Causes and Effects of Invisibility And Blindness
In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man
-- Anne-Marie Kimmes
Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man is a bildungsroman, a type of novel that chronicles a character’s moral and psychological growth. The narrator not only tells the story of Invisible Man, he is also its principal character. The narrative and thematic concerns of the story revolve around the development of the narrator as an individual. Additionally, because the narrator relates the story in the first person, the text does not truly probe the consciousness of any other figure in the story.
Ironically, though he dominates the novel, the narrator remains somewhat obscure to the reader; most notably, he never reveals his name. The names that he is given in the hospital and in the Brotherhood, the name of his college, even the state in which the college is located all go unidentified. The narrator remains a voice and never emerges as an external and quantifiable presence. This obscurity emphasizes his status as an “invisible man” as which he introduces himself in the Prologue of the novel. He explains that his invisibility owes not to some biochemical accident or supernatural cause but rather to the unwillingness of other people to notice him as he is black. It is as though other people are sleepwalkers moving through a dream in which he does not appear. The narrator says that his invisibility can serve both as an advantage and as a constant aggravation. Being invisible sometimes makes him doubt whether he really exists. He describes his anguished, aching need to make others recognize him, and says he has found that such attempts rarely succeed. Now, the narrator hibernates in his invisibility, preparing for his unnamed action. He states that the beginning of his story is really the end.
The Prologue of Invisible Man introduces the major themes that define the rest of the novel. The metaphors of invisibility and blindness allow for an examination of the effects of racism on the victim and the perpetrator. Because the narrator is black, whites refuse to see him as an actual, three-dimensional person; hence, he portrays himself as invisible and describes them as blind.
Thomas Schaub considers Invisible Man to be a “novel of social exclusion” describing “a culture in which the difference that separates black from white [...] is a difference of race so vast that Invisible Man [the narrator] is not merely awkward or out of place. He is invisible” (132). In his essay “Ellison’s Masks and the Novel of Reality”, Schaub talks about “exclusive reality” that is present in the novel. According to him, the narrator has been excluded from reality or may only participate in it on the condition that he remain invisible (130).
The narrator describes himself as an “invisible man” because he has decided that the world is full of blind men and sleepwalkers who cannot see him for what he is. The motif of invisibility pervades the novel, often manifesting itself hand in hand with the motif of blindness: one person becomes invisible because another is blind. The novel treats invisibility ambiguously. It can bring disempowerment, but it can also bring freedom and mobility. Indeed, it is the freedom the narrator derives from his anonymity that enables him to tell his story. Moreover, as will be shown later, both the veteran at the Golden Day and the narrator’s grandfather seem to endorse invisibility as a position from which one may safely exert power over others, or at least undermine others’ power, without being caught. The narrator demonstrates this power in the Prologue, when he literally draws upon electrical power from his hiding place underground; the electric company is aware of its losses but cannot locate their source.
Blindness is probably the most important motif in Invisible Man. It recurs throughout the novel and generally represents how people willfully avoid seeing and confronting the truth. The narrator repeatedly notes that people’s inability to see what they wish not to see – their inability to see that which their prejudice does not allow them to see – has forced him into a life of effective invisibility. But prejudice against others is not the only kind of blindness in the book. Many figures also refuse to acknowledge truths about themselves or their communities, and this refusal emerges consistently in the imagery of blindness. Thus, the boys who fight in the “battle royal” wear blindfolds, symbolizing their powerlessness to recognize their exploitation at the hands of the white men. The Founder’s statue at the college has empty eyes, signifying his ideology’s stubborn neglect of racist realities. Blindness also afflicts Reverend Homer A. Barbee, who romanticizes the Founder, and Brother Jack, who is revealed to lack an eye – a lack that he has dissimulated by wearing a glass eye. The narrator himself experiences moments of blindness, such as in Chapter Sixteen when he addresses the black community under enormous, blinding lights. In each case, failure of sight corresponds to a lack of insight.
For much of the story, and especially in the chapters before he joins the Brotherhood, the narrator appears extremely innocent and inexperienced. His innocence prevents him from recognizing the truth behind others’ errant behavior and leads him to try to fulfill their misguided expectations. He remains extremely vulnerable to the identity that society thrusts upon him as an African American. He plays the role of the servile black man to the white men in Chapter One; he plays the industrious, uncomplaining disciple of Booker T. Washington during his college years; he agrees to act as the Brotherhood’s black spokesperson, which allows the Brotherhood to use him.
