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Well, there are certain themes, symbols and images which are based on folk material. For example, there is the old saying amongst Negroes: If you're black, stay back; if you're brown, stick around; if you're white, you're right. And there is the joke Negroes tell on themselves about their being so black they can't be seen in the dark. In my book this sort of thing was merged with the meanings which blackness and light have long had in Western mythology: evil and goodness, ignorance and knowledge, and so on. In my novel the narrator's development is one through blackness to light; that is, from ignorance to enlightenment: invisibility to visibility. He leaves the South and goes North; this, as you will notice in reading Negro folktales, is always the road to freedom-the movement upward. You have the same thing again when he leaves his underground cave for the open.
Ralph Ellison, "The Art of Fiction: An Interview," 1955
THE SYMBOLISM OF VISION
Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man, relies heavily on the symbolism
of vision: light, color, perception, sight, insight. These, his master
symbols, are organically related to the dualism of black and white, the
all-absorbing and bafflingly complex problem of identity. How does the
Negro see himself and how do others see him? Do they notice him at all?
Do they really see him as he is or do they behold a stereotype, a ghostly
caricature, a traditionally accepted myth? What we get in this novel,
creatively elaborated, is the drama of symbolic action, the language of
the eyes, the incredibly complex and subtle symbolism of vision. All this
is structurally bound up with the underlying theme of transformation.
All this is imaginatively and, for the most part, successfully worked
out in terms of fiction.
Charles I. Glicksberg, "The Symbolism of Vision," 1954
THE NARRATOR AS ARTIST
A profitable method of dealing with Invisible Man is to see the action as a series of initiations in which the hero passes through several stages and groups of identification. The changes of identity are accompanied by somewhat formal rituals resembling the primitive's rites of passage. The primitive recognizes that man changes his identity as he passes from one stage or group to another and accompanies this transition by rituals that are essentially symbolic representations of birth, purification and regeneration in nature.
Ellison's narrative is a series of such initiatory experiences set within a cyclical framework of the mystic initiation of the artist. The rites of passage take the hero through several stages in which he acts out his various and conflicting sub-personalities. When he has won his freedom he is reborn as the artist, the only actor in our society whose "end" is a search beneath the label for what is individual.
Ellin Horowitz, "The Rebirth of the Artist," 1964
ELLISON'S DEPICTION OF THE COMMUNISTS
If Native Son is marred by the ideological delusions of the thirties, Invisible Man is marred, less grossly, by those of the fifties. The middle section of Ellison's novel, dealing with the Harlem Communists, does not ring quite true, in the way a good portion of the writings on this theme during the post-war years does not ring quite true. Ellison makes his Stalinist figures so vicious and stupid that one cannot understand how they could ever have attracted him or any other Negro. That the party leadership manipulated members with deliberate cynicism is beyond doubt, but this cynicism was surely more complex and guarded than Ellison shows it to be. No party leader would ever tell a prominent Negro Communist, as one of them does in Invisible Man: "You were not hired [as a functionary] to think"- even if that were what he felt. Such passages are almost as damaging as the propagandist outbursts in Native Son.
Irving Howe, A World More Attractive, 1963
THE PROTAGONIST AS UNIVERSAL MAN
I hesitate to call Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) a Negro novel, though of course it is written by a Negro and is centrally concerned with the experiences of a Negro. The appellation is not so much inaccurate as it is misleading. A novelist treating the invisibility and phantasmagoria of the Negro's life in this "democracy" is, if he tells the truth, necessarily writing a very special kind of book. Yet if his novel is interesting only because of its specialness, he has not violated the surface of his subject; he has not, after all, been serious. Despite the differences in their external concerns, Ellison has more in common as a novelist with Joyce, Melville, Camus, Kafka, West, and Faulkner than he does with other serious Negro writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright. To concentrate on the idiom of a serious novel, no matter how distinctive its peculiarities, is to depreciate it, to minimize the universality of its implications. Though the protagonist of Invisible Man is a southern Negro, he is, in Ellison's rendering, profoundly all of us.
