With equality comes freedom, and with freedom comes the ability to assert your identity. Such is a romantic ideal that falls short in the stark reality society exists in: a world in which primitive desire trumps all, and individuals purposely imbalance the hierarchy so that they have a higher chance of survival. Essentially, it results, in two roles in society: those with true power, and others who may only crave it. However, many are unable to reach that final sweet destination and the bitterness of reality sinks in.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man chronicles the life of an anonymous protagonist who embarks on a quest to fulfill his dreams, only to instead discover and define his individual identity under a society dominated by Whites. Although initially blind living under a white supremacist structure, Ellison’s invisible man undergoes a journey where he defines his own individual identity and discovers the identity he is recognized by overcoming his fears, leading to his acceptance of these unchangeable realities that define his successful hero’s journey.
During the battle royale, the narrator’s naivety to the cruel realities of his world illustrates the initial blindness of his own identity. Moments leading up to the fight, he and a couple of other African-American boys are crammed into a small elevator in which the narrator felt disgusted by. The narrator views himself as someone with higher social status to the other Blacks and feels insulted that he has to share an elevator that is meant for servants.
He feels that his extensive educational background separated him and given him a higher social status. As soon as he gets into the ballroom where the battle royal takes place, he sees a naked white woman and his id takes over as “[the narrator] wanted to caress her…and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly” (19). Red, blue, and white all over – the epitome of a white supremacist America.
The mention of a primal desire for an intimate interaction with this woman is symbolic of the narrator’s true desire to possibly control this white woman. It is his temptation, his unconscious desire, his instincts overwhelm, ushering him to get a slight touch of her. However, he does not recognize that he would be considered sub-par to her, as she is part of the white power structure. He is naive to his own sense of self and chooses to remain so when the battle royal participants “ allowed [themselves] to be blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth” (21). In this scene, the narrator is literally blinded by a white piece of cloth, blocking his vision of the world around him. This symbolizes how the narrator is blind to reality and cannot see the truth.
The white cloth also symbolizes the grasp white people hold over blacks, and their ability to control what they see or believe. In general, it is the inability for African Americans to see white authority as the true enemy, the inability to see the similar struggles of the hindered vision of blacks and his inability to determine his own values, goals and self-worth outside of white approval. After the match was over, for entertainment purposes, the white men threw coins on an electrocuted rug (23). Hungry to get money, the narrator dived into the electrocuted mat to grab the coins, only to find them to be brass coins. Spurred by the reward, the narrator rushes to get the coins even though he notices their authenticity of them. Clearly, in spite of how they treat him, the invisible man feels inordinately pleased by the belief that he has finally been recognized by the whites he holds in such high regard, showing that he has a lot to learn about his true place as an invisible man.\
As the narrator enters college, hoping to start the next chapter of his life, he continues to remain blind. While Mr. Norton is resting at Golden Day after getting sickly overwhelmed by the horrifying events that happened that day, the narrator meets a black war veteran who explains to the narrator that he noticed the narrator “has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose but he fails to understand the simple facts of life” (94). The veteran sheds light on how the narrator sees the truths of the world yet does not fully digest it yet. He chooses to remain naive to reality when he hears, sees, and smells the truth every day. He goes on to explain that the narrator is “a mechanical man” (94) zombies who still believe they must fulfill a certain duty through the repression of their emotions, thereby being stripped of their humanity. The veteran explains to Norton that the narrator is everything the white man wishes him to be. He molds himself to accommodate the needs and desires of whites.
The narrator has always been a soulless creature without mind and heart, obeying the commands of Norton has not realized it, but in his subconscious, he knew. The Veteran further emphasizes his point when he states to Norton “To you, he is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement…a black amorphous thing. . .And you are not a man to him. . . but a God”(95). The Veteran implies that the white man holds absolute power over the black man. White men do not see blacks as equal human beings but rather as people to do their biddings. The narrator confronts these truths every day, yet chooses to remain blind to the world around him. To Norton, the narrator’s “blindness is his chief asset” (95). Blindness is his chief asset possibly because it allows him to live in happiness: when he is blind, he is subservient and without form. He only takes the form as he finds it necessary for his own independent, immediate survival.The Norton knows deep within that the veteran’s words are a clear truth. As a result, feelings slight guilt, Norton remains silent on the car ride back. His naivety makes him the perfect tool that people can use, and until the narrator can see his own faults, that is what will happen. The Vet is evoking the idea of a glorified subservience. It is a glorified subservience in the sense that on the surface African Americans are allowed some of the freedom that slavery would not allow, but they are still being pushed below the whites socially.
