In the course of his wanderings from a Southern Negro college to New York's Harlem, an American black man becomes involved in a series of adventures. Introduction explains circumstances under which the book was written. Ellison won the National Book Award for this searing record of a black man's journey through contemporary America. Unquestionably, Ellison's book is a work of extraordinary intensity--powerfully imagined and written with a savage, wryly humorous gusto.
The book can be read as a bildungsroman as we follow the hero through a number of set piece events; the battle royal, his expulsion from college, his job in the paint factory, his work for the Brotherhood, the death of Clifton his colleague and finally; the riot in Harlem. At the end of these events our hero has learnt much about himself and the world around him; "None of us know who he is and where he is going" he says in an epilogue, but it is evident that some people need to have control over others and these others are the invisible people. Everything our hero attempts to achieve turns to dust and other people suffer; his repeated question is "Did I do something wrong" it is only when he realises that he is not to blame that he can attain some sort of peace with himself.
The set piece events are exaggerated for effect and they can be very funny, but the humour is sometimes black. The first of these is the battle royal where a number of young negroes are rounded up to fight until the last man is left standing at a smokers club. Many of the pillars of the community are present to watch and the atmosphere becomes something akin to an event that could have been staged in the Coliseum at Rome as first the young boys are made to watch a nude blonde woman before starting in on the fighting. The survivors are then encouraged to fight for coins, scraps of metal that have been placed on an electrified metal meshing before their ordeal is over. Our hero has been roped into the event even though he is ostensibly there to make a speech as a reward for his oratorical skills at school. He finally gets to make his speech and impresses enough to win a scholarship to a black college. Other set pieces involving our hero are equally dramatic and equally funny. He chauffeurs a white trustee of his college and takes him to the old slave quarters of the town ending up at a bordello, where he quickly loses control of events. When he moves up to New York he gets a job in a paint factory and succeeds in being unwittingly instrumental in blowing up the plant. Everything seems to happen to him and at times it reads like a particularly rumbustious comedy as he lurches from one disaster to another. Ellison manages to move the story along at a cracking pace during these passages, but sometimes loses a little control as the humour can be in a sort of unnatural tension with our hero's attempts to find a meaning to everything that is cracking off around him. There is no doubting that it is fun to read and elements of illusion and even fantasy add to the mix and the novel borders on being a Rabelaisian nightmare at times; I am thinking here of our hero in the paint factory infirmary, undergoing a kind of lobotomy as a cure for his sickness. Is he mad one wonders? Is it all a dream? these questions contrast with some gritty realism forcing the reader to continually take stock of what is happening.
Illusion and fantasy elements are given extra credence by some unforgettable caricatures of leading characters. Lucius Brockway, the janitor in the basement of the paint factory, who may or may not be have delusions of grandeur, Ras the destroyer; the black activist who charges into the riot in Harlem, spear in hand on an old nag. Brother Jack the red haired one eyed leader of the Brotherhood who imposes a Kafka like discipline and secrecy over much of the Brotherhoods tactics. These larger than life men and women just stray far enough outside of true characterisation to turn them into symbols of a deeper malaise and there is much symbolism in this novel. Darkness and light are the most obvious, but there is also chaos, control, blindness, invisibility, music and illusion.
One mustn't lose sight that the novel is about a 'them and us' situation, blacks and whites. The whites are in control of much that is important and our hero sees his role as raising the consciousness of black people and in doing so Ellison raises the consciousness of the reader to the racial issues affecting America in the 1950's. The book can be seen as a historical document of race relations at the time written by a black man writing with passion and zeal about real issues in America. There are very few shades of grey, but I think it would be a mistake to limit the books message to this idea, as what was true for black people in America is equally true for many minorities today. It is a book that highlights the plight of invisible people everywhere who are subject to unjust control of their lives in an effort to keep them invisible. Our hero comes to a sort of realisation at the end and Ellison starts the novel with a powerhouse of a prologue where he sets up many of the symbols that are key to his text.
The shock value of the novel has dissipated over the intervening years, but the energy and quality of much of the writing is still there to be admired. It is not evenly paced and sometimes gets a little lost in its own energy, but Ellison stops it running away with itself. Some brilliant set pieces and there is much to discuss especially the symbolism, although it can feel a little uneven. An important book and one that I greatly enjoyed. A four star read (probably would have been five stars in 1952)
A profound unfairness pervades the novel, one that seeks to keep African-Americans in a predefined box, to strip all individuality, to strip identity, and to make invisible. In the worst case it manifests itself as cruelty, such as the sadistic pleasure “upstanding” white citizens take in a “Battle Royal” between young African-Americans, and in the best case it manifests as manipulation, as “friends” seek to make the narrator the “next Booker T. Washington” in order to help aggregate political power. However in this role he is simply a soldier who is not meant to think but to obey, a pawn in the game, and little more than a modern-day slave to those who control him.
