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The Narrator in Ellison s Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the story of an educated black man who has been oppressed and controlled by white men throughout his life. As the narrator, he is nameless throughout the novel as he journeys from the South, where he studies at an all-black college, to Harlem where he joins a Communist-like party known as the Brotherhood. Throughout the novel, the narrator is on a search for his true identity. Several letters are given to him by outsiders that provide him with a role: student, patient, and a member of the Brotherhood. One by one he discards these as he continues to grow closer to the sense of his true self. The entire story can be summed up when the narrator says “I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole- or showed me the hole I was in….” (455). During the novel, the narrator values several important things, which shape his identity as well as his future. Through his experiences and the people he has met, the narrator discovers the important values of his education, his invisibility, and the meaning of his grandfather’s advice.
From the very beginning of the novel the narrator values his education. His education first brings him a calfskin briefcase, when the superintendent rewards him for his success, saying, “Take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office. Prize it. Keep developing as you are and some day it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people” (43). The narrator treasures the briefcase so much because it symbolizes his education. He carries it throughout the whole novel, and it is the only object he takes into the cellar from his former life. In addition, the narrator is overjoyed at what he finds inside the briefcase: “It was a scholarship to the state college for Negroes. My eyes filled with tears and I
ran awkwardly on the floor” (44). The narrator could now afford to take his education further. Education is so important to the narrator because it raises his status above the other blacks. The narrator values his education from the very beginning of the novel, as it brings him many rewards. Many people feel that with education comes a newfound status. It many times is the determining factor in what differentiates the average from the good. In the 1950 s, it was the difference that literally separated a black man from his slave ancestors, as well as the multitude of uneducated black men at the time.
Towards the end of the novel, the narrator begins to value his invisibility. The narrator first begins to grasp the value of invisibility when he says “I was and yet I was invisible, that was the fundamental contradiction. I was and yet I was unseen. It was frightening and as I sat there I sensed another frightening world of possibilities” (216). He says this when he takes on the identity of Rinehart. He begins to realize that “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen” (332). Not only is he entertained at people mistaking his identity, but also it allows him to slip by Ras the Exhorter unnoticed. Similarly, invisibility ends up saving his life in the riots, as he thinks “I felt myself plunge down….a long drop that ended upon a load of black coal…..I lay in the black dark upon the black coal no longer running, hiding or concerned” (421). Men were chasing him with baseball bats, demanding that he hand over his briefcase. The narrator ran away and fell through a manhole, finding himself in a coal cellar. He was now literally invisible to everyone, allowing him to escape. Finally, the narrator’s new found invisibility allows him to live in the coal cellar, where he can “Now, aware of my invisibility…live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites” (18). As the narrator develops and matures towards the end of the novel, he
realizes that the invisibility he once cursed can be highly beneficial to him. Invisibility can be perceived a variety of ways. Depending on how one looks at it, it can be both beneficial and at the same time a hindrance. While it allows humility to be expressed, it also minimizes the impact one can make to society. It allows one to get away with murder, but at the same time not be noticeable to others around him/her.
The advice that the narrator receives from his grandfather is the final, and perhaps the most significant of his values. The advice of his grandfather states:
“Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight… Live with your head in the
lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open (26).
He first grasps this advice after Clifton’s funeral and after the Brotherhood betrays him. These words have haunted him his whole life, and now he fully understands and believes this advice. This new understanding leads the narrator to develop a new plan. He decides to follow the advice and become a spy, pretending to be loyal to the Brotherhood, while plotting to overthrow them. The very next day, he begins by seeking to use Sybil as an inside source of information. At last, the advice finally brings the narrator to his purpose in life. This advice brings him closer to his true self, as he realizes what he must do. His grandfather’s advice determines and shapes his future, and it becomes the basis of his plans. The advice of his grandfather has the greatest impact on the narrator, as his understanding of it completes his search for self-identity. Advice comes in many forms, and many times the simplest advice can provide the most guidance.
However, most times advice is overlooked, and one must experience something first hand to truly realize the authenticity of such advice.
Everyone has values. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator values his education, as it brings him many rewards. As he develops and matures, he begins to value his invisibility, which resulted from whites refusing to see him. His invisibility allowed him to survive, and it became a key part in his plan to end oppression against blacks. Finally, the advice of his grandfather, which disturbed him his whole life, ended up being his purpose in life. These values shape the narrator’s identity, as well as his path. Although all these values are extremely important to the narrator, I cannot completely relate to all of them. The narrator faced constant oppression throughout the entire novel. He managed to survive and succeed because of his values. Throughout Ellison’s novel, the narrator possessed the strong values of education, invisibility, and his grandfather s advice. There are many factors that shape a character. Whether it is another character, an experience, or just a general personality characteristic, every character has something that makes him/her unique and uncommon.
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