The Invisible Man (Analysis)

The ability to change faces is a highly regarded act in Peking Opera. The actor is able to change painted masks on his face over a dozen times, before finally revealing his true identity to the audience. A single flourish of his hand would change the mask from a sad blue clown to an angry red devil. However, the ability to remove the masks with a wave of the hand is not that all uncommon. In fact, every person possesses the ability to change the way she presents herself to others in the single blink of an eye. This constant change of faces resembles the constant change of identities and personas each person experiences as they go on their journey to achieving selfhood. In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the hero, like the opera singer, is constantly peeling off masks in hope of truly revealing who he is underneath. The invisible man under goes a cycle of vision and blindness as he peels off the identities placed upon him by the various aspects of his world, and completes his journey successfully when he is finally able to not only accept and understand himself, but also the world around him.

One of the many elements used to alter the invisible man’s identity and vision is his ambition, and the ambition of those around him. From the beginning, the protagonist was similar to other ambitious young black men, aspiring one day to become a great leader like Booker T. Washington. In the scene of the battle royal, his ambition blinds him from the truth – the fact his achievements mean nothing to the white men that he so desperately wants to impress. He is first brought in with the expectation the he is going to wow all of the white leaders of his community with his speech (which he had mostly plagiarized from his hero, Booker T. Washington), and hopes that he would be able to set an example for the rest of his community. Even though the narrator is clearly shamed by having to fight his schoolmates for entertainment, as he “suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of [his] speech”, he continues to fight, determined to perform his speech in front of the white men (20). The invisible man and the rest of the boys are all driven by ambition; they are all clearly embarrassed and horrified by having to fight each other and grovel on an electric carpet, but nonetheless continue to do so in hopes of bettering their lives and impressing the white leaders of the community. After he gives his speech, he is presented with a briefcase, and “felt an importance that [he] had never dreamed” (32). The presentation of this suitcase, even before the narrator sees the scholarship inside, is able to erase his troubles and blind him from all the shame and horror he had experienced only a few minutes ago. The invisible man’s desire to achieve continues to blind him, even after he enters college. There, he completely looks up to Bledsoe, the dean of the school, and aspires to be just like him one day. Similar to the narrator, Bledsoe too is driven by ambition and ego. Even though he sees the different masks of Bledsoe, and hears that Bledsoe is corrupted by his ambition, the narrator’s own desire to achieve causes him to be blind to Bledsoe’s true character. Bledsoe’s treachery is revealed when he tells the narrator that he’ll “have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where [he is]”, yet the narrator still blindly follows the things Bledsoe tells him to do (143). Only when the invisible man reads Bledsoe’s letter to Emerson does he finally see Bledsoe with his blindfold removed, and the falseness is devastating.

The driving source of the protagonist’s ambition is the ideal of the American dream, an ideal that both motivates and blinds the invisible man, and also an ideal that is unattainable. The narrator is taught by society to reach for the American dream, but white society refuses to allow black men like our hero to achieve this goal, sending them on an endless chase. During the battle royal, the invisible man and his schoolmates are taunted by the white men, when a naked buxom young blonde is sent to dance seductively in front of them. Her pale skin, rouged cheeks, and blue lids make her look like a dancing American flag; she is the epitome of the American dream. She is beautiful, desirable, yet completely unattainable to the narrator, since he was taught from an early age that it was taboo for a black man to touch a white woman. He feels conflicting emotions about her, wanting to both “caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her”, which resembles the conflicting idea of the American dream (19). The narrator is constantly made by the white power structure of his society to chase the American dream, yet the same power structure that compels him holds him back and makes sure he can never truly achieve his goals.