Invisibility comes in many forms, including “rebirth” following outrageous medical experimentation into a world which has stripped him of all dignity, even the diminished dignity it had afforded him as a black man, a world in which, like a newborn, he has no identity. Removal of identity is mirrored in the removal of home, as an elderly black couple is evicted. Here poverty, almost pathetic poverty, is on full display in the form of their worldly possessions, and yet these are deeply meaningful objects, objects that speak of a life forged under limited means; unfortunately it’s one which can be taken and humiliated and ruined by unseen white power. Removal of identity is also taken to the limit in removal of life, arbitrarily, a reaction by the police to an individual out of all proportion with his offense, and with no more concern that they would have in squashing a cockroach on the kitchen floor.
In Ellison’s words: “… a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal.” Is there hope in this book? I think so. But as the narrator carries around with him a segment of a filed off leg chain, it’s a legacy that can be transcended and overcome but not without a great struggle, and regardless it is always carried internally, and cannot be forgotten.
“For history records the patterns of men’s lives, they say: Who slept with whom and with what results; who fought and who won and who lived to lie about it afterwards. All things, it is said, are duly recorded – all things of importance, that is. But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, those lies his keepers keep their power by. “
On race relations:
“’Please him? And here you are a junior in college! Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of education are you getting around here?”
“Maybe he was dissimulating, like some of the teachers at the college, who, to avoid trouble when driving through the small surrounding towns, wore chauffer caps and pretended that their cars belonged to white men.”
“My face was warm, but I returned her glance as steadily as I dared. It was not the harsh uninterested-in-you-as-a-human-being stare that I’d known in the South, the kind that swept over a black man as though he were a horse or an insect; it was something more, a direct, what-type-of-mere-man-have-we-here kind of look that seemed to go beneath my skin…”
“So she doesn’t think I’m black enough. What does she want, a black-face comedian? Who is she, anyway, Brother Jack’s wife, his girl friend? Maybe she wants to see me sweat coal tar, ink, shoe polish, graphite. What was I, a man or a natural resource?”
“Still it was nothing new, white folks seemed always to expect you to know those things which they’d done everything they could think of to prevent you from knowing. The thing to do was to be prepared – as my grandfather had been when it was demanded that he quote the entire United States Constitution as a test of his fitness to vote. He had confounded them all by passing the test, although they still refused him the ballot…”
“Now he’s part of history, and he has received his true freedom. Didn’t they scribble his name on a standardized pad? His race: colored! Religion: unknown, probably born Baptist. Place of birth: U.S. Some southern town. Next of kin: unknown. Address: unknown. Occupation: unemployed. Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer, on Forty-second between the library and the subway in the heat of the afternoon…”
“It was all a swindle, an obscene swindle! They had set themselves up to describe the world. What did they know of us, except that we numbered so many, worked on certain jobs, offered so many votes, and provided so many marchers for some protest parade of theirs?”
“Whence all this passion towards conformity anyway? - diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they’ll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive towards colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain.”
On being a throwback:
“What was I in relation to the boys, I wondered. Perhaps an accident, like Douglass. Perhaps each hundred years or so men like them, like me, appeared in society, drifting through; and yet by all historical logic we, I, should have disappeared around the first part of the nineteenth century, rationalized out of existence. Perhaps, like them, I was a throwback, a small distant meteorite that died several hundred years ago and now lived only virtue of the light that speeds through space at too great a pace to realize that its source has become a piece of lead…”
Given the searing nature of the content of the book and its message, it’s easy to overlook the style and beauty of Ellison’s writing. Some examples:
“I stretched out beneath the covers, hearing the springs groan beneath me. The room was cold. I listened to the night sounds of the house. The clock ticked with empty urgency, as though trying to catch up with the time. In the street a siren howled.”
“The sun seemed to scream an inch above my head.”
“I’d had too many drinks. Time ran fluid, invisible, sad. Looking out I could see a ship moving upstream, its running lights bright points in the night. The cool sea smell came through to me, constant and thick in the swiftly unfolding blur of anchored boats, dark water and lights pouring past. Across the river was Jersey and I remembered my entry into Harlem. Long past, I thought, long past. It was as if drowned in the river.”
