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A STEP BEYOND
TESTS AND ANSWERS
11. You might begin by carefully rereading the Prologue and Epilogue. Here the narrator defines "invisibility" clearly and discusses some of the consequences of being invisible. Many of the later chapters, especially Chapters 22, 23, and 25, develop the theme of invisibility in different ways. It is important to note that the narrator becomes more aware of his invisibility as he becomes more experienced; thus the closing chapters are more important in a study of this theme because it is here that the narrator develops a true perception of his condition. You may wish to explore the relationship between invisibility and the narrator's decision to stay in his cave. Will he still be an invisible man when he comes up and returns to the real world?
Two main directions you might take stem from the two major strands of the theme: (1) the idea that invisibility derives from white people not being able to see black people, and (2) the idea that invisibility is one's own fault, that it stems from a person's refusal to develop his own identity. The sections on "Themes" and the "Prologue" in this study guide may be of particular help to you as you sort out these two aspects of the invisibility theme. Which do you think is Ellison's major emphasis? There is evidence in the novel to support both. White behavior reinforces (1) and the behavior of the narrator reinforces (2).
12. This topic could produce a rather lengthy paper if you try to do all the names. So you might wish to select some of the more important ones and use them to illustrate Ellison's method. See The Characters section for the names of major characters. Names of most minor characters and place names are treated in the notes for the chapter where the name makes its first appearance.
Generally Ellison uses names that are symbolic rather than realistic. The symbolism may be drawn from a variety of sources. Sometimes the symbolism comes from a play on words like "Bledsoe" and "bleeds so" or "Wrestrum" and "rest room" or "Tobitt" and "two-bit." A second source for symbolism in names is mythology and literature. Ellison chooses names that have historical, mythological, literary, or archetypal significance. Some examples are Chthonian (the hotel where the Brotherhood meets), Ras (also a play on words), Emerson, the Founder, and Jim Trueblood.
13. Ellison's treatment of whites makes a particularly interesting essay topic because it allows you to explore the kind of social statement this novel makes about the burden of blame white people bear for the condition of blacks in America. The white characters that you see may be broken mainly into two groups: (1) the trustees and businessmen and (2) the members of the Brotherhood. The first group includes Norton and Emerson, the second group Jack, Tobitt, and Hambro. There is also the terrible Mr. Kimbro at Liberty Paints.
As with his black characters, Ellison does not treat his whites merely as types. He does not reduce them to caricatures. If they are in many ways to blame for black conditions, they are still human beings. Their major fault as a group is to view black people as conveniences to be used. Remember the distinction made in this study guide between I-You relations and I-It relations. All whites have the tendency to use black people as Its. The trustees and the Brotherhood members are members of groups, of classes. They think they are "helping" blacks, when in reality they are helping their own groups or classes through their activities with blacks.
The section in this guide on The Characters and the appropriate Notes from the story section for those white characters not treated under The Characters should be useful. The whole section of the novel that takes place at Liberty Paints (Chapters 10 and 11) is a kind of symbolic portrait of white America. You may find a rereading of those chapters most helpful.
14. Invisible Man has been a very popular novel among both blacks and whites for more than three decades. It has survived the existentialism of the 1950s, the black protest movement of the 1960s, and the feminism of the 1970s. Something about it seems to appeal to young people, no matter what their race, their historical situation, or their geographic region. "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" asks the narrator as the very last sentence of the novel. Does the narrator speak for you, whether you are black or white, old or young, male or female? That might be the topic of your essay.
If you want to defend Invisible Man as a universal novel, it might be wise to concentrate on the narrator. Is he a character you identify with? What sorts of problems does he have that are also your problems? What sorts of dreams and hopes does he have that are also your dreams and hopes? You might follow him through the course of the novel and review his quest for identity, his search for a self that is meaningful. Is that search a universal search? Is his growing up, his testing through a series of trials, mistakes, and missteps, something that all young men and women go through? What, in your personal experience, might parallel the narrator's adventures?
If you want to stress Invisible Man as a black novel, then you will want to look most closely at those aspects of the narrator's experience that seem least universal and most limited to what a black man would go through. Are there aspects of his experience that, as a white or oriental, for example, you cannot identify with?
15. This topic has been widely studied. Robert O'Meally and Raymond Olderman (see Critical Works under Bibliography) are very helpful.
Under the heading of black folk materials you might include music, especially jazz, the blues, spirituals, and gospel music. You might also
include folktales such as those of Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear and the use of traditional black storytelling such as that of Jim Trueblood in Chapter
When some or all of these elements are studied together, certain patterns appear. When the narrator attends college, he tries to become educated in such a way that he can be accepted in the white man's world. He goes to New York and doesn't want to be thought of as an uneducated, inexperienced black boy from the South who doesn't know his way around. So he avoids the language, food, music, and clothes associated with that southern past. He tries to be white. In the Brotherhood, he also avoids black styles and customs. Later in the novel, as he begins to develop a self, an identity of his own, he begins to see that these aspects of his past are important. In his cave he listens to Louis Armstrong.
Ellison does not reject those things that his narrator rejects. Notice how sympathetically the black folk figures like Jim Trueblood and Mary Rambo are treated by Ellison. Why? What qualities do they have that Ellison seems to admire?
Note also the role of black music. There are a lot of "blues" in the novel, a form of music that expresses better than any other the essential nature of the black experience in America.