No matter how hard the invisible man works to achieve his goals, the white power structure is always there to mold his identity. When the narrator leaves his known world for the concrete jungle, the first place where he truly experiences the all-encompassing nature of the white power structure is the Liberty Paints plant. Here, he learns of the most popular paint made at the plant, Optic White, is a paint that is often used to paint the national monuments. A paint so white “you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through” (217). This white paint represents the white power structure, being able to paint over any and all imperfections, much like the way the white power structure often eliminates people who do not conform to the standards of white society. When the hero learns how to mix the paint from Kimbro, he notices that ten drops of pure black graduate are added to the white paint. The black liquid slowly seeps into the paint, and after it’s mixed in, the paint beccomes more brilliantly white than ever. The white power structure needs to have blacks in it, but doesn’t need any black man, much like the way the white paint can’t become whiter with any black graduate. Only the right kind of black can fit into this power structure in order for it to keep on working. When the hero adds the wrong type of dope, the paint becomes a dull gray instead of a brilliant white. However, he continues to mix the paint until it is similar to the original Optic white color, so similar that even Kimbro could not detect it. This faulty paint “appeared the same: a gray tinge glowed through the whiteness”, proving that perhaps the wrong type of black man can also find a place within the white power structure (205). The hero is finally able to see that the white power structure is not completely inflexible. When he descends into the basement, the protagonist sees how the white power structure can completely affect a man’s identity. Lucius Brockway, a tiny old black man, is deathly proud of his position at the plant, and refuses to give it up to anyone else. He feels threatened by the presence of the narrator, and insists that “it’ll take the Old Man to fire [him]” in order for him to leave (209). Brockway’s position in this white power structure has been firmly set by the white men of Liberty Paints, and he has become completely unable to identify with anything else, including his identity as a fellow black man. No matter how hard the narrator tries to fight the white power structure, it is always going to paint over him.

The permanence of stereotypes in the white society makes it nearly impossible for the narrator to have his own identity, and for the people around him to see him as a person. After the incident at Liberty Paints, the invisible man is placed in a hospital to recover. He is given pain killers, and begins to hallucinate about the treatments that the doctors are giving him. One of the treatments he dreams about is electric shock therapy. Thousands of volts are run through his body, and his body begins to convulse like he’s dancing. A doctor notes that “they really do have rhythm, don’t they?” (237). The invisible man is seen as not a human being, but as only an experimental unit and a source of entertainment. Currents are constantly being run through him because it allows his body to do what the doctors want and think that black men like him should do – dance for their entertainment. When the protagonist is released from the hospital, he becomes a new man, a man who is now willing to embrace the stereotypes and see himself clearly. He stumbles out of the subway, like a newborn baby, blinded by the lights of the world, unsteady on his feet. Luckily for him, he is able to find a place to live at the men’s house kept by Mary, a large black woman who helped him walk when he first left the subway. The first thing that he does after his rebirth is buying yams, and he openly enjoys this Southern comfort food on the street. Although he would have been normally ashamed so openly displaying his black roots in front of people, the protagonist has now embraced his race, and proudly declares to the street vendor that “I yam what I yam!” (266). This is a crucial point in the hero’s journey, as he’s now able to not only better understand who he is, but also embrace his own identity. The narrator makes crucial steps towards seeing himself clearly when he resists the temptations of allowing his shadow take over his identity. The invisible man is tempted by his dark side when he sees an old couple being evicted, and their belongings being thrown out on the streets. The moment the tiny old woman falls backwards from the stairs, the crowd erupts into a rage, hungry for justice and blood. The narrator is drawn in by the surge of violence and anger, tempted to let his dark, violent side take over and to join in on the violence. He was “outraged and angered at what I saw and yet surged with fear; not for the man or of the consequences of an attack, but of what the sight of violence might release in me” (275). However, the protagonist does not give into his shadow, but instead uses it to give a moving speech in order to calm the crowd. This is a crucial step forward in his journey, as the hero is now able to not only recognize his shadow, but also is able to use it for the greater good. Unfortunately, this step forward in achieving selfhood is taken away when Brother Jack comes and gives him a brand new persona. The invisible man is given a new name, new home, new outfit, and new identity. The Brotherhood takes away his identity, and tells him to say what they want him to say, and to be who they want him to be. The he invisible man once again loses his selfhood, as his ambition to become a high ranking member of the Brotherhood blinds him to their true agenda. He once again regains his vision of himself when he resists the femme fatale Sybil. While she only wants him to fulfill her fantasy of being raped by a black man, the invisible man wanted Sybil only for the information she could give him to use against the Brotherhood. Thankfully, the hero is able to resist the temptation of the femme fatale, and refuses to mold to not only the identity that she wants to place upon him, but also the identity that his shadow is trying to create. He realizes that he could not use her because he values her as an individual, and decides that “such games were for Rhinehart” (523). Not only does he reject using others for his own agenda, but he also decides that he will reject the Rhinehart persona. The protagonist is at a point of self vision where he realizes that he cannot constantly change personas the way Rhinehart does. Unlike Rhinehart, the hero is unable to be multiple people at once, and finally realizes that he must stay true to himself. The invisible man’s cycle of self discovery and vision finally comes to a stop during the Harlem Riot and his descent into the manhole, but he is still far off from completing his hero’s journey. During the Harlem Riot, the protagonist finally realizes how hate has nearly ruined the black community when he personalizes the lynching of the mannequins. He asks himself “what if one, even one is real – is. . . Sybil?” (556). The blacks have now become similar to the whites once were, expressing their anger towards the other race by hanging them. This idea that race hatred has nearly come full circle frightens the narrator. His invisibility is further proven when even Ras the Destroyer does not see him as a brother, but merely as yet another tool to turn “death and sorrow and defeat into propaganda” (558). Now, the person refusing to see the invisible man as a person is not a white man, but a fellow black man, and the narrator realizes that his invisibility is to the whole world, not just to the white power structure. While running with his newfound vision, he is suddenly “struck of water that seemed to descend from above” that blinds his vision, causing him to stumble blindly about (560). This baptism allows him to see clearly once he leaves the gushing geyser, symbolizing that the hero has been reborn, with greater knowledge and vision of himself and the world. He keeps on running with his cleared vision to only drop into the manhole – into complete darkness. For the very last time, the invisible man has once again gained and lost his vision.

