Invisible Man Theme

The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a novel which embodies the universal theme of self-discovery, of the search to figure out who one truly is in life which we all are embarked upon. Throughout the text, the narrator is constantly wondering about who he really is, and evaluating the different identities which he assumes for himself. He progresses from being a hopeful student with a bright future to being just another poor black laborer in New Your City to being a fairly well off spokesperson for a powerful political group, and ultimately to being the “invisible man” which he eventually realizes that he has always been. The deepest irony in this text is that for a significant portion of the story, the narrator is unaware of his own invisibility, in believing that others can “see” him, he is essentially invisible to himself. Only through a long and arduous journey of self-discovery which is fraught with constant and unexpected tragedy and loss does he realize the truth, that his perceptions of himself and of how others perceived him had been backwards his entire life.
The story opens with the narrator participating in a “battle royal” prior to delivering a speech on humility, and on the progress of the Black people. These are the days during which he is still a hopeful scholar, defining himself as a “potential Booker T. Washington.” At this point he is living the life that others have told him that he should live, and defines himself as he believes he is seen through their eyes, as an icon of what a Black person can achieve when they put their minds to it, and as a role model for his people. The abuse and degradation which he is put through in the battle royal give him the first inklings that everything is not as it seems, but fail to do anything to change the narrator’s perceptions of himself.
It is quite possible that if given the chance, the narrator may have gone on living the life that society had preselected for him, and never realized his invisibility, but fate had other plans for him. His entire life was thrown into disarray the day that he was assigned around Mr. Norton, a powerful white man and founder of the school which he was attending. The narrator made the mistake of taking Mr. Norton through the old slave quarters, and at Norton’s request, brought him down to converse with Jim Trueblood, a man who, in the midst of a dream, had raped and impregnated his own daughter. The conversation they had left Mr. Norton very shaken, and caused him to pass out. Afraid that Norton would die and wanting to do anything that would save him, the narrator brought him into a local brothel called the Golden Day to get him some whiskey. Mr. Norton ended up recovering fully, but when news of what had happened reached Dr. Bledsoe, the narrator was permanently expelled from under the pretext that he would be allowed to return after one year had elapsed.
Deeply shaken by this turn of events but far from broken, and taking hope in returning to school after a year, the narrator heads to New York City armed with seven letters from Dr. Bledsoe addressed to some prominent white people which he believes will help him in attaining a job. This couldn’t be further from the truth however, and upon delivering the seventh letter, he is informed that the letters state that his expulsion has been permanent, and that the men which he has been referred to will do nothing other than “help him continue in direction of the promise whichrecedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler,” in short, that all they will do is keep him chasing after a false hope. It is here that the narrator sees that his dreams of being the “next Booker T.” will go unrealized, and that he may never return to the life which he has abandoned. This is also where he begins the journey to finding his true identity. Following a tip from the son of the seventh addressee, the same person who revealed the true contents of the letters, the narrator takes a job at a paint factory, but ends up caught in a furnace explosion on his first day. At the factory hospital, he is subjected to shock therapy and then released and given some compensation money from the company. While walking the streets in a dazed and confused state, he runs into a lady named Mary who offers to let him rent a room in her house, and he took up her offer after attacking a man whom he mistook for Dr. Bledsoe in his previous place of residence.
The rent at Mary’s was paid for with the compensation money, and the narrator settled into a routine of looking for, and failing to find, a job. This continues until one day he passes an old couple who is being evicted from their homes. There is a crowd of people spectating the event, and as the narrator watches, rage takes hold of him, and he delivers a stunning speech which moves the crowd enough that they riot against the police and the men who are carrying out the eviction. A member of the Brotherhood, a group which works to end the social inequalities that exist between whites and blacks overhears his speech, and he is invited to a Brotherhood party.