And these expressions all within the same paragraph: “the riotous lights of the roller coasters”, “the infant joy of fountains”, and the “hard stone river of the street”, and shortly later, a crowd which “…swung imperturbably back to their looting with derisive cries, like sandpipers swinging around to glean the shore after a furious wave’s recession.”
Through vignettes shared from the narrators life the reader gets a taste of what life was like for a black man living in a time of social and racial upheaval. Some are humorous, some are heart wrenching and some are truly disturbing. So disturbing that our narrator finds it preferable to live as a recluse in a basement than to encounter society.
In discussing this book with another avid reader we discovered that is speaks to different people in different ways, which is always the sign of a truly good book well worth reading. We never did agree on what the ending meant! This is a beautifully written book well deserving of the accolades and awards it received when first published. And, unfortunately despite the fact that it was published 60 years ago many of the issues are still unresolved.
Thus begins Ralph Ellison's classic, in which one man describes his experiences as an "invisible man." Of course, he didn't always know he was invisible, and thus the novel consists of a series of brutal events which led to his awakening.
It opens with the man's graduation from high school in a small Southern town. As valedictorian, he delivered a speech positing that humility was the essence of progress for the black man. He is thrilled and proud when he is asked to repeat the speech at a white men's business association meeting. Instead, when he arrives expecting to present his speech, he is told he must take part in a "battle royale," in which he and several other black youths are blindfolded and must fight to the death (figuratively speaking) for the amusement of the drunken white men. Then, as payment, the youths are told they can pick up coins strewn on a carpet. When they reach for the coins, however, they receive electrical shocks, to the further amusement of the white men. Ellison's writing hits us in the face with this young man's fear, naivetee, helplessness and anger, all filtered through the lens of bitter irony:
"What powers of endurance I had during those days! What enthusiasm! What a belief in the rightness of things!"
His road to self-awareness continues as he attends, and then is expelled through no fault of his own, a black college. He finds himself once again betrayed when the head of the college sends him to New York for a summer to earn enough money to return to college, all the while sabotaging the narrator's attempts to find a decent job there. By the end of the summer he realizes he no longer fits in with "various groups still caught up in the illusions that had just been boomeranged out of my head," and for whom he "felt a contempt such as only a disillusioned dreamer feels for those still unaware that they dream...."
This book is a classic, and should be read by everyone. It is a dense read, and does contain a lot of polemical prose that could perhaps have been omitted. It is a sad book, and does not end on a hopeful note:
"I remember that I am invisible, and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers."
Fortunately, I read it anyway and found it to be a stunningly brilliant book, the National Book Award winning story of an unnamed young black man’s rise and fall as a community organizer in Harlem during the 1930s and 40s. It does have a lot to say about racism but does so without finger pointing or animosity, displaying it in all its forms, from the ultra-degrading smoker scene in chapter two to the ill-conceived gaffs by well-meaning acquaintances and Brother Jack’s imperious “The brother does not sing!” In places it felt as if no page was without some subtle, or unsubtle, slight being rendered to the point where I thought of the old torture called death by a thousand cuts.
While no assessment of the black experience in America would be complete without a discussion of racism, Invisible Man is so much more than that. I could talk for hours about the many, many fascinating ideas that Ellison imparts, but I will settle for describing one chapter out of the many great ones Ellison created. In this chapter, our narrator has managed to find a job at a paint factory. Approaching the building he sees a sign that says “KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS”. Nothing more is said about the sign but I immediately flashed on a conversation in which a woman once told my aunt that “It’s so rare these days to find someone who is pure” (pronounced PEW-uhh). From there it was an easy leap to picture a Klan rally with a fiery orator expressing the need to “keep America pew-uhh”. Once on the job, our narrator is tasked with mixing Optic White paint, 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”. The joke, though is that in order to make this ‘purest white that can be found’ paint, you have to add to it 10 drops, no more and no less, of dead black dope. Again, Ellison makes no comment as to the absurdity of this but he didn’t need to for the day hasn’t passed since I read that chapter that I haven’t pondered and theorized what he meant by it.
Bottom line: Ralph Ellison is one of those brilliant authors who doesn’t tell his readers what to think but he tells you a story and lets you run with it. I suspect I will be running for a long time to come.
It doesn't hurt, either, that the book is exquisitely well written. Not that he doesn't indulge in a bit too much exposition here and moralizing there, but the actual mechanics of his prose are nearly always pitch-perfect.
