Invisible Man By Ellison

Invisible Man By Ellison Life on the Strings Dolls. We are surrounded by dolls. G. I. Joe, Barbie, Polly Pocket, and WWF action figures. Prior to our plasticene friends we had paper dolls, marionettes, and delicately featured porcelain dolls.

We are strangely fascinated by these cold, lifeless objects that look so much like ourselves. Children clutch them and create elaborate scenes, while adults are content to simply collect, allowing them to sit, motionless on a shelf, staring coolly back at their live counterparts. Which brings us to and interesting point, are people simply dolls for other people to play with or collect? One could make the arguement that we are all Tod Cliftons’, doomed to dance by invisible strings while wearing a mask of individualism. However, unlike Tod Clifton, most of us will not realize that who pulls the string, is not ourselves. Ralph Ellison’s novel, The Invisible Man is fraught with images of dolls as if to constantly reminded the reader that no one is in complete control of themselves.

Our first example of doll imagery comes very early in the novel with the Battle Royal scene. The nude, blonde woman is described as having hair “that was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll” (19). Ellison draws a very strong connection between the plight of the Negro man and the white woman. The fact that they are both shown as puppets or dolls in the work is no coincidence. The woman and the African are merely show pieces for the white men in the novel. Tod Clifton’s dancing Sambo dolls are the most striking example of doll imagery. This small tissue paper doll has the capability to completely change the Invisible Man.

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When he sees that the powerful and enigmatic Clifton is the one hawking the abominable dolls, the narrator is so filled with humiliation and rage that he spits upon the dancing figure. But what is it that has caused this surging of fury? It is Tod Clifton and not the narrator who has degraded himself to such a base level. However, it is our narrator’s sudden comprehension of his own situation that causes his wrath. The line “For a second our eyes met and he gave me a contemptuous smile” (433) illustrates this moment of realization for our narrator. It shows the reader that Tod Clifton was aware of his position as a puppet all along and chooses to enlighten the narrator at this particular point in the novel.

The Invisible Man recognizes that all his life he’s been a slave and a puppet to others. Whether those others were Bledsoe, his grandfather, or the brotherhood is irrelevant, but there has always been and imperceptible string attached to him governing everything he does. Not only a string but his own physical characteristics echo those of the grotesque Sambo dolls. It’s cardboard hands were clenched into fists. The fingers outlined in orange paint, and I noticed that it had two faces, one on either side of the disks of cardboard, and both grinning. (446) Hands doubled into fists? This is the brotherhood message in a nutshell, Strong, ready to fight for what one supposedly believes in.

Yet, at the same time these fists are controlled exclusively by the one holding the strings. And the black Sambo puppet blissfully unaware that he is merely a plaything. He smiles to the crowd and back to the puppeteer. It is the grin on the face of this doll that initially angers the Invisible Man. But why? Thinking back to the very start of the novel we have the Grandfather’s dying words to our narrator, “..overcome ’em with yesses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction..” (16).

It would seem as though the Grandfather and Tod Clifton are in league with one another as they both have a firm grasp on what power men have over men. We get a powerful and disturbing image of this very idea when the Invisible Man is in the factory hospital after the explosion. It is a scene that seems to fade into the mishmash of confusion that accompanies this part of the novel, but it is nonetheless very important. As the narrator lies in his glass enclosed box with wires and electrodes attached all over his body, he is subjected to shock treatment. “Look, he’s dancing,” someone called. “No, really?” ..” They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!” it said with a laugh.

(237) This image is almost a perfect match with that of Clifton’s dancing Sambo doll. The only thing missing is the huge grin and even that is taken care of with the line, “My teeth chattered” (237) giving us the picture of a grotesque and pained smile. He experiences a burst of anger which I can only assume means that he catches a glimpse of the strings that he is being pulled by and is helpless to do anything about it. Our final encounter with a doll occurs again with Clifton’s dancing Sambo. At the end of the narrative, while escaping the hell of the Harlem riots, the Invisible Man stumbles upon an open manhole and the gloom below. While trying to keep warm and get a good look at the place he in, he begins to burn the various objects in his briefcase.

When he comes to the flimsy tissue-paper doll he finds that it will not burn. He remarks “it burned so stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else.” (568) The doll’s difficulty in burning is symbolic of the fact that we, as men , will never fully be able to break free from our puppet-like imprisonment. Ellison’s narrator can be found in each and every human being. We live our lives attempting to be independent and free thinking individuals, but there will always be the strings that bind us to someone who controls our destiny. Even the Invisible Man has his turn at being a puppeteer, as we all do, with Mr. Norton at the train station when he calmly states, “I’m your destiny.” (578) Do we know who we control? Do we know who controls us? The answer the Invisible Man might give: Maybe.

