2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Genre: African-American Literature, Experimental, Literary Fiction

Narrative  Style: First person, Main narrative told in flashback

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1952

Synopsis: The unnamed narrator lives underground in a strange cell with dozens of lightbulbs everywhere and stolen electricity. He relates to the reader all the ways in which he has become an invisible man and then tells the story of how he came to be there. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition.

I admit, I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. It was a much harder read than I expected. I found the style stodgy and  the narrator irritating. The overall moral message and the relevance of the story today are what kept me reading rather than any interest in character development or exciting plot points.

The narrative describes the unnamed narrator’s progress towards invisibility. Everyone he encounters seems to have an opinion of him and his usefulness – no one is able to see him as merely a person. From fellow blacks like Dr Bledsoe who accuse him of bringing the race into disrepute, to the white men of The Brotherhood who use the discontent of Harlem’s blacks to their own end, to the white woman who requests he rape her when he seduces her, everyone has an opinion of what black men should be like. And with each encounter, the narrator loses a little more of his sense of self.

At the all black college he attends, the narrator is trusted to show around one of the white trustees, Mr Norton,  around the college. The idea, of course, is to show the best of the college but when Norton requests that he show him the old slave quarters behind the college, he feels he cannot say no because it would be worse to deny the request. The principal of the college, Dr Bledsoe was always deferential to the white trustees but the narrator had not realised that that was an act for the white men and did not represent what Bledsoe actually felt. At the old quarters, they encounter Jim Trueblood who has managed to impregnate both his wife and his daughter in his sleep. This shocked Norton who demands a drink. The only bar nearby is full of prostitutes and mental patients and shocks Norton even more. Bledsoe, expels him for bringing not only  the college into disrepute but the entire race. This is his first lesson. There are many to follow.

One of the things I like about this novel is it is unsparing in its criticism of all groups. The narrator falls in with The Brotherhood (a reference to the Communist Party, I guess) and at first he feels comfortable there. He extends the influence of The Brotherhood within the black community in Harlem. However, when a fellow Black member of The Brotherhood, Tod Clifton, is shot when resisting arrest, The Brotherhood refuse to support the idea of a funeral because Clifton was selling offensive sambo dolls on his arrest. This, they feel, is more important than a black man being shot by police. They tell the narrator that they know what is best for the black community. The narrator realises that they have been using him all along.

However, there is also criticism of Raz the Exhorter who represents Black Nationalism. He suggests that anyone who works with white people is a traitor and towards the end of the novel calls for the narrator to be lynched because of his work with the Brotherhood. The narrator suggests that both sides are as blind as each other.

The extended flashback ends when the narrator is being chased by two white men, he falls down a manhole and they pull the lid over him, trapping him. This is the true start of his life as an invisible man. However, he decides that he has to return to society to speak for the many people in a similar plight.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book because it made me think (and it also made me depressed at how little these themes have changed) but it wasn’t an easy read nor was it always enjoyable.

 

 

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