Prior to reading Invisible Man, the only thing I knew about Ralph Ellison was that his smiling face greeted me from my Kindle in a rotation with John Steinbeck, Charlotte Bronte, and a few others. I’m glad I got to actually read his milestone work, which was his first novel and was originally conceived after he had some conversations with Richard Wright, whose Native Son is next on the list.
The story is told through the perspective of the nameless African-American narrator, who tells the story of his early adult years. He claims that he is invisible because of the refusal of others to really see him. The first few chapters are basically short stories in themselves and in fact, one section was published separately prior to the book’s publication.
We first meet the narrator as a teenager who’s been invited to speak to a group of local white men, only to discover that he first has to fight blindfolded in a boxing ring with other young African-Americans, which is the “Battle Royal” scene that was previously published.
A few years later we see him at college, where he has been entrusted to drive around a white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton. He takes him to some of the poorest areas of town, where they meet a poor black man, Jim Trueblood, who has family secrets he confesses to the two in a long narrative that is another separate vignette. The narrator and Mr. Norton then stop for a drink at a nearby saloon and brothel. Again, that scene can stand alone as a separate narrative.
The first half of the book follows this same format, as if the narrator remembers a few distinct, key memories and relates them fully, then later realizes he has to add in a few transitions to get the reader to the next fully developed scene. Each story he tells is told in rich detail with secondary characters and the action of the scene described vividly. The narrator has memorable work experiences, and one wonders if the narrator has below average intelligence or just bad luck in some of the decisions he makes.
When he arrives in Harlem and joins an organization called the Brotherhood as a spokesperson, the narrative begins to have a more fluid, linear feel. The story builds up in layers, showing his thought process throughout the events and detailing the consequences of decisions he has made. There is a secondary set of characters introduced here, and they remain in the narrator’s life and in the story more or less throughout the rest of the novel.
All of the scenes in Harlem and the narrator’s delivered speeches illustrate the racial tension of that era. A greater knowledge of the historical movements, messages, and leaders of that time would add to the reader’s understanding of this text and help to discern the symbolism and imagery used. This is the first book I’ve read since college where I wished I were reading it as part of a class so I could study it further with others.
Here are a few of my favorite passages:
“And in order for the Negro to fulfill his duty as a citizen if was often necessary that he fight for his self-affirmed right to fight.” (loc 130)
“A man of two worlds, my pilot felt himself to be misperceived in both and thus was at ease in neither.” (148)
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” (loc 296)
“I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself question which I, and only I, could answer.” (loc 477)
“Power doesn’t have to show off. Power is confident, self-assuring, self-starting, and self-stopping.” (loc 2303)
“And remember, the world is possibility if only you’ll discover it.” (loc 2502)
“Whether we liked him or not, he was never out of our minds. That was a secret of leadership.” (loc 2797)
“ ‘Well, whatever it is, I hope it’s something that’s a credit to the race.” “I hope so,” I said. “Don’t hope, make it that way.’” (loc 3906)
“Everybody worth his salt has his hard times, and when you git to be somebody you’ll see these here very same hard times helped you a heap.” (loc 3956)
“What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do? What a waste, what a senseless waste!” (Loc 4057)
“Silence is consent, I said…” (loc 5211)
“The ideal is to strike a medium between ideology and inspiration. Say what the people want to hear, but say it in such a way that they’ll do what we wish.” (loc 5400)
“Perhaps the sense of magic lay in the unexpected transformations. “You start Saul, and end up Paul,” my grandfather had often said. (loc 5737)
“Can I say in twenty minutes what was building twenty-one years and ended in twenty seconds?” (loc 6774)
“The end was in the beginning.” (loc 8483)
“’Let me be honest with you – a feat which, by the way, I find of the utmost difficulty.” (loc 8490)
“And seeing him made all the old life live in me for an instant, and I smiled with tear-stinging eyes.” (loc 8565)
from me for the dialogue and for the compelling narratives from an I’m-not-sure-what-to-think-about-this-guy type of narrator.