Seeing the Invisible Man

swirl-divider4Some consider it to be the most important American novel of the twentieth century. “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison is the Winner of the National Book Award for fiction and is no doubt powerfully written. So why is it so good?

1) The narrator begins by claiming “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.”

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INVISIBLE MAN Sculpture, Ralph Ellison Memorial, West Harlem, New York City

2) The Invisible Man (or IM as we shall call him for the sake of this review!) is frank, with clever antidotes. He has no name, but we learn as the reader to not only question his character, but also later-to trust the strength of his narrative voice. When I was reading this book at school, I felt I could relate to him.. He has dreams, and passions. He lays out all his flaws to the reader, allowing us to form our own opinions, of both character and events. Perhaps it is this which makes him appear so honest and easy to relate to.

'The Invisible Man' dress rehearsal at Studio Theatre

‘The Invisible Man’ dress rehearsal at Studio Theatre

3) IM is HIGHLY VISIBLE as an African American but invisible as an individual. Perhaps, TOO VISIBLE in a white dominated society. He is educated, a great public speaker and has inspiring thoughts on social responsibility- but in the eyes of others his race segregates him from his peers. It highlights the universal question on whether people see you for who you are inside or merely a stereotype, boxed into categories of race, class, gender. This is a prevalent theme throughout the novel.

4) We learn his views on resistance, which is important when you get to know a character. IM says, “hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.” I just love this quote. Furthermore his grandfather’s advice is: in order to protect the truth you must tell them what they want to hear. The character of Dr Bledsoe says ‘play the game but don’t believe in it.’  It becomes apparent IM still intends on taking action, he does this by raising support from the people gradually through the power of words and intellect rather than the mass violence of ‘Ras the Exorter’.

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5) He encounters many form of racism in the novel. He is forced to fight at the start of the book, constantly humiliated and unjustly punished. The novel illustrates Racism on a public versus a personal level. The character of ‘Ras’ depicts the tension between the races. ‘Ras’ hates all whites, whereas IM, as part of the brotherhood respects that some are willing to help. When he starts to work at Liberty paints he sees the ingrained racism at the centre of its operations. The union members advocate the rights of the individual, however it raises hatred and hostility. You learn a lot about IM, his morality against adversary and the reader too develops with him on his journey.

6) It is a very inspiring book. In fact, out of all my years at uni; this has to be the one I enjoyed the most. The narrator is sympathetic. He feels like an old friend. I think this is important. At various points in the narrative, he may appear to be an underdog but you can guarantee he will turn words into action when the time comes. He inspires hope, he is ready to take action, channelling talent into usefulness and rules the mob. From the start he has a strong sense of moral justice, you can say it is this which keeps him motivated through the novel. He may be oppressed and taken advantage of in his early years, but be sure about it, he is able to FIGHT BACK.

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7) At the end of the novel, he must destroy old life to be reborn. He manipulates the system, uses his invisibility to his advantage. “I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest”, but after a while, trying to please others didn’t work. It shows that he does not belong in society- he will always be judged by others because of his race and so decides to live on his own underground with his own thoughts and reflections to establish his own self identity.

“Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility.” 

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Ralph Ellison

8) To show how much I appreciated the book, I bought it twice. Crazy or not? But I wanted to keep a copy without annotations in, which I left behind. It is definitely good to have a hard copy to keep. The Times claimed it to be “one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century”. Regardless of whether this is true or not- it is definitely a novel worth reading, and I’m inclined to agree with them…

9) So let me leave you with this:

“Ralph Ellison’s blistering and impassioned first novel tells the extraordinary story of a man invisible ‘simply because people refuse to see me’. Published in 1952 when American society was on the cusp of immense change, the powerfully depicted adventures of Ellison’s invisible man- from his expulsion from a Southern college to a terrifying Harlem race riot- go far beyond the story of one individual. As John Callahan says ‘in an extraordinary imaginative leap, he hit upon a single word for the different yet shared condition of the African Americans, Americans and, for that matter, the human individual in the twentieth century, and beyond.’”

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Ralph Ellison Monument

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