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Book #48: Invisible Man

Invisible man

Invisible Man is hands-down one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read.

I read the novel in college, and I don’t know whether it was age or maturity, but Invisible Man slapped me across the face this time around. I won’t forget it.

It starts with an unnamed protagonist—the “invisible man” modeled after the unnamed protagonist in Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground—who grows up in Harlem in the middle of a racist society. To earn a scholarship to college, he has to participate in a “battle royal” while blindfolded with other young black men.

Older white men mock them from the crowd and then force them to scavenge for coins on an electrified rug. It’s one of the most degrading scenes in literature…but, because of that, it’s one of the most powerful openings in literature as well.

The story continues with the narrator getting kicked out of college by the school’s African-American president who caters to the white trustees. He then finds a job in a New York factory before finally settling in as a speaker for “The Brotherhood”—basically a group of white communist men who are looking for support in Harlem.

The crux of the novel is this—the unnamed narrator is a pawn, a puppet, for the white men who use him. They prop him up, not to further his cause or to make him known, but to promote their own causes.

Whether it’s Bledsoe, the school president, or Jack, the leader of The Brotherhood, the narrator finds out that no one his on his side. He is invisible.

Perhaps the most important conversation in the novel takes place in the prologue. The narrator recalls advice his grandfather gave him as a child about how to deal with white people:

“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.”

This brief exchange sets the tone for the novel–the idea that appearance is not always reality and that change can only come from within. Despite hearing this at an early age, it’s a lesson that take the invisible man years to eventually understand.

Ralph Ellison (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

As the story continues and the narrator grows up, you get a real sense of his desire to fit in, to find an identity, to be seen. Blindness—both literal and metaphorical—is a major theme throughout the novel. From the blind preacher to The Brotherhood leader with a glass eye to the blindfolded battle royal, this idea of blindness and invisibility carries throughout the story.

Really, Invisible Man is about stereotypes. The narrator puts it this way: “They see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything except me.”

Stereotyping is so easy. Think about it. You have an experience here and an experience there, your friend makes a comment, you see something on the news or in a movie, you hear a piece of gossip. From those few experiences, you label an entire group of people.

The narrator, at times, becomes the stereotype he’s trying to fight against. In one scene, he attacks a passer-by who believes was just looking at him funny.

The whole stereotype thing sucks, but it happened when Ellison wrote Invisible Man and it still happens today. This invisible man is there, but he’s not really there.

To the old white guys, he’s a brute they can throw in a boxing ring and heckle. To the college president, he’s a lowly student who can’t be believed and is discarded. To The Brotherhood, he’s a pawn they can prop up and move around to further their own causes.

He goes along, oblivious to what they are doing, until he finally has an epiphany:

They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves…. Here I thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn’t see either color or men.”

Strong passage.

So, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I really like this novel. It’s one thing to read Invisible Man in 2012, but I can’t imagine reading it when it was published in 1952. The freshness and the reality of the story would probably have been overwhelming.

The shame about Ralph Ellison is that Invisible Man was the only novel he ever completed. He had some short stories here and there and unfinished novel when he died. But since he was the most interesting man in the world, I guess one novel was all he had in him.

Ralph Ellison! Harper Lee! Why could you not have given us one more novel?

That’s an aside, though. All I can say to sum this up is that do yourself a favor and read Invisible Man.

This is a novel, along the lines of The Grapes of Wrath, that is almost an historical document as much as it is a story. I’ve now read Invisible Man twice, and I dare say that a third read might be sometime in my future. It’s that good.

Other Thoughts

The Opening Line: “I am an invisible man.”

The Meaning: Perception is rarely reality, and stereotypes suck. More than that, you can’t fight a stereotype when you become a stereotype yourself.

Highlights: Invisible Man really gives you an excellent historical perspective on what it must have been like for a young black man in the 1950s. It’s a beautifully written book, and truly one of the most memorable I’ve read. I like that Ellison let’s the events in the novel speak for themselves without getting preachy.

Lowlights: At 550 pages, I thought the novel dragged in a few spots. Never for very long but enough to notice.

Memorable Line: “I was pulled this way and that for longer than I can remember. And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.”

Final Thoughts: Think of a bunch of positive, fancy adjectives and put them in front of the word “book,” and you’ve got how I would describe Invisible Man. Outstanding. Powerful. Profound. Thought-provoking. Original. Experimental. It’s just a classic novel well worthy of being high on any list of great books. Thank you Ralph Ellison.

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read Invisible Man. I will have to some day, it sounds absolutely incredible.

    October 23, 2012
    • Do it!

      October 23, 2012
      • I will! Once I make it through the stack of comic books next to my bed. :)

        October 23, 2012
  2. Guess I’ll have to put this one on my list. One of my criteria for a great book is that it allows you to enter into the characters’ feelings and experiences. Apparently, Invisible Man allows you to do this. Thanks for the review.

    October 23, 2012
    • It absolutely does that. I think you’ll like it a lot.

      October 23, 2012
  3. Wow great review! I read Native Son for the first time earlier this year and LOVED it. Sounds like this would be right up my alley as well.

    October 23, 2012
    • I think you would like it. Longer than Native Son but deals with a lot of the same complicated issues.

      October 24, 2012
  4. I love this book too, Robert. I was thinking about it recently when I found out that Ellison’s experience as a chef informed some of the scenes in Invisible Man. Thought you might like to see it: http://paperandsalt.org/2012/09/04/ralph-ellison-molasses-cornbread/

    October 28, 2012
  5. Minus Ellison’s (always) heavy handed communist rhetoric, this is an exceptional novel! Great review!

    November 11, 2013

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