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What Is A Protest Novel?

In his interview with the Paris Review, Ralph Ellison insisted that Invisible Man wasn’t a protest novel.

He explained it this way:

I am not primarily concerned with injustice, but with art.

Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called protest novel, especially when written by Negroes, but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about the lack of craftsmanship and the provincialism which is typical of such works.

If you’ve read the story, you know that it’s almost impossible NOT to put Invisible Man in the protest novel category.

There’s the speech by the blind preacher. The many speeches by the narrator and his interactions with “The Brotherhood.”

What separates Invisible Man, in my opinion, from other books categorized as protest novels is Ellison’s technique. He doesn’t beat you over the head with his philosophy, whatever it may be.

Compare that to Richard Wright’s Native Son or even Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—stories in which the happy communists and socialists step in to save the day or, at least, are portrayed as the heroes who promise a better tomorrow.

Invisible Man tells a brutal, degrading story, but the preachy undertones just aren’t there. I dig that about this novel and Ellison’s style.

So the question is—what makes a protest novel? Is it just a story that illustrates injustice, or does the author need some type of slant or “take” on the issue?

And, as Ellison says, can protest and art be the same thing?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Matt #

    Don’t see why protest can’t be considered art. I guess I don’t follow Ellison because his premise seems to be that the widely held view was the two were opposite and he has a different view. I don’t follow why the protest novel CAN’T be considered art.


    October 18, 2012
    • I agree. Moving this in to other fields of art you see the same thing: sure there are raw protest statements (think of much of folk music) but there is also that moving mixture of art and protest. In art, I think first of Picasso’s La Guernica. In music, almost anything written by Gil Scott Heron.


      October 18, 2012
      • Bob Dylan? More recently…Rage Against the Machine. I’m with you guys. I didn’t know there was a line in the sand.


        October 19, 2012
  2. mc105 #

    Hey I love the blog and I love books and I’m also working on creating a novel even. I want to share my book and novel ideas with people but I need a bigger audience so if you could mention my blog “WHAT THE FUCK” at


    October 23, 2012

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