition that can be attributed to “Golden” is “a high degree of excellence”, which may allude to W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth”, denoting the black “leadership class” and the need for college-educated black citizens such as IM.

The next sentence further reflects the tension building within IM as he waits for Bledsoe to seal his doom. The word “upset”, can mean literally “troubled mentally or emotionally” or “invalidated”, but it can also denote the pounding of a hot metal bar into shape. This heat imagery further illustrates the volcanic unrest building inside IM at this moment in time.

In sentence 18, the word “attitude” may alternately signify the position of an aircraft or spacecraft in relation to the horizon or a particular star. This may represent how Bledsoe views Norton – as a pivotal; force in the funding and esteem of the college, as the horizon or a star is in the navigation of the craft.

In sentence 19, the word “fear” can trace back to reverential awe of God, describing the relationship between IM and Bledsoe. IM views Bledsoe as one who imposes fate upon the students of the college; your educational status is contingent upon his opinion of you. The term “remaining” also may relate back to the term “remains”, connoting a dead body and/or ashes of a human or animal. That being said, “remaining” at school could warn of IM’s intellectual death if he were to be granted continued admission to the university by Bledsoe.

The word “school” may also refer to a group of fish, which, representing the student body, paints them as brainless and/or brainwashed, each just following the other blindly. This could also be a Biblical allusion, referring to the multiplying fish and loaves created by Jesus to feed the people, as if black college students are ‘gifts” or “miracles”, responsible for the betterment of black society. In sentence 20, IM begins a period of denial regarding his circumstances. The word “true” may refer to direction as in “true north”. This may reflect IM’s lack of direction in this crisis, and his uneasiness about what is to come next.

This attitude continues into the next sentence. The use of italics in the word “couldn’t” stresses the denial IM feels about his fate – he doesn’t want to accept that there may be a roadblock on his path to success.

To justify his feelings of denial and discredit Bledsoe’s knowledge of what is best for the university, IM begins to cite “evidence” against him. He accuses Bledsoe of pandering to the “white visitors”. The word “white” as a descriptor may first denote the “freedom from color”, tracing back to the fact that American whites have always been free from slavery, as well as suggesting that white people are free from the issue of race altogether. Another, more obscure definition for white is “silver”, or “made of silver”, a metal which, despite being precious and aristocratic, tarnishes easily with a black substance if not properly cleaned.

This phenomenon may represent the ugliness that accompanies white people’s ignorance of the black struggle. Yet another definition for “white” is “marked by fairness” and “innocence”, almost as if the term excludes white people from any sort of fault regarding the enslavement and intolerance of black people. Another term that loosely connects with “white” is “white noise”, a tone quality marked by a lack of warmth, color, and resonance. Adding to the music motif of the novel, this term suggests that the opinions of whites on black strife are merely “white noise”, uncomplex yet deafening. Bledsoe is further described as “bowing humbly” to these white visitors.

One on the first non-contextual definitions of “bow” is “rainbow”, possibly representing the “rainbow of the future” proposed by the Brotherhood, which IM learns about later. This could also play into the music motif, as “bow” can also be defined as the tool which one uses to play a violin or other stringed instrument, suggesting that Bledsoe “plays a different tune” whilst talking to white benefactors.

IM then further discusses Bledsoe’s behavior amongst the white guests, telling of how he “refused to sit down” as they ate in the dining hall. The word “sit” has a variety of meanings, one being to attend for a hearing in front of a judge or administrative body. This could reflect the judgement Bledsoe believes would be placed upon him if he dared to suggest that he were equal to a white man by sitting down with them for a meal.

Another interpretation of Bledsoe’s refusal to sit can be made through the context of “sitting for a portrait”, which could relate to Bledsoe’s willingness to let these benefactors paint him as an “obedient black man”, almost as a caricature. This is juxtaposed with Bledsoe’s insistence on “standing”, an alternate definition of which is to “hold course at sea”. This may reflect Bledsoe’s strong sense of direction when it comes to his theories on what a black person should behave like, and his demand that the students of his university follow this code.

Sentence 24 again uses italicization on the word “hadn’t” to emphasize IM’s self- justification of denial. The rhetorical format of the question represents IM’s subconscious rejection of the opinions and facts that others throw at him.

IM again justifies his impressions of Bledsoe, stating that he had seen him carry out these said acts with his own eyes. The image of the door returns, as does the push and pull image of tension between those outside the kitchen and those within it. The life/death motif is also present, the door representing the threshold between the worlds of the dead and the living, the known and the unknown.

Next, IM muses, “…wasn’t his (Bledsoe’s) favorite spiritual “Live-a-Humble”?”, which reveals more about Bledsoe’s backwards progressiveness. The song, featured chiefly in hymnals during the 1920’s and early 30’s, stresses the importance of not allowing God to “catch you with your work undone” and praising him for “saving their souls from the burning fire”. These lines in particular create a strong parallel between the omnipotence of God and that of the white establishment.

The line “Watch the sun, how steady he runs” hearkens back to “keep that n***** boy running”, the message IM received in a dream. Could this “sun” be a symbol of the stigmas related to IM’s race; the very entity chasing IM throughout the novel? The song functions as a warning – don’t cause trouble, do what you’re told and you will be saved- which correlates with Bledsoe’s ideas of the black “code of conduct”. The last line of the song reads “The fire’ll be falling/He’ll be calling/”Come to judgement, come”, foreshadowing the fiery armageddon-esque riot scene during the epilogue.

The “chapel” mentioned in the next sentence can be alternately defined as a “room for funeral services”, which may symbolize the death of the intellectuality and independent thought of those in attendance as a result of the restrictive policies taught. Additionally, the word “platform” may signify a landing and/or takeoff location for an air or spacecraft, which hearkens back to the word “attitude” from sentence 18, still a symbol of Bledsoe’s need to give his policies “lift-off”. The word “unambiguous” contrasts with the theme of invisibility, describing Bledsoe’s speeches as straightforward and without depth.

The exclamation and fragmentation of sentences 31 and 32 serve to build the hysteria IM feels in this moment, as his focus shifts to the encounter he had made with the vet at the Golden Day.

In the last sentence, IM references that Bledsoe had no “right” to make Mr. Norton angry, speaking to him as he had. The word “right”, by physical definition, refers to the side of the body on which the heart is mostly located. By accusing Bledsoe of having “no right”, Ellison may be insinuating that Bledsoe has no heart, and thus no capacity to feel empathy for others. This foreshadows his inability to take pity on IM, and that he will be expelled from the college.

This passage focuses chiefly on what is happening inside IM – the tension the tension between him and Bledsoe as well as the tension between IM and the unknown.

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Internal Tensions in Ellison's Invisible Man. (2023, Jan 10). Retrieved from

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