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Free Barron's Booknotes-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison-Free Online Summary
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11. Ellison, in his interview entitled "The Art of Fiction," talks about the symbolic use of the colors "black" and "white" to suggest not only the black and white races but also the traditional struggle between good and evil, so often symbolized in Western literature by black (evil) and white (good). You will see right away that there is a direct irony in the symbolism, because in a system of white racial superiority, whites pretend that they are good and blacks are evil, when it is often the reverse. Thus, Ellison's symbolism is very complicated, and it will require careful attention.

Look especially at Chapter 10 where Ellison uses the symbolism of black and white paint to play with the whole structure of American life. There is considerable commentary in this study guide on Chapter 10, where "Optic White Is the Right White" becomes the motto of a paint company whose real aim is to fool the public with optical illusions.

The symbolism of black and white is also associated with ignorance and knowledge, darkness and light. The narrator ends up in a black cave from which he will come up into the light at the end of the book. Is it the blackness of his skin or the ignorance of his mind that has led him into such darkness? Ellison invites you to explore such questions through his symbolism. He doesn't answer them easily.

12. This has been a particularly controversial subject, one that black critics and reviewers have disagreed widely about. You will find a range of opinions in the criticism and in the excerpts from The Critics.

You might approach this question by listing the major black characters in the novel and describing their behavior. Do they fall into certain groups and types? There are the southern educators, the Founder and Bledsoe; the black members of the Brotherhood, Brother Tarp and Tod Clifton; the black nationalist rabble-rouser, Ras the Exhorter; and the less-educated folk types-Jim Trueblood, Lucius Brockway, Mary Rambo, Peter Wheatstraw, and the unnamed yam seller. There is also the narrator himself, who seems to embody at one time or another, characteristics of all these types.

A quick look at these characters might indicate why some black radical writers thought Ellison was degrading blacks in his work. None of the characters is an ideal. They all have human flaws, some more so than others. Ellison certainly does not idealize his black characters, but he presents them as real human beings. Is he saying something about blacks in America by doing that?

On the other hand, Ellison does not treat all these groups alike. He seems considerably more sympathetic to characters like Tarp and Mary Rambo than he does toward Bledsoe, Ras, or Brother Wrestrum. You might analyze what Ellison seems particularly to like about the positive black characters before developing your thesis.

The section on The Characters will be particularly helpful to you, as will the commentaries in The Story section in the chapters where the particular characters are most important.

13. Here again, there is much room for debate. You may find articles listed under Critical Works on both sides of the question. How can that be? Can a novel seem optimistic to some and pessimistic to others? This one can.

The optimists tend to look at the comedy in the novel, the word play, the humor, the obvious love for life that Ellison shows through the imagination and inventiveness of his style. They see the narrator as a comic hero, one who learns from his mistakes and comes out stronger for his experience. They see the novel as the story of a person who does finally find an identity and learn to be himself, and enjoy it. This is the story of the education of a young man, who will go on from the end of the novel to live a better and wiser life than the one he's experienced in this book. If you're an optimist, you will want to put some emphasis on the last couple of pages of the Epilogue where the narrator emphasizes such positive qualities as love and social responsibility.

The pessimists argue that the narrator undergoes a series of tragic adventures in which he is taken advantage of and abused over and over again. The world is so cruel to him that his only solution is to literally crawl into a black hole and hide. He ends up dropping out of the world because there is no place in it for him. Ellison's view of the world and the possibility of a place in it for a sensitive and thoughtful black man is pretty bleak. If there is hope at the end, it is a naive hope and one that is not really part of the action and its meaning. The emphasis for the pessimists is on the action and its meaning. For the optimists it is on the style and the tone.

14. Invisible Man may be read primarily as a story about the narrator's development. It is a first-person narrative, and because you experience the novel through the narrator, you get to know him better than anyone else. You must be careful, however, not to interpret the action the way he does, because that is to ignore his limitations and shortcomings as a character. Thus, to be able to interpret the action yourself, you must know where the narrator is in his development so that you can decide whether or not his judgment is reliable at that point in the novel.

One famous pattern of development is that of innocence to experience. At first the narrator is extremely innocent and does not understand what is happening to him. He does not believe people are bad. He does not see that Bledsoe is making a fool of him. As he suffers, he learns. With experience he begins to see the world more as it really is. Experience teaches him to be a better judge.

Whatever pattern you select, there is one certainty: The narrator does change. The questions are where? How? Why? And finally, how much? You might want especially to contrast the opening and closing chapters. The degree of change may determine your answer to the question of what sort of identity the narrator finally has.

15. A lot of blind and half-blind people and animals appear throughout Invisible Man. For starters, note that Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, has a glass eye. Note that throughout his first speech for the Brotherhood in Chapter 16 the narrator refers to black people as one-eyed mice. There is a direct allusion here to "Three Blind Mice." The idea is that black people start life with only one eye because of their racial situation, and that white people would just as soon have them lose the other eye in fighting one another. Then, you may remember, the whites blindfold the black boys during the battle royal in Chapter 1 so that they strike out blindly at each other.

These are just some blatant examples of Ellison's use of the imagery of sight and blindness in the novel. Sight, you may remember, is associated with insight or perception or knowledge. Blindness is associated with lack of these things, with ignorance, with stupidity. The imagery of sight and blindness is closely tied to the theme of invisibility. People are invisible because others do not see them. If you don't see someone, you are blind. Though the narrator can see physically, he is perceptually blind. So there is not always a direct association between physical blindness and figurative blindness. A fascinating example to study is the revelation at the end of Chapter 5 that Homer A. Barbee, the minister who has just told the story of the Founder so movingly, is blind. What might that mean?

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