Jonathan Baumbach, The Landscape of Nightmare, 1965
THE DESIGN OF THE PLOT
The plot structure of Invisible Man is schematic. The novel uses a cumulative plot (in M. C. Bradbrook's illuminating terminology), developing the same basic episode over and over in an emotional crescendo: the protagonist struggles idealistically to live by the commandments of his immediate social group, then is undone by the hypocrisy built into the social structure and is plunged into despair. This happens in four large movements: 1) the struggle into college, the failure with Norton and expulsion from the "paradise" of the college; 2) job-hunting in New York, Emerson's disillusioning lecture and the battle and explosion at Liberty Paints; 3) the "resurrection" or reconstruction of the protagonist, his plunge into radical activism and his purge by the Brotherhood; 4) the meeting with Rinehart, the beginning of the riots and the protagonist's confrontation and defeat of Ras, ending in the flight underground. Each episode is a development to a climax followed by a peripeteia. The novel's prologue and epilogue simply frame this series of climaxes and reversals and interpret the emotional collapse of the invisible man in the present tense.
William J. Schafer, "Ralph Ellison and the Birth of the Anti-Hero," 1968
THE SYMBOLISM OF NAMES
Characters' names, and the club names, and the names of factories, places and institutions-even the names of things, like the Sambo doll-Can be explored indefinitely in this novel. The Brotherhood has its parties at a place called the Chthonian Club, which is a classical reference comparable to that of the Sybils. The Chthonian realm belonged to the underground gods and spirits; and true power for Ellison is an underground influence as we learn from seeing Bledsoe and Brockway and Brother Jack in action, as well as the invisible man writing in his hole. Where does Ras get his name, with its vocal nearness to "race"? He gives it to himself, as the invisible man gives us the name we must call him by if we are to know him for what he is.
Thomas A. Vogler, "Invisible Man: Somebody's Protest Novel," 1970
THE NARRATOR'S ODYSSEY TO SELFHOOD
The odyssey which the narrator, with the aid of 1,369 light bulbs, looks back on takes place on many levels. His travelling is geographic, social, historical and philosophical. In an early dream he finds inside his brief-case an envelope which contains an endless recession of smaller envelopes, the last of which contains the simple message "Keep This Nigger-Boy Running." It is only at the end when he finally burns all the contents of his real brief-case that he can start to control his own momentum. Up to that point his movements are really controlled from without, just like the people in the New York streets who to him seem to walk as though they were directed by "some unseen control." The pattern of his life is one of constraint and eviction; he is alternately cramped and dispossessed. This is true of his experience in the college, the factory, the hospital, the Party. What he discovers is that every institution is bent on processing and programming the individual in a certain way; yet if a man does not have a place in any of the social structures the danger is that he might fall into chaos.
Tony Tanner, "The Music of Invisibility," 1973
THE WISDOM OF BLACK FOLK EXPERIENCE
Invisible Man is not a historical novel, of course, but it deals with the past as a burden and as a stepping stone to the future. The hero discovers that history moves not like an arrow or an objective, scientific argument, but like a boomerang: swiftly, cyclically, and dangerously. He sees that when he is not conscious of the past, he is liable to be slammed in the head with it again when it circles back. As the novel unfolds, the Invisible Man learns that by accepting and evaluating all parts of his experience, smooth and ragged, loved and unloved, he is able to "look around corners" into the future:
At the beginning of the novel, the Invisible Man presents himself as a kind of Afro-American Jonathan, a "green" yokel pushed into the clownhouse of American society. He starts out ignorant of his society, his past, himself. By the end of the book he accepts his southern black folk past and sees that ordinary blacks like his grandfather, Trueblood, Mary, Tarp, Dupre, the unnamed boys in the subway, and himself are of ultimate value, no matter what the Bledsoes and Jacks say. Jarred to consciousness by folklore (among other things), the Invisible Man realizes that the tested wisdom expressed in spirituals, blues, dozens, and stories is a vital part of his experience. At last he comprehends that whatever he might do to be "so black and blue," he is, simply, who he is.
Robert G. O'Meally, The Craft of Ralph Ellison, 1980