Thursday, February 24, 2011

Invisible Man, Take 2

I have already listed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man among the books I've written about, but as I looked over my previous entry, I realized that I didn't spend much time discussing the book itself.  Instead, I reflected on the idea of rereading, which is an interesting conversation topic, but certainly not adequate as the only response for one of my favorite novels of all time.  So although I feel like I'm cheating a little to talk about a book twice, please indulge me.

If you haven't read the novel, it is about an African-American man who struggles to understand his identity through the various social structures he encounters.  Over the course of the novel, he is part of a variety of these systems, including that of the college student, the blue collar worker, the political activist, and the public speaker, before he retreats from society altogether.  We are never given the protagonist's name, which adds to the sense that he is, (as he so eloquently states in his opening line), an "invisible man."

There are so many things I could talk about with this novel.  For example, it is full of fascinating symbolism.  Every poster that is described on the wall or name that is uttered seems to be symbolic of some idea Ellison is conveying.  I have read scholars select even just one scene in the story and reveal all the messages hidden behind the text.  There is also an interesting political dimension in the novel, which I completely missed in my first reading.  The "Brotherhood" that the protagonist joins represents the Communist party of Ellison's day.  Ellison had been involved with the Communist party at one point in his life and grew to be greatly disillusioned with their unfulfilled promises and party platforms.  In the novel, the protagonist also becomes disillusioned with the Brotherhood and discovers that they don't actually care for him and the causes they pretended to support.  Unpacking this political comparison would take a lot more work and intellect than I have to offer, but if you are interested, I certainly encourage you to pursue it further.

Despite all the things I continually learn to appreciate, I cannot deny that it is still the identity crisis that most interests me about this novel.  Earlier, I said that I read it in such a time in my life that it profoundly impacted me, but even when I have distance from that moment, I nevertheless am drawn to this aspect of the story.  The protagonist sees himself as an invisible man because for most of the novel, his sense of identity is shaped entirely by his circumstances.  When he is in college, he is an intellectual.  When he is at the factory, he is a worker.  When he is with the Brotherhood, he is an activist.  When he is a public speaker, he is a symbol.  There is almost no trace of an individual self-value that is maintained in each of these positions.  He blends so well in his surroundings that he himself becomes invisible.  I think this is a powerful insight in human nature, and it was something I personally needed to recognize in order to move forward in my own development.  It is very easy to identify ourselves by what we do.  And as cliche as this sounds, the trick is to discover who we are outside of the things we do and the people we know.  There are individual traits and pieces of character we must find within ourselves when we strip away all the other things that surround us.  In order for the protagonist to finally do this, he had to retreat alone to an underground home.  He had to work on himself away from all the other influences that affected him.

I realize this is getting a bit lengthy, so I'll wrap it up.  A critical component of the story occurs in the epilogue. Retreating is not the answer.  Although it was helpful for the invisible man to escape and spend time alone, he felt a social responsibility to emerge from his layer and rejoin society.  We need to understand ourselves in order to better interact with our communities.  We are social creatures, and the influences around us are not evil in and of themselves.  In my opinion, this is the profound message of Invisible Man, and I find myself returning to it over and over again to hear it.

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