Book Review: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (Paperback 571 Pages)

Posted: October 20, 2012 in Books


The unnamed protagonist seems to have a bright future despite all the strikes against him, he’s black, it’s the 1950’s, and Jim Crowe still hangs like a specter in the air in the South.  But he’s won a scholarship to a prestigious college, one he literally had to fight to maintain, and things are looking up.  Until the fateful day when he drives a college trustee named Mr. Norton around town, they meet some colorful locals and end up in a gin joint called the Golden Day.  Norton barely gets out of the bar alive.  Needless to say this doesn’t sit well with the college president Mr. Bledsoe, who kicks the young man out of college, but with a recommendation for a factory job.  The young protagonist ends up in a paint factory in Long Island, as a paint mixer.  After a boiler explosion at the paint factory, and shock treatment at a local hospital, the young man ends up dazed and confused on the streets of Harlem.  (He thinks he was set up to fail by Bledsoe)

He settles in at an apartment run by a lady named Mary, who is a gentle soul.  The young man seems to have found his bearings, but no sooner had he seemed to settle down then his life once again becomes agitated by outside forces.  The young protagonist joins a Communist group called the Brotherhood, and learns he possesses the skills to be a fiery orator.  He admires the Brotherhood at first, because whites like Brother Jack, and blacks like himself and Tod Clifton are on equal standing, and it seems to be a sincere equality.  He stands up to outside race-based agitators like Ras the Exhorter because he’s seen racial unity in the Brotherhood.  But as time passes, the young man notices that Tod is not showing up to Brotherhood meetings anymore, and that he himself is being excluded from Brotherhood meetings.  The protagonist confronts Brother Jack and the leaders of the Brotherhood, and they say that Todd Clifton is no longer part of the Brotherhood, and the programs to help the black community started by the Brotherhood, will be curtailed, because the programs no longer mesh with the larger political goals of the Brotherhood.  The protagonist is disillusioned.  He wanders the streets of New York until he finds Tod Clifton in a trance-like state selling dolls.  The protagonist then sees Tod shot down by a cop and Tod Clifton, the once bright star of the brotherhood is dead. The protagonist is further disillusioned with the Brotherhood, and  holds a funeral for Tod Clifton.  But the Brotherhood is not impressed, the have moved on from the plight of the dispossessed. But our hero, (or is it anti-hero) has a plan.  What is it? Does it work?

The ideas in this book are very clearly distilled.  The protagonist doesn’t have a name because he doesn’t have an identity, and he spends most of the book searching for an identity, and none seem to fit.  The character goes from a hopeful and idealistic college student, to a slightly disillusioned factory worker ,  to again a hopeful member of an organization larger than himself.  But once again his idealism is crushed by an organization which is only interested in their narrow political agenda, and not in the greater social good.   The scene of Tod Clifton selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street is especially telling.  The Sambo was a dancing doll that gyrated when you pulled it a certain way.  It’s interesting that Ellison uses the doll as a symbol, because Tod Clifton and the unnamed protagonist are like Sambo dolls to the Brotherhood, as long as they’re black and dance to the tune of the Brotherhood, they are acceptable, when they rebel like Tod and the protagonist did, their entertainment value is gone and they are discarded.  The sambo later became a universally hated black sterotype, with its grotesque grin and outlandish features

It’s clear that Ellison is not a strong supporter of the institutions meant to help minorities out of poverty.  He mocks higher education as being controlled by  the rich and well connected, he again mocks the workplace as being controlled by people who engage in turf battles, not necessarily the best trained, but the ones who have held on to their jobs by attrition. Politics doesn’t hold much more promise for Ellison, because politics does not achieve true social justice in his mind.

Ellison doesn’t believe in racially based solutions either.  The protagonist routinely discounts people like Ras the Exhorter, because they only know one tune, they are a broken record and the record is one based on racial animus.  There is nothing to be gained by racial scapegoating and yet allies of a different race without ulterior motives are hard to find.  Given all these factors, Ellison’s conclusion is true to life while at the same time disheartening. There is some hope in maybe working away from the spotlight, helping others on your own, but one has to dig deep to find a hopeful note in this book.

Invisible Man is far from flawless.  Many characters need a lot more development.  I wish Tod had been developed further, because Tod’s death became a cause célèbre in the black community.  If Ellison had shown how Tod had helped the community, the outpouring of sadness could have been grander and even more genuine. I wish some of the members of the Brotherhood, like Brother Jack were better fleshed out.  I never got a sense of what motivated the Brotherhood, or why they did what they did.  Even the protagonist could have been better developed, but he seemed intent on jumping from persona to persona without ever feeling comfortable in his own skin.

Still in all, Invisible Man is essential reading if one wants to understand both individuals within a race and a community at large.  Many of the characters personify characteristics of people that came before and some who came after the writing of this book.  Ras the Exhorter, personifies someone like Al Sharpton, someone who uses race to stir up an already simmering pot.   The protagonist was a mix of the self reliance stressed by Booker T Washington, and the racial accommodation of Martin Luther King.  When he slips into his Rhinehart character, he becomes half street hustler half minister, like Reverend Ike the first black televangelist,  but for the most part the protagonist is driven by idealism, if only to be disillusioned many times. Invisible Man is a rich tapestry, at times dense, but often rewarding .




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