The Invisible Man clearly observes all of this, since the reader sees everything from his point of view. As the Vet states, “he has eyes and ears… but he fails to understand” because he is not seeing the subtext of prejudice and discrimination. Instead, to him, the “white man’s burden” is his future and for his betterment not his detriment. The Invisible Man’s inner dialogue about the Vet is an example of repressed emotion. He wants to insist that the Vet is crazy and be enabled to ignore his words because of the insanity. However, he also feels a “satisfaction” because the Vet is speaking in this manner to a white man . This seems to signal the beginning of his repression gradually reducing and his brain beginning to process the subtext (truth) of his situation. Ultimately, the events on Golden Day end up getting the narrator expelled from the college, and as he tries to salvage a chance to continue his education, he continues to embark on his archetypal journey, the great migration north to the unknown world of New York.
As the narrator departs college and travels to New York, he finds a job at Liberty Paints where he is given a false identity. When he first arrived, the narrator is introduced to the special “Optic White” in which Kimbro claims to cover up anything (). The white paints represents the immense power of the whites, with the ability to mask everything. It is also ironic how the white paint is created from the mixture of black paint. This painting symbolizes how the dominant power of whites could be used to maks the credit of the blacks. This also parralells the function of the whole company where the whites on top force the blacks to perform all of the dirty work while they receive all of the compensation from the African American’s hard work. The manipulation of the narrator’s character can be seen when he works at Liberty Paints as others give him an identity, something which they cannot do. While at Liberty Paints, the narrator exclaims, “well I’m sorry. I didn’t know about all that. . .I came here to take a temporary job” (228). The old man painted the image of a union boy onto the narrator whereas the union workers labeled him an enemy of the union. They all gave the narrator an identity when really was not who he is. The only reason the narrator is given all these identities is that he has not found his own.
His lack of identity is depicted during the hospital scene where he is asked questions such as “ What is your name” and “who was Buckeye the Rabbit” (239-41). In the shock treatment scene, the Narrator is drugged, giving way to possible hallucinations, or a bad trip. He’s shocked and is laughed at while being shocked. “‘Look, he’s dancing,’ . . . ‘They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!’” (237). He’s once again Sambo, a form of entertainment for these white doctors. These questions define the narrator and his childhood. His inability to remember any of this indicate his loss of identity. A name defines who someone is. Being unable to remember his name means that he is no one. Moreover, by not being able to remember his childhood stories, it further reinforces a loss of identity because if one has no memories of their upbringing, then they are no one as a person is a result of their upbringing. Names are what people know you by. Without his name, the narrator is slowly accepting his invisibility. In the shock treatment scene, the Narrator is drugged, giving way to possible hallucinations, or a bad trip. He’s shocked and is laughed at while being shocked. “‘Look, he’s dancing,’ . . . ‘They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!’” (237). He’s once again Sambo, a form of entertainment for these white doctors. He doesn’t remember his name, who his mother is, and who Brer Rabbit was; he is stripped of his identity, much like a slave, and he’s sent out to the world again. He has been reborn and starts to become conscious, for better or worse, from the electricity akin of that rug earlier.
The cunning manipulation of the Brotherhood made the narrator realize the group’s true motives. During the eviction scene, the narrator gives a speech that captures the attention of the brotherhood. Brother Jack attempts to recruit the narrator, and the narrator even thinks, “He only wanted to use me for something” (294). The narrator is right to assume this as the brotherhood tries to mold him into one of their speakers that they can manipulate freely. The narrator already had a similar experience being tricked by others so he is extremely cautious not to fall for deception again. As the narrator joins the brotherhood, he is given to a mentor to teach him the “scientific” way of speaking. He will no longer be “ guilty of no further unscientific speeches to upset our brotherhood scientific tranquility” (351). The brotherhood does not like or accept the narrator’s deliverance of speeches, so they try to mold him into an orator that sticks to and follows the brotherhood’s principles. The Brotherhood is just viewing the narrator as a tool to help them reach their goals. In essence, they are rejecting his identity and trying to paint their own image on him, and the narrator accepts this.