Also: I don't usually comment on the audiobook itself when I listen to something, but I did listen to this and I have to say that Joe Morton gives an absolutely stunning performance. I don't think I've ever heard a book better read.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me.
That's from the Prologue. The first chapter sets the tone for the novel: surreal, brutal, disturbing. In it and developed throughout is this conception of the Booker T Washington vision of how to respond to racism as treason to self and to race. I can't help but feel Ellison is unfair to Booker T. Washington and his legacy, particularly in how he depicts his fictional counterpart Bledsoe, but I can't deny the power of Ellison's imagery and language, and it's fascinating in its way how this novel written in the late 1940s and published in 1952 is still relevant today. I can hear so many echos in it that reflect racial divides--not so much in terms of black and white but more the black versus black debates: W.E.B. DuBois versus Booker T. Washington; Shelby Steele versus Cornell West. And despite all I've read before on the period, I do feel the book made me better understand why both the Communist Party and Black Nationalism might have appealed in the first half of the 20th century to American blacks frustrated over their treatment by their fellow Americans.
Not everything about the novel works for me however. So many of the incidents in the book are too bizarre to be taken as real, I found it off-putting at times and it made it harder to feel for his narrator and take what happens to him seriously. For one because I didn't feel they all fit together with the narrative and narrator--they feel episodic, rather than part of an arc for his character. There's something here that makes me think more of Kafka, where every character and scene is pregnant with symbolism. Ten months pregnant--with triplets. Sometimes I thought the racial imagery and handling of issues were very heavy handed. (Optic white paint, "the right white?" Really?) And I never identified and rarely sympathized with Ellison's unnamed "invisible man." At times, and not just at the beginning, he's just too naive and foolish to be believed, such a tool, even for someone that young. He changes so much to fit those he's around, is such a chameleon, that seems more the explanation for being "invisible" than the color of his skin. (Even if I get Ellison's point he is a chameleon because of racism.) He even allows his own name to be effaced at one point and at another wears a disguise. One of the few times he exerts himself as an individual is when he chooses to buy yams from a street vendor and eat them right there. Few of the characters outside the narrator ever seemed real to me, especially the female characters. It doesn't help that so much of Ellison's dialogue comes across as, if not stilted, than at least stagey and filled with stock phrases. The Epilogue just doesn't work for me. It's as eloquent as the prologue, but didn't convince me it linked up with the narrator's experiences. On the other hand, there is a streak of humor through the book I couldn't help appreciating. (I loved Ellison's description of his character's first encounter with the New York City subway system--over fifty years later, and the description is still apt.)
But you know, on that list of "100 Significant Books," this one is the only one by an African-American, and often seems mentioned as the book to read in that category. I did like Invisible Man a lot, but I wouldn't consider it as amazing a read as Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Toni Morrison's Beloved or especially Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. All of those books have characters I cared about much more than Ellison's narrator. On the other hand, not only was this a surprisingly fast-paced read, but many of the scenes, despite of or because they're so bizarre, are definitely very memorable and likely to stay with me a long time. And that's why for all the problems I had with it I rated it four stars. Very much worth the read.
The young man is invisible in many different ways - he was invisible to the rich white men who gave him a scholarship to college after he provided them with entertainment by fighting a battle royal and scrabbling for coins on an electically charged floor. He was invisible to the headmaster of his college, who was only interested in keeping his position amongst white men of status, even if it went against everything the school stood for. He was invisible to his employers, who allowed him to be put in hospital to receive electric shock treatment for no reason at all. He was invisible to the other members of the 'Brotherhood', who merely treated him as a pawn to realise their own dreams, not the dreams of the people on the street. And he was invisible to women, who used him for their own sexual gratification. As each of these blows is delivered, as a reader you feel it too. Ellison's skill is in making you believe also in the dreams of the young man, so that when these dreams are shattered, it feels as though it is your dreams that are being shattered too.
There are some pretty long rhetorical passages in the novel, and while I appreciated Ellison's skill with words, they didn't always manage to keep my interest. I found myself much more interested in the actual events of the novel, and how they shaped the young man's experience and character.
If I had to pick a favorite part in the novel I would say it was either the opening scene when the main character was driving the white Mr. Norton around the poor part of the negro community, or when the main character was a part of a communist organization in Harlem. It was interesting to read about the interactions of a black man in a communist organization.
Also, because part of it was set in Harlem it reminded me of The Autobiography of Malcolm X which also took place there. I read that book a few months ago.
