Self Understanding in The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

It has previously been established that the African-American community found it necessary to extensively understand and manipulate double consciousness. Essentially in order to avoid further mistreatment, African-Americans would enact a façade while in front of a white man, although they themselves had a different concept of their own identity. The situation described in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man provides a unique twist into the self understanding of identity because the protagonist is still “looking for himself”. (Ellison 264)

The unnamed protagonist reveals first gives insight into his identity in stating that he is unashamed that his grandparents were once slaves, but only ashamed that he once cared (Ellison 264).

This shows that the protagonist, self-proclaimed as the invisible man, apathetic toward his ancestors’ being slaves. It also demonstrates that he is not ignorant to his African-American heritage. In mentioning ancestral slavery, he allows for an understanding of his identity to be described as a product of subculture separate from normative. Perhaps he is not truly aware of the contrast between the African-American and white cultures of the time.

Thankfully, his grandfather is.

His grandfather, being a former slave, imparts words which haunt the invisible man until the very end of the narrative. He instructs the protagonist to “overcome” the white men by agreement (Ellison 265). Prior to this, Ellison made no remarks as to whether or not the protagonist had any conflict the dominating white culture. These words will continue to haunt the protagonist while he attempts to form his own separate identity.

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Whenever he succeeded, he was praised by white men and haunted by his grandfather’s last words (Ellison 265). He was not trying to win the approval of white men except that they were those in authority who could provide an advantage for him to get ahead. It was purely emotionless except for his grandfather’s words echoing in his mind (Ellison 265).

The invisible man also shows his concern for self over communal identity in that he did not like the other young men who were to fight (Ellison 265). Race had nothing to do with the issue. If the protagonist were to have a preoccupation with communal identity over his own identity, Ellison would have alluded that the invisible man attempted to look past their differences for the betterment of their culture. However, no such remark was made. In fact, the protagonist thinks to himself that such a fight might in fact make him look bad. Again, this was not an issue of race but of dignity. He needed to impress the town leaders. His reputation was his commodity, not his defense of something larger than himself.

Supporting this notion is the statement that the invisible man “felt superior to them in [his] own way.” (Ellison 266) Perhaps it was because they were caught up in cultural pride, an identity formed primarily in being an African-American rather than an individual. Ellison simply does not speak on the matter here. Once in the ring, the youths are blindfolded with white cloths (Ellison 267). This hindrance inhibited the young men from working together and controlling their motions. All except the invisible man. He was not restrained by the symbolism of slavery because literally he saw past it. The protagonist then worked groups against one another for his own advancement (Ellison 269). He was not concerned with the betterment of “his people” because he viewed them as people. He did what was necessary to come out ahead.

A final piece of evidence comes in the form of a brief case (Ellison 273), and in it is the protagonist’s reward for his hard work. His capitalist mindset had provided him with a scholarship to further his education. One could argue that the end of the narrative provided a twist which would discredit a sense of individualism.

In a dream, the invisible man opens his brief case and the envelope inside it to read the words “keep this nigger-boy running” followed by hearing his grandfather’s laugh (Ellison 274). It could be argued that the tone on which the chapter ends implies that Ellison felt remorse for betraying his fellow African-Americans. However, it is important to note that this happened in the context of a dream and Ellison did not provide an interpretation. The overlying theme remains, the invisible man is a member of neither the white nor African-American culture.

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Self Understanding in The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. (2023, Jan 10). Retrieved from

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