In the prologue, the invisible man states that he is now able to truly able to see and accept his existence, but his tone shows that he is not yet at the end of his journey. Although he claims accept his invisibility, it’s evident that there’s still a part of him that wants to be visible. He’s preparing himself for action in the basement, preparing to do anything that can make people finally acknowledge his existence. After he beats up the white man, he blames the incident on the victim, stating that this would not have happened had the man not bee “lost in a dream world” (14). Still, the narrator regrets his actions that led him to attack the man, asks “what did I do to be so blue?” (14). He sees that both he and society are responsible for his actions. His vision of the world is still not yet clear, as he believes that only he is invisible, and that he doesn’t need to be responsible because “responsibility rests upon recognition, and recognition is a form of agreement” (14). Not only is he unrecognized by others, but he also refuses to recognize those around him. This lack of acceptance of his current state and the world around him shows that the invisible man still has some introspection to do before he can complete his journey. However, in the epilogue, the healing process of reflecting upon his journey seems to have taken place, and he not only accepts his invisibility, but also celebrates his own existence. The hero has come full circle and is ready to once again take part in society, hoping that he too will “have a socially responsible role to play” (581). Now at the end of his journey, the invisible man has also become a wise advisor like the vet and Emerson Jr, ready to share his experience. Like the vet, he acknowledges that we may not listen to him, and that we may also be unable to see him, but “on the lower frequencies, I speak for you” (581). He comes to terms that he is not the only one in society who is invisible, but his experience is one that is shared globally across different cultures – a collective unconscious.

The story of Invisible Man is not one specifically about a young black man struggling to find his identity, nor is it even specifically about racial relations between blacks and whites. Invisible Man is a story of a human being coming to terms with who he is, and his place in society. It is not just a story about a single person, but a story about every person who had ever felt unsure about their own identity. A story about humanity that everyone can relate to, in hopes that one day, they too, can have a clear vision of who they truly are.


The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

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