“I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.”
-The Invisible Man
Be True to Thyself
Many people travel through life on a constant search on who there are and how they fit into this world. Some maneuver through situations and issues that they are faced with never being true to themselves, but more so modeling the behaviors of others. It is not until one defines their self-image, obtain a healthy amount of self-esteem, and confidence can they execute decisions concerning their lives. Until then, their actions are merely mimics or derivatives of the thoughts or beliefs of another. In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the nameless protagonist does not possess a definite sense of self, which results in his living his life for others.
Primarily, the invisible man emulates his life after other people. The first example of this is how he behaves like his grandfather. On his deathbed the invisible man’s grandfather tells him to “to keep up the good fight”(Ellison16). Following this he was always doing what was right and was “considered an example of desired conduct—just as his grandfather had been”(Ellison 17). Once the invisible man goes off to college he begins to act in a manner to please Mr. Norton. Not only does Mr. Norton not identify with the invisible man racially, he views blacks as “a mark on the scoreboard of his achievement”(Ellison 95). Despite these two facts the invisible man allows himself to be a “do boy” by chauffeuring Mr. Norton to slave quarters. It is here that the protagonist can truly be identified as someone that is not in touch with himself because he sacrifices his education for a man that is not concerned about him or his race. Dr. Bledsoe tries to drive this concept into the invisible man when he tells him that “the white folks tell everybody what to think”(Ellison 143). Dr. Bledsoe expels the invisible man from school, hoping that he will learn how to survive and develop an identity that suits him. After being expelled from school, the invisible man begins a journey to make a living for himself. He ends up in New York where he is introduced to “The Brotherhood”. “The Brotherhood” quickly gives him a place to live, a job with a reasonable salary, and petty cash to spend on clothing. He adopts their ideologies, mimics their way of life, and indulges himself in their literature. After going through a rigorous tutorial program the invisible man emerges brainwashed and still lacking an identity. Never making his own decisions, the invisible man becomes “chief spokesman of the Harlem District”(Ellison 359) and finally begins to promote the ideas of “The Brotherhood” to the people of Harlem. Not knowing that “The Brotherhood” is using him to entice the people into following their doctrine and adopting their philosophies. He never decided where he would go or what cause he would speak against. He became a pawn for “The Brotherhood”. To them he was not an individual, but an inanimate object. Eventually the invisible man grows tired of “The Brotherhood” and their mannerisms. However, instead of trying to work on developing an identity, the invisible man begins to impersonate “Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend”(Ellison 498). Wearing a large hat and glasses tinted a dark green, he moves about the street with greetings of “Hey now!”(Ellison 485) and “daddy-o”(Ellison 484). He immerses himself into a youthful lifestyle with no prior knowledge of how it operates. His resemblance to Rinehart is advantageous because it allows him to travel safely from place to place while in hiding from ““The Brotherhood””. The invisible man moves through his life never really living for himself but for others. In addition, to adopting the behaviors expected of him, he also adopts the personalities of others. Both of these practices strengthen the idea that he is invisible “simply because people refuse to see” (Ellison 3) him because there really is not a concrete personality to see.
Though the invisible man lives a life of emulation for some time, he eventually retreats from others to discover his identity. The invisible man’s first step to living a personally fulfilling life was realizing that his “future lies chiefly in his own hands”(Vanzant 1/15). Consequently, if he does not know what to identify himself with he will not control his future. To have an established identity one’s self-image, self-esteem and confidence must be assessed and developed. Secondly he learns that “identification with an organization or a cause is no substitute for self-realization” (Vanzant4/29). He realizes that his relationship to “The Brotherhood” and his role in their activities was insignificant. He excepts the fact that he was not really a part of the group, but more so someone that ran errands. In addition, the invisible man discovers “In the solitude of your mind are the answers to all your questions about life. You must take the time to ask and listen”(Vanzant 1/17). This is seen when he says “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.” (Ellison 15). Taking time to think about morals, values and basic characteristics can prove useful in determining the qualities, which a person would like to exemplify. Knowing what he stands for will allow him to make better judgments in the future. In due time, he will begin to make judgments based on what his morals, ideas, and values reflect. “Nothing can dim the light which shines from within”(Vanzant 2/5), when you have a positive self-image you exude a confidence that surpasses even the most negative comments and corrupted situations. The invisible man begins to look at himself positively“We must not wish to be anything but what we, are and to be that perfectly”(Vanzant 1/7). When we are satisfied with whom we are then we can begin to accomplish things. As the invisible man’s self-esteem increases so does his self-confidence. When someone begins to construct who they are they must realize that “If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With no confidence, you have won even before you have started”(Vanzant 2/7). The invisible man develops a self-definition, which makes him “visible” to others.
Furthermore, retreating underground was the best decision the invisible man made. Underground is where he finally realizes that he has no identity “is the way it has always been” (Ellison 566) and that his life was merely a farce. He realizes that other people controlled his whole life: from his grandfather’s death; to driving Mr. Norton; to being expelled from college by Dr. Bledsoe; to being a member of “ “The Brotherhood”. He understands that he was never given a chance to think for himself and develop an identity befitting him:
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 many years of trying to adopt the opinion of others I finally rebelled. (Ellison 573)
After years and years of portraying others thoughts and beliefs he accepts “That I am nobody but myself.”(Ellison 15). It took him years to understand that some people live their whole life never knowing who they are and he was one of those people. Happy and content with his subterraneous lifestyle the invisible man begins to live a life true to himself.
Invisible Man is a dynamic novel that many people can relate to today. Myriads of people are on a continuous search for their identity and purpose. This process has been conquered by some; however, many never discover or develop to their full potential. The lesson of this novel, however, is that seeking a strong self-definition is essential, while keeping in mind to not let outside agents determine that definition. This novel is one that I would recommend to all of my friends because while following the path that the invisible man takes to self-discover, I realized that many of us are on the same trail of discovery. Invisible Man highlights and emphasizes the significance in having a strong self-identity to live a productive and satisfying life.