I have a long history with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
. For my high school AP English class we were assigned to read Ellison's magnum opus over the summer, and annotate each chapter, only to re-read the entire thing as a class that fall. Last winter, The Huntington Theatre in Boston staged the novel as a play, which was both faithful to Ellison's vision and stirring with both life and violent energy. And violence is so important to the novel, which has a sort of beautiful horror to it, and important also to the time and struggle of which it is a moving story. But despite it's deep allegorical roots in the history of the Afro-American struggle for equality, Invisible Man
is as deeply moving as the struggle of an individual as it is of a race. While the themes of race and inequality, of white male hegemony, prejudice and persecution, are powerful throughout, the overwhelming concern of Ellison's is identity: and what it means to be without identity.
I remember that I'm invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.
The story of our significantly unnamed narrator is the bildungsroman of a young black boy from the South, illusioned by his grandfather and by society. He is the very paragon of passivity, of compliance. And more than anything, this novel is a sort of treatise against passivity, no matter to what. As modern readers, we are moved by the man's struggle against a world seemingly set against his success, a world schemingly deceptive, and horribly violent. His reality is a terrible one, an oppressive one, and at times a nearly fatal one - and this is the struggle of the majority of his race. Despite the obvious racial overtones, this book is not a call to arms, this book does not champion unity, does not even raise equality as a goal or vision of freedom from suffering. It is not a book which stirs you too march on Washington, but rather a book which stirs you deep inside, which makes you wonder, which makes you cringe at human horrors, which makes you consider who you are or who you are trying to be.
What Ellison has created is an epic in the vein of The Odyssey
, or perhaps more fittingly, the bellicose epic of The Illiad
. At every street corner, in every Edward Hooper-esque office, at every tenement house, in every crowd, and even when he is alone, our narrator is met with violence - physical violence, emotional violence, spiritual violence, violence for survival, violence for death. Yet despite this disturbing degree of mayhem, the main struggle remains within out narrator. While it can be argued that the narrator is unnamed because he is representative of the community at large, I find that unconvincing. He is unnamed because he has yet to identify himself. It is his struggle for self-awareness that is the focus of Invisible Man
, and at the denouement of the story, it is his literal retreat into himself, into the underground, which signifies not the fruition of his self-awareness, but the awareness of his true enemy: himself. It is his carefree compliance, his zombie complicity with evil, his turned head from the horrors of reality, his escape from himself and adoption of some Self other than himself, which is what degrades him most. He is invisible because he has been invisible even to himself. He cannot see everyone for what they are because he cannot see himself for what he is. It is not until he approaches that aphotheosis of his own identity that he can condemn the 'sleepwalkers' - the men who walk about unknowing and uncurious to know.
The invisible narrator tries to band his brothers together, to no avail; he tries to comply with the system, only to be beaten down by it; he tries to be the best man he can, only to be blindfolded and beaten by his seeing rivals; he tries to find piece himself into the great tapestry of society, only to retreat into a self-imposed exile underground. This is not the story of struggle for equality, but for the gasping for self-awareness:
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?
It is a human fear to not get what you want, to be withheld what you feel you deserve, but it is a perversion of the spirit to strive for something you want, not for yourself, but to realize after your hard work, after your life's struggle, that you worked so hard for a desire you usurped from someone else, for something you didn't really want
. That is the caveat in Invisible Man
: do not be the person society wants you to be, but be yourself, and society be damned!
The society he lives in is broken, there is no doubt, but he learns at the end that it is a twofold brokenness: an society broken and an individual broken: "America is woven of many strands. I would recognise them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many.
" We have come a far, far distance from the America in which our narrator struggles, but we remain an imperfect society. Prejudice of all kinds remain a barrier to a truly tight-woven society. Hate crimes all over the world occur with disturbing frequency, and we feel helpless to conquer a world of hate. But this novel does not preach nihilism, but rather strength of character. We must be strong in our convictions, we must not fear going against the flow, but we must first know what we believe, we must know who we are. What do you believe? What is important to you? Who are you?
No one can answer these questions but you. No news story, nor magazine article, nor talk show host or celebrity, nor even novel can answer those questions for you. We live in a still confused world, but we owe it to ourselves to know ourselves with certainty, with passion, with pride.