Sep 20, 2019 in Literature

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man is a compelling and moving novel written by Ralph Ellison. The Invisible Man has received wide and intense scholarly acclaim for its sociological and therapeutic worth. Ralph Ellison managed to elucidate the social ills that plague the society to date. He draws from the rich American history and models his characters after American greats in a bid to prompt the reader to do some soul-searching and meditation. The Invisible Man especially brings out the issue of racial segregation that continues to taint America’s past, refusing to go away. Ralph Ellison contributes to the racial discourse pointing out the adverse effects of racial segregation and social inequality contributes to distorted sense of identity. Ralph Ellison prompts us, the readers, to examine complex human questions that we often fail to ask ourselves. He demonstrates that forming stereotypes presents an excuse not to interrogate social ills. This essay examines the adverse effects of racial stereotyping as brought out in The Invisible Man. Analysis shows that negative racial stereotyping creates barriers to attainment of social equality and reinforces narratives that discourage upward social mobility.


The Invisible Man is a literary classic. It is one of the novels that have managed to integrate issues of racial segregation, the American Dream and social equality into one. The novel, especially, focuses on the dangers of stereotyping. Stereotyping is probably the gravest injustice that a person can do to another. Negative stereotyping enforces only certain facts ignoring the others. The audience feeding on the stereotypes and propaganda can, therefore, never accept equality since they truly believe in fallacies. In this instance, Ellison describes how during the pre-civil war the Whites had a misconception about African Americans. As Fonteneau aptly observes, the book, “establishes the protagonist African-Americans as the descendants of slavery and heir to its fragmenting, depersonalizing, repressive nuances, thereby uncovering the utterly sadistic nature of neocolonial violence.” The Whites believed that they are superior and that the blacks were inferior and should not enjoy a similar social status to theirs. The narrator in the novel lives in the basement of a house belonging to Whites. They could not give him one of their rooms. He was socially insignificant. Ellison intends that we question this logic. Is it true that human life’s worth is dependent on race? Is it right to hold a worldview that the Whites are inherently superior to the Blacks? Do the stereotypes influence the perceptions of self in either side of the divide and ultimately influence one’s views and actions? The answers to these complex human questions are still being answered to date.

After delivering the high school graduation speech, the narrator is invited to a social function where the leading citizens in the area would gather. The narrator was to deliver the same speech. He arrives at the hotel venue only to realize that his trust has been betrayed. He is forced to engage in a boxing match, the ‘battle royal’, as a form of entertainment for the affluent Whites. He is then further humiliated by being forced to watch a sensuous dance by a naked White blonde. It is only after undergoing a series of degrading activities that he is finally permitted to deliver the speech he had been called to deliver. The narrator was wrong to presume that he was an equal to the Whites due to his academic prowess. The narrator, as Ellison observed, had clung on to the narrative that, “The world is possibility if only you discover it”. It necessitates one to question whether education is really the best equalizer. The forefathers had believed that education was the ticket out of slavery and poverty. The likes of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois were especially dedicated towards spreading formal education setting up schools and colleges and preaching the value of education. Their philosophy was simple; education is the key to opening the gates to success in life. However, the White citizenry offer the narrator a timely reminder after a slip of the tongue consequently mentioning “social equality”. One patron quips, “We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times”. Seeing the value of education being denigrated by a group of people blinded by race and social class must have been prompted the narrator to doubt the philosophies advanced by Booker T and Du Bois.

Through perseverance the narrator manages to deliver his speech. The school superintendent gives him his prize, a scholarship opportunity to a college for the Negroes. However, he has a dream where his dead grandfather orders him to open the envelope and read the message contained therein. The message reads “To Whom It May Concern: Keep the Nigger Boy Running”. The pains and humiliation he had to go through to get the elusive prize are not validated by the worth of the letter he gets. It is reminiscent of the violence and chaotic life that the African Americans had at the time in search of social equality, their elusive prize. What they got instead was partial integration of some of them into the Whites society. Due to the stereotypes, social equality is now viewed through the lens of tokenism. Only a selected few Blacks are offered a chance to self-fulfillment through social responsibility and social equality.

The character of Dr. Bledsoe offers invaluable insights into how racial stereotyping ultimately influences the psyche of the segregated. Dr. Bledsoe is learned, yet he is still yoked to the narratives of white supremacy. Dr. Bledsoe keep his leg chained, his version of “Symbol of our progress”. Dr. Bledsoe has significantly veered away from the Founder’s vision, one he was entrusted to protect and further. He has become greedy, siding with the Whites to advance his own selfish interests. Instead of lifting the veil as the Founder does on the statue, Dr. Bledsoe actually brings down the veil on his students ensuring that they remain enslaved in the Black inferiority narrative. Again, this prompts the question as to whether education is the best equalizer. In this instance education has, particularly, been used to affirm the notion that social equality cannot and should not be achieved by African Americans.

Yet, Dr. Bledsoe is not the only African American who bought into the propaganda and turned against his folks. Lucius Brockway did too. He had worked for the White founder of the Liberty Paint Factory for a long time helping the company develop the ideals of “whiteness”. Winther makes the following observation while investigating the symbolism of ‘whiteness’ referring to the incident where the narrator was receiving treatment:

In fact "whiteness" becomes almost synonymous with "imprisonment" when the protagonist, completely at the mercy of his white captors, fails to understand what the doctors say to him: "But still their meanings were lost in the vast whiteness in which I myself was lost".

Brockway, together with the white doctors view the narrator as a nuisance and a guinea pig respectively, not giving him the respect he deserves. Brockway, in fact, turns against the narrator perceiving him to be a threat to his existence and progress in the establishment to the extent of blowing up the facility so that neither of them benefit from it. The liberty insinuated by the name of the factory is nothing but a whitewashing factory where issues of racism are reinforced.

The negative racial stereotyping had extensive roots even among African Americans. Some of them, for instance those subscribing to the ethos of the Brotherhood led by Brother Jack, viewed themselves as lesser persons and endeavored to improve their image. In order to achieve this they designed guidelines and morals for their members that were supposed to create a new identity and create value. Brother Clifton disregarded these rules when he indulged in selling dancing Sambo dolls without permit. The Brotherhood felt that the mere action of selling those toys was denigrating. Brother Clifton would be shot dead after striking a policeman who was harassing him. Still the Brotherhood disowned him. The narrator gets caught in the middle. While he clearly values the ethos of the Brotherhood, he also values human life and dignity. It was wrong for the Clifton to strike a policeman; in fact, as he may already have known it was suicidal. All human lives have the same intrinsic worth and should not be discriminated on the basis of race. As Ellison questions, was the Brotherhood capable of seeing the Blacks it intended to protect, “Far beyond their intrinsic value as objects?”. Through accepting the narrative that Clifton’s striking of the police is a greater evil than being murdered, the Brotherhood confirms that they have bought into the single story of white supremacist.

In conclusion, it is evident that The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a literary classic. The novel manages to bring out the many societal issues that clog our mind with questions about identity, the intrinsic value of human life and the dangers of stereotyping. Analysis indicates that racial stereotypes are detrimental to attainment of social justice, equality and economic prosperity. What is debilitating is that as these stereotypes spreads, the victims gradually buy into them and design ways to defeat the stereotypes even if it means turning on one another. However, if identity is embraced, it can prove beneficial as the Invisible Man realizes at the end. His invisibility was hugely advantageous, at least in the economic sense.


Related essays