After the death of Brother Clifton, the narrator is thrust into deep emotional depths which ultimately cause him to question his identity and true purpose all the while the brotherhood remains silent. After Brother Clifton’s death, the narrator is reminded of During a meeting with the Brotherhood after Clifton’s funeral, the narrator finally begins seeing clearly. He calls out Brother Jack stating, “ But are you sure you aren’t their great white leader. . .Wouldn’t it be better if they called you Marse Jack. . .” (473). He finally sees that Jack is the mastermind and everything follows his agenda. He thought “ sacrifice. . . yes, and blindness; he doesn’t see ne. He doesn’t even see me”(475). Brother Jack is still trying to manipulate him and bend him to his own will, yet is unable to see the narrator for who he really is. To the brother JAck, the narrator is invisible. He does not have his own sense of self.
This depiction of blindness is further emphasized with Brother Jack’s blind eye. It signifies the narrator’s blindness to reality. Moreover, Jack’s true self is revealed in his raw, red his eyes. He is a dictator that wants everything to bend to his will. Brother Jack has a glass eye, signifying his own blindness to black people through his means of ‘scientific’ organization. It pops out after the Narrator calls out Jack after Clifton’s death, signifying that the Narrator is starting to speak the truth and is no longer blind to the structure of the Brotherhood either.
As Rinehart, he is met with his challenge of temptation with Sybil, a femme fatale that would make him astray from his journey. She has a rape fantasy in which she wants to be raped by a black man, and the Narrator has the lasting desire to fit into the identity of an American, as seen from the Battle Royal. However, by the end, he doesn’t give into this temptation and continues his journey. Furthermore, as the narrator is out in the wilderness, he puts on different masks to become who he is not really is, a false allusion . S ybil is temptations he has had to face. He thinks, “Poor Sybil, she picked a boy for a man’s job. . . I bent and kissed her upon her lips. . .”(523). He tempted by lust and Sybil. In a later scene, where Sybil tells him to not go to the riots, if he chose to go with her he would have never completed his journey. He would never find his true self if he did not fall down that hole. By rejection sybil and overcoming his desire. He was ultiamltely able to overcome his hero’s journey.
The narrator’s development concludes with his removal of his masks and acceptance of his invisibility, overcoming all of the fears he has trapped inside. Finding himself trapped in a dark manhole, he starts to burn his most important possessions in his breifcase including his high-school diploma, Clifton’s doll, which is symbolic of his manipulation at the hands of others; the anonymous warning letter, which reflected the repression of his oratory prowess and passion; and finally the slip with his Brotherhood name, which embodied his loyalty to a falsified organization that eventually betrayed him. Each of these papers personify a mask imposed upon the narrator by others, and their burning is a metaphor for the narrator finally outgrowing these masks. Furthermore, after burning everything, the narrator dreams hearing “HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE FREE OF ILLUSION. . .” (569). The narrator is now free of illusions, indicating that he has a clear vision of reality and of himself. Ultimately, the narrator recognizes himself as an invisible man. He explains, “. . . after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled.
I am an invisible man” (573). After struggling through many ordeals, the narrator learns to stop expecting others to grant him in an identity, and creates his own. While he initially feels empty and pained, following a long period of writing and reflection, the narrator’s comments in the Epilogue paint a different picture. After all he that has endured, the narrator could have ended up a broken man like Clifton or a violent, hateful man like Ras. The fact that he does not proves that he is successful in his hero’s journey. He has confronted the dark truth of his society and accepted its ramifications for his own identity. Beyond that, the narrator celebrates who he has become, asking, “Why should I be dedicated and set aside – yes, if not to at least tell a few people about it?” (579). He believes that the purpose of his suffering was to share his story, to help others understand what he now knows. He Despite all his past failures, the invisible man still clings to the “possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (581). He
Upon realizing that he is only invisible because other people have told him that he is, the Invisible Man decided to sort out his thoughts, and his mind all together. The Inivisble Man speaks of returning above ground in order to show the world the identity he had made himself. His elixir is his social responsibility. Rather than living his life through the commands of others, the narrator lives his life as the new man he has become, through his own decisions. He finally knows who he is, for the first time in his life.