Invisible Man By Ellison

Invisible Man By Ellison While the civil war ended one form of slavery in America, another system of oppression was ready to take its place. In Ralph Ellisons acclaimed novel Invisible Man, a young black, nameless narrator struggles through a series of hard-won lessons as he makes his journey from the Deep South to Harlem, New York, from naivet to disenchantment, from illusion to insight. Like most of us, he stumbles down the path of identity, adopting several along the way in an attempt to solve his relationship with a hostile, prejudiced American society. Testament to the narrators various identities is the symbol of his briefcase, which he receives as a prize after the disturbing Battle Royal and proceeds to carry until the end when he is in the coal bin, and truly an invisible man. Its contents -his high school diploma, representing his southern black identity, the recommendation letters representing his college identity, the anonymous letter and the slip of paper with his brotherhood name representing his brotherhood leadership identity, Cliftons paper doll symbolizing his disillusionment with the brotherhoods ideals and finally, the shattered pieces of Marys bank, perhaps signifying his identity in the context of white America -each an identity others dictated by others, not developed by himself.

While in the cellar, he creates torches out of these objects as though lighting his past on fire, using his history to guide him out of the hole and out of illusion. The beginning is a nightmare. A young, eager Negro boy, valedictorian of his high school class believes he is to deliver a speech to a group of white benefactors. Instead, he finds himself together with several other Negroes in a Battle Royal, a disgusting free-for all in which, blindfolded and barebacked like savages, the boys are instructed to beat each other. After the battle, the narrator is called upon to make his speech, his mouth full of blood and his head spinning from the blows.

In his speech, the narrator makes allusions to Booker T. Washington, the great black accommodationist, reflecting that he too believes in playing by the white peoples rules, meaning never ask for more than they are willing to give. At the end of this traumatic scene, he receives a prize briefcase containing a scholarship to a Negro college. In this society, we often rely on others as a means of learning about ourselves- a dangerous habit, especially when surrounded by those who are blind to the individual person. The narrator adores college and is under the illusion that it is a place of perfection, an institution at which he aspires to acquire a position as the assistant of his idol, Dr.

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Bledsoe, the president of the college and great leader of his race. But while the college is supposed to be a fountain of knowledge, of wisdom, it is rather like the broken fountain out front- dry with nothing to sustain real life. In his third year at the school, he is expelled for innocently showing a white trustee, Mr. Norton, the reality of black life in the south by inadvertently taking him to the home of an incestuous farmer and then to a whorehouse appropriately called the Golden Day. The headmaster, who admits hell see all Negroes hang before he gives up his power , offers the shattered young boy false hope in the form of seven letters of recommendation.

Grateful, the narrator carries these letters in his prize briefcase to New York where his truth, his identity are dealt additional blows when he discovers that they are in fact letters of condemnation and meant only to keep him running, to keep him hoping for that golden day. Disillusioned, with growing sense of personal rejection and social invisibility, it is at this point that the narrator begins metamorphosing into the invisible man. Recruited by the Brotherhood, a mixed-race group of social activists, he now becomes a spokesman for the organization. Brother Jack, one of the white leaders hands the narrator a slip of paper on which is written his new brotherhood name. His truth, his new identity is shaped by this organization, and his sense of purpose, importance is temporarily restored as he slips it into his briefcase. He admits, “I am what they think I am”.

However, the brotherhood, like Mr. Norton and Dr. Bledsoe, does not believe that the individual is important. Of the brothers, the narrator eventually discerns”they were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves..Here I thought they accepted me because they felt color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didnt see either color or men.” He realizes further that his relationship with the brothers has been schematic when he connects the anonymous letter warning him about the organization to Brother Jack again to “set him running with one and the same stroke of the pen..” Brother Tod Cliftons obscene, paper doll is another object the narrator stores in his briefcase, representing his eventual disillusionment with the brotherhoods ideals.

Like Tod, the narrator believed he had a kind of moderate power in Harlem when in reality he was merely being manipulated. Selling these racist caricatures were Tods way of expressing the truth that he was only a puppet and the brotherhood was pulling all the strings. “You were not hired to think”, admits brother Jack to the narrator as if saying; know your place boy. The final Item in the narrators briefcase is the only object that doesnt light on fire. The shattered pieces of a cast iron bank was once shaped as a grotesque statue of a black man with an outstretched hand in which, if a coin placed and a lever pressed, will flip the money into its grinning mouth.

This implication of this self-mocking image insults the narrator who breaks it into pieces that he later tries to get rid of, yet cannot. This bank, this “early piece of Americana” symbolizes how he is stereotyped in the context of American society. He cannot throw it out, nor can he burn its pieces he is therefore branded with this identity that he is unable to elude. “I am an invisible man..I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me..When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me.” These are the first words of the prologue, yet it is only in the end, when he has fallen into the coal bin, that he explains how he arrived at such a peculiar state of consciousness. As he lights the contents of his briefcase of fire, he understands that he has never had his own identity, thus he is invisible to the outside world.

His prior identities did not represent himself, but that which others thought him to be. And, like Booker T. Washington, he accommodated them. He falls asleep and dreams that he is confronted with all his antagonists, all those that befriended him and then betrayed him, and he is able to tell them that he is through running. They castrate him and he is free of all illusion, ready for a new life. Bibliography Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible man, New York: Doubleday. 1967.


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