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Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)

March 26, 2010

A veritable tome of a book, but what a story. From the very beginning, I couldn’t put it down. Ellison’s unnamed narrator tells a compelling story, even though he’s not particularly lovable. His various flaws generally serve to make him more human, and to make the reader wish he would have his eyes opened sooner rather than later so he can get on with his life.

One thread that caught my attention was the one having to do with fighters. From the very beginning, the narrator illustrates his ability to fight. Whether you want to consider his example from the introduction (where he talks about beating up a man only to realize the man can’t see him because he’s invisible) or the instance where he goes to give his graduation speech and becomes entangled in a physical fight with the other boys who were brought there for that purpose, fighting is a crucial part of his life. It’s through his first fight (the latter instance mentioned above) that the narrator gets his precious briefcase — that symbol of so many things. When he takes Mr. Norton to the Golden Day — the decision that ends his formal education — the entire bar becomes a roiling fight (even though he stays out of it this time). When he gets his first job, he fights Lucius Brockway the same day he is injured and has to be hospitalized. When he gives his first planned speech, it’s at an old arena where years ago a prizefighter “had been beaten blind in a crooked fight, [a] scandal that had been suppressed, and […] the fighter had died in a home for the blind” (334). When he comes up against Ras the Destroyer, it’s in a fistfight in the dark streets. And finally, when he becomes invisible (or really realizes his invisibility) it’s as he runs from a fight, flees from Ras’ men, falls into the coal pit, and is shut out from the world. I’m not sure exactly what to make of all the fighting imagery except at the most obvious level: the narrator has to fight for every important step in his life. He has to fight for his very life at times, and he continues to struggle rather than to give up. It’s only when he truly flees from a fight that he sinks into invisibility…falls into that near-lifeless state his life is in when the novel ends.

Perhaps the most intriguing thread of this novel was what the unnamed narrator’s grandfather said on his death bed, which continues to haunt the narrator throughout the story. He said,

“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.” (16)

This, of course, leaves an impression on the narrator, but he continues to think that the whites are going to think he’s a traitor when in fact it’s his own people he’s treacherous to all along…it just takes him some time to figure it out. His struggle with this cryptic bit of advice from an old and dying man serves as a kind of marker of his progress as he works his way through his own life. The various ways he considers his grandfather’s words indicate his mindset and his guiding principles each time he ponders this outburst.

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