Overall I would say it does deserve it's status as a piece of modern classical literature and the only complaint I had about it was that you never got too attached to the main character. I would add more depth to the characters themselves rather than focusing on what they did.
In the recent events that have occurred over this summer, one thing stands out for many Americans, the dangerous and often volatile subject of race, gender, and ethnicity. Have we as a country matured past our great and terrible misconceptions about race? After 1964 we dubbed ourselves leaders in the fight against racial profiling, telling other nations to forget their past and live as one with their fellow humans. But have we really graduated to the point where this is true for ourselves? We know from experience that learning from the past is quite difficult. Are we really able to avoid judging a person by their physical appearance?
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, is a testament to physical appearance and racial discrimination. The theme of fear and distrust is present throughout the entire book. The white people are afraid of the blacks, and the black people don’t trust the whites. This frightening story is told from the perspective of a young black man in the 1930’s. Though not actually invisible, the Invisible Man is ignored by people everywhere, and like the stranger on the street, most people don’t think about who he is other than wondering if he is dangerous. This novel shows the reader a lifetime of examples of what racial profiling can do to a person, and makes the reader wonder if they have done the same to others.
No one can deny that if they see someone in a dark alley, partially hidden in the shadows of night, they will be afraid. What is disturbing is the tendency to generalize people into a particular stereotype. For many, that stereotype is the tall black man. After the tragedy this summer at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., perhaps it should be the elderly white man.
On July 16, 2009, Professor Henry Gates Jr. of Harvard University was arrested outside his own home. Lucia Whalen had called the police when she saw two men breaking into a house on the street near her office. When the police arrived to investigate the scene, they found an older black man claiming to be a Harvard professor. The man turned out to be Professor Gates, and had identification to prove it, but the way he acted towards police Sgt. James Crowley resulted in his arrest for disorderly conduct. The charges were later dropped.
Would Sgt. Crowley have acted differently if Professor Gates was white? Racial discrimination has been around a long time. Although written in 1959 before the civil rights legislation, it seems sometimes that things haven’t changed much from the events described in the book. The Invisible Man was only “invisible” because white men and women didn’t want to see him. Ralph Ellison’s challenge to all people is not to judge a person by the color of their skin, or what they wear, their religion, or their sexual orientation. To devalue individuals makes us all invisible.
Invisible Man is a powerful, violent and disturbing novel; a classic that stands the test of time to remind us how easy it is to discriminate. I enjoyed the book, but it’s hard to describe why. Maybe because it made me think about the ways stereotypes are used all the time. The way the author wrote the novel so that the reader would never know the narrator’s name was fascinating, and made the story come alive. But the most powerful part of the novel is the narrator’s identity. The story starts with the narrator’s present then he tells the reader about his past. Finally, the reader is returned to the present, and at the very end, the reader gets a little snippet of what will happen to his future. By being a nobody he is Somebody, and Ellison gives him a past that can let him choose a future.
THE COLOR RED -- associated with rage, blood, and danger. Heavily present in Chapter 11 in the hospital.
MACHINES -- The plant where Invisible Man is employed, machines in the hospital after Invisible Man's lobotomy, society as a machine.
I.M.'S BRIEFCASE -- symbolic of hopefulness, the future, success, and maturity.
THE GOLDEN DAY -- (Inn/Bar) I.M. takes Mr. Norton here. The name is absolutely ironic, once we see the chaos happening inside.
OLD LEG SHACKLE -- Although Dr. Bledsoe sees this as a symbol of progress, it is a symbol of being trapped. This is further touched on in Chapter 8, the African-Americans in NY are "chained" to their jobs and their way of life.
That was just to name a few...
Our sometimes lovable and anonymous narrator goes through a series of profound transformations during his move from the deep south to Harlem. Chapter 11 was the most symbolic of all of the chapters, being that it describes the rebirth of our narrator after he has moved to Harlem.
Even so there are still "invisible" people out there. I once heard a John Prine song that made me realize how lonely some people can be. He reminded me to say “hello” to the elderly. The senior generation often feels forgotten and left out; then there are homeless people, who have lost hope. We all need to consider the basic human need to be acknowledged and valued. Get together and love your brother.
In each chapter, the narrator experiences humiliation, degradation, and self-delusion. At some points, as a reader, I wanted to shake him. This story of waking up takes awhile, but Ellison's examples of life's "beautiful absurdities" require the reader to become as beaten down as the narrator.
A novel that has often been voted the most influential of the twentieth-century doesn't need me to recommend it. But you might particularly like Invisible Man if you enjoy Catch-22, Joyce, or James Baldwin.