Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man The Liberty Paint Factory in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man provides the setting for a very significant chain of events in the novel. In addition, it provides many symbols which will influence a reader’s interpretation.
Some of those symbols are associated with the structure itself, with Mr. Kimbro, and with Mr. Lucius Brockway. The first of many instances in these scenes that concern the invisible man and the symbolic role of white and black in the novel is when the narrator is sent to the paint factory by the young Mr.Emerson to try to find a job. Mr. Emerson, however, only sends him out of pity. The narrator arrives and immediately notices the huge electric sign that reads “KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS”.
Later on, the reader will learn that Liberty Paint is famous for its white paint called none other than “Optic White”. In effect, the sign advertises to keep America pure with whites and not just white paint.Next, the invisible man must walk down a long, pure white hallway. At this time he is a black man symbolically immersed in a white world, a recurring idea of the novel. After receiving his job, the narrator goes to meet Mr. Kimbro. In this scene, Kimbro teaches the narrator how to make the ordinary white paint into “Optic White”: Ten drops of a black formula must be mixed in to the white paint, of which the surface is already brown.
The narrator does not understand this, and inquires about it, only to be insulted by Mr.Kimbro. Mr. Kimbro, in no way what so ever, wants any of his workers to think. He just wants them to obey. So the invisible man, although still unable to comprehend this idiosyncrasy, does not persist.The white paint may represent the white world, perhaps even America, as alluded to in the company’s advertisement.
The black formula is what makes the white paint into “Optic White”, a much better, whiter, white. The formula, perhaps, represents the behind the scenes blacks that worked for the whites so that society persisted as it did in that time period. This idea will be touched upon once again later on in this series of scenes. The invisible man then falls victim to a bad set of circumstances.
He runs out of formula, and since Kimbro is not around, he tries to get himself some more. However, there are two containers with what appear to be the same kind of formulas, just with different markings. Naturally, the narrator uses his intuition and discovers that the two liquids in the tanks smell differently, and one smells like the formula he was using. He gets more of that solution, and continues his work, only to be scolded later by Kimbro that he chose the wrong one. Once again, Kimbro states that he does not want any thinkers working for him.
He wants a submissive black that will just follow the “rules” established in his “society”. After fixing his mistake, the narrator is sent back to the office to find another position: Kimbro does not want the invisible man working for him. In the scene that follows, the invisible man meets Mr. Lucius Brockway, deep down in the paint factory. Mr. Brockway, a black man, can be thought of a symbol himself.He is the black formula that makes the white paint work.
He is one of the many blacks that keep the paint factory working. He is one of the many blacks that keep society as the whites like it. Mr. Brockway makes the powder that is the base of the paint.
Again, a black influence that makes the “Optic White” paint possible appears. When the narrator returns from getting his lunch, he is confronted by Mr. Brockway about the union. It is here that the reader learns that the blacks that, in effect, run the paint factory, are being hired so that the company does not have to pay union wages. This is important because it shows that the blacks are once again being taken advantage of by the whites, yet they are still working behind the scenes to make things run like clockwork.
Through out this commotion, the narrator has not been fulfilling one of his duty by watching the pressure gauge. The pressure builds up, and right before the narrator has a chance to turn it off, it explodes. Once again, he is a black man immersed in a world of white. This explosion leaves him in the factory hospital. In the hospital, he is given electroshock therapy. After the “doctors” are convinced that he is “cured,” (i.e.
he can not remember a thing), he is then given a name and is sent on his way after signing a release and being given some money. Once again, the whites are taking advantage of the blacks. All of these events, besides being highly important on a symbolic level as explained, also contribute to the rest of the novel. The college is a perfect example of a parallel environment. Dr. Bledsoe only wants the narrator to please the whites, with out question.And because the narrator did not, he ended up getting kicked out, just like in the paint factory.
Also, the Brotherhood provides another parallel. They only want the blacks to work for the Brotherhood’s causes, and not for the individual member’s needs. For example, Brother Wrestrum accused the narrator of using the Brotherhood to attain his own needs, and the narrator was put on a kind of probation for it, so that the matter could be investigated. In a way, the Liberty Paint Factory is a microcosm of America. There are blacks and whites. However, on the surface both appear to be white and right.
In effect, it is really the blacks that work behind the scenes to make things flow.They are taken advantage of, and controlled by ideas put into their heads. The paint factory itself, Mr.
Kimbro, and Mr. Lucius Brockway all help portray this image to its fullest, while contributing to the rest of the novel.