Taking a job as a brotherhood orator embodies yet another major and unexpected change in lives for the narrator. He is ordered to leave Mary’s domicile, and given a comfortable salary for his work, but more importantly, the narrator believes that within the Brotherhood he has found his true purpose in life. After receiving training in how to speak from the mind instead of from emotion, he pursues his Brotherhood assignments with aggression and enthusiasm. Under his administration, the Brotherhood movement in Harlem establishes a firm foothold, and rapidly gains members and influence. By this point, the narrator sees himself as being an emissary of the Brotherhood, a selfless and dedicated member of the organization, and a political leader to the people of Harlem. But this is yet another identity that others have merely supplied for him, and he is only seeing himself as others see him, as he has his whole life.
This continued until one day Brother Wrestrum, a member of his Brotherhood division in Harlem accused the narrator of being a self-serving opportunist and a threat to the Brotherhood. Though there was little concrete evidence outside of a magazine article that was based on an interview of the narrator, he was nevertheless given the choice of either becoming inactive in the Brotherhood entirely, or lecturing on the “woman question” in another neighborhood until an investigation into his loyalty was conducted. The narrator chose the latter of these two options, and as a result, he was eventually was rewarded with an important insight into his character. Because of his talks about women and their place in society, many women believe that they shared a kind of connection with him, and that he would understand them and their needs. For the first time, the narrator is able to realize that these girls are seeing him only as they want to see him instead of how he really is, and that he is “real” to them only insofar as they believe he is real.
Though this was an important realization for the narrator to make, the discovery of his true self was still a way off. When he is allowed to return to his position in Harlem, he finds that membership and support for the Brotherhood has all but disappeared, as has a former friend, Tod Clifton. The narrator finds Clifton, selling paper Samba dolls a few moments before Clifton is gunned down by a policeman for resisting arrest. Outraged by Clifton’s murder, and unable to reach any of his superiors in the Brotherhood, the narrator decides to turn Clifton’s death into a funeral march, and delivers a speech which stirs the people of Harlem up quite a bit. This move angers the Brotherhood council, who consider Clifton to be a traitor, but was crucial in terms of the narrator’s self realization. While being reprimanded for his actions, the narrator tries repeatedly to make the council see how things have fallen apart in Harlem, and that his speech was necessary and appropriate. His appeals were ignored however, and he later sees that he was ignored because the Brotherhood council didn’t care what he had to say, because to them, he was merely a tool, a device to be used to further their own ends. They, again, saw in him only what they wanted to see.
His final revelation was to come as he was wandering the streets in a large hat and dark glasses which he had purchased to avoid any run-ins with Ras’s men. Several people mistake the narrator for a man named Rinehart, who is a numbers dealer to some, a briber to others, and a preacher to still others. Yet Rinehart’s real identity eludes him, as well as everyone else, and the narrator finally realizes that Rinehart’s true identity is invisible, and that it is his invisibility that lets him be so many things at once to so many people and yet nothing at all at the same time. He is also able to see for the first time the Brotherhood has been using him, and sacrificing him for their own ends, and that to them, and everyone else, he was as invisible as Rinehart.
After finally realizing that he is invisible, and that people see nothing in him other than what they want to see, the narrator sets out to undermine the Brotherhood that has used him for so long. His efforts, or lack thereof, coupled with Ras’s constant agitation of the people of Harlem result in a full-scale riot. Though this was his general intent from the beginning, the narrator later realizes that it was also what Jack and the other Brotherhood members wanted as well, and that in trying to undermine them, he has only served them further. The story draws to a close with the narrator trapped in a sewer, where he finally realized that his past, imagined life would have to be abandoned, and that he would have to start anew as an invisible man.
Throughout the story, the protagonist was constantly searching for his true identity, and in the end he realizes that he has no true identity. He is invisible, or more appropriately, he is a mirror which reflects only what other people want to see. The story of how he comes to realize his invisibility deals with a theme of self-discovery, of how other people cannot tell you who you really are, though they will try if given the chance. The narrator’s efforts to find out who he is represents the way in which we all must strive to define ourselves. Defining oneself is one major theme (though not the only one) that is present throughout the novel, as well as one that is constantly reinforced by the events in the story.
Bibliography:
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man.