Edith Schor agrees in saying that the narrator is innocent in the beginning of the novel. She describes the story of Invisible Man as the “journey of its narrator from ignorance to knowledge and affirmation” (215). The Invisible Man is eager and ambitious, and expects by determination and hard work to find a high place for himself in society. He is prone to think the best of people even when he has reason not to, and he remains consistently respectful of authority. The narrator’s innocence sometimes causes him to misunderstand important events in the story, often making it necessary for the reader to look past the narrator’s own interpretation of events. Ellison uses irony to allow the reader to see things that the narrator misses.
Edith Schor explains that three informants tell the narrator that “he must first realize who he is in order to ‘play the game,’ but he fails to comprehend their meaning” (217). He is blind to his need to know who he is. The three informants are his grandfather (a former slave), Trueblood (a ‘field nigger’), and a veteran.
The first warning comes from his grandfather who said the following words on his deathbed:
“Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Ellison 16).
The central thrust of these last sentences – that white society is an enemy – is not so much misunderstood as set aside. The narrator rather feels guilty and is haunted by his grandfather’s words when he is rewarded by white folks for his good conduct. As mentioned earlier, the narrator’s innocence sometimes causes him to misunderstand important events in the story. In this way, he fails to examine the observable nature of the white folks’ approval.
For instance, the narrator accepts his scholarship from the brutish white men with gladness and gratitude after the degradation and humiliation that involved the “battle royal” (a graphic illustration of the narrator’s grandfather’s dictum that “life is a war”) and the holding of his speech in Chapter One. He passes no judgment on the white men’s behavior. Here, the white men’s actions provide enough evidence for the reader to denounce the men as appalling racists. While the narrator can be somewhat unreliable in this regard, Ellison makes sure that the reader perceives the narrator’s blindness.
Following the narrator’s grandfather, Jim Trueblood is the second informant. Trueblood is an uneducated black man who lives on the outskirts of the college campus and who impregnated his own daughter while having a strange dream. Incapable to figure out if he is guilty or not because he committed his sin while he was sleeping, Trueblood does not exile himself and therefore refuses to act out the white man’s myth of guilt and pollution.
Ironically, only the people up in the college regard Trueblood with hatred and distrust and try to get him out of the county. White people have showered him with more money and help than before he committed the unspeakable taboo of incest. Schor argues that the use the whites make of Trueblood parallels their use of the boys at the smoker. They are “paying a scapegoat for the vicarious satisfaction he provides – for acting out what they dare not even imagine” (222). The narrator is appalled by Norton’s action of also paying his scapegoat and giving Trueblood a $100 bill. However, the narrator is blind to Norton’s motives and curses under his breath as he sees his expected tip to go to this lowest of ‘field niggers’. The Invisible Man feels superior to this black sharecropper just as he felt superior to the other black boys he fought in the “battle royal”. Just as the monetary rewards of the battle royal incite the narrator and his classmates to turn on one another in Chapter One, the rewards of social advancement offered by the college incite the students and faculty to turn their backs on one of the least-empowered groups of American blacks: the poor sharecroppers. In an attempt to conform to the role of the model black citizen expected of them by white trustees, these higher-status blacks disown the dishonorable Jim Trueblood. This attempt to break from the lower-status blacks in order to gain greater favor with the white community seems to illustrate the narrator’s grandfather’s statement in Chapter One that blind conformity to the good slave role constitutes an act of treachery. The narrator has not understood the second messenger and remains as innocent as he was at the time of his high school diploma.
Trueblood’s story has made the narrator ashamed and Norton faint. The narrator drives the white man to the nearest bar, where some fifty veterans from the insane asylum are visiting. One of them claims to be a doctor and a graduate of the college. He is an institutionalized black man who makes bitterly insightful remarks about race relations and tries to expose the pitfalls of the school’s ideology. After Norton wakes, the veteran mocks Norton’s interest in the narrator and the college. He calls the narrator an automaton stricken with a blindness that makes him do Norton’s bidding and claims that this blindness is the narrator’s chief asset.
When the doctor-veteran at the Golden Day tavern calls the narrator an “automaton”, the comment revives the problematic relationship between white benefactor and black beneficiary. The veteran explicitly identifies Norton’s narcissism by stating that Norton sees the narrator as a mark on the scorecard of his achievement: