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ABOUT RALPH ELLISON THE AUTHOR OF “INVISIBLE MAN”
Ralph Ellison (1913–1994) was an American novelist and literary critic, renowned for his novel “Invisible Man” (1952). Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma in the year 1913, he studied at Tuskegee Institute.
The book INVISIBLE MAN, is a classic of American literature, explores themes of racial identity and individuality. Ellison, associated with the Harlem Renaissance, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953.
His work transcends movements, addressing universal themes. Besides fiction, Ellison wrote influential essays like “The Shadow and the Act.” His impact on American literature endures, with “Invisible Man” remaining a pivotal exploration of race and identity.
BACKGROUND OF NON-AFRICAN PROSE titled “INVISIBLE MAN” by Ralph Ellison
“Invisible Man” is like a coming-of-age story, focusing on the main character’s growth and self-discovery. He grapples with understanding himself in a big, complex society, making the book a bit like a search for meaning.
The writing style mixes different elements, like jazz music—sometimes it feels very real, other times dreamy, and there’s even some political satire. The title reflects the character’s main struggle: feeling unseen in a society mostly shaped by white culture.
The book came out in 1952, a time when racial segregation was a big issue in the United States.
Other Books/Novel Written by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison is primarily known for his groundbreaking novel “Invisible Man,” but he did not publish any other full-length novels during his lifetime. However, he wrote numerous essays, short stories, and reviews that are highly regarded. Some of his notable works include:
“Shadow and Act” (1964): A collection of Ellison’s essays that covers a range of topics, including literature, music, and cultural criticism.
“Going to the Territory” (1986): Another collection of essays, exploring themes such as American literature, jazz, and the role of the artist in society.
Summary of “INVISIBLE MAN” by Ralph Ellison | SETTINGS
The settings in “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison are diverse and play a crucial role in shaping the narrative. Here are some key settings in the novel:
- The Southern Plantation:
- The novel begins with the narrator living in a Southern plantation during his childhood. This setting introduces readers to the harsh realities of racism and inequality.
- The College Campus (Likely based on Tuskegee Institute):
- The narrator attends a college that bears similarities to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This setting explores themes of education, identity, and the challenges faced by African Americans in an academic environment.
- The Brotherhood Headquarters (Harlem):
- As the narrator becomes involved with the Brotherhood, a political organization in Harlem, the setting shifts to the urban landscape. The Brotherhood’s headquarters become a focal point for political intrigue and manipulation.
- Harlem Streets:
- The streets of Harlem serve as a dynamic backdrop for the novel, reflecting the social and cultural vibrancy of the African American community during the 1930s and 1940s.
- The Underground Bunker:
- In the later part of the novel, the narrator lives in an underground bunker illuminated by 1,369 light bulbs. This setting is symbolic of his isolation and the complexity of his internal world.
- The Factory (Liberty Paints):
- The factory where the protagonist works symbolizes the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and the exploitation of labor. The factory’s paint division, in particular, is significant in the novel’s themes.
- The Narrator’s Apartment:
- The narrator’s apartment serves as a more personal setting where he reflects on his experiences and grapples with his identity. It becomes a space of retreat and introspection.
“INVISIBLE MAN” by Ralph Ellison” | SUMMARY
A black man, unnamed in the story, deals with feeling invisible because of racial stereotypes. His journey starts in the segregated South in the 1920s-30s. His grandpa’s conflicting advice on being subservient influences his life.
After a troubling incident at a graduation event, he gets a scholarship but is later expelled. Jobless, he faces racism at Liberty Paints, leading to injury and memory loss.
Joining the Brotherhood for social change, he rises to power but faces betrayal, becoming disillusioned. Discovering the Brotherhood’s manipulations, he plans to expose them. However, the Brotherhood exploits racial tensions, leading to riots in Harlem.
Amid the chaos, the man retreats underground, symbolizing a 15-year break. The novel explores racism, identity, and how society shapes an individual’s quest for self-discovery.
Summary of “INVISIBLE MAN” by Ralph Ellison MAJOR EVENTS
The narrator’s grandfather, an ex-slave dies. On his deathbed, the grandfather leaves his family with some final advice. “Son, after I’m gone, I want you to keep up the good fight. 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.” A young boy at the time, the narrator is not really sure what his grandfather’s dying words meant but they haunt him in the years to come.
As one of the top students in his high school, the narrator is asked to give a speech to some important white men in town. The men will reward him with a briefcase con training a scholarship to a prestigious black college but then he is forced to participate in a fight and blindfolded in a boxing ring with other black young men.
Mr. Norton, Tim True-blood and the Golden Day:
Narrator is asked to drive a wealthy white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton around the campus. Narrator takes him to visit Jim Trueblood, a poor uneducated Blackman who impregnated his own daughter. He then takes Mr. Norton to the Golden Day, a saloon and brothel that normally serves black men. A fight breaks out and Mr. Norton passes out.
Narrator is Expelled from College
Because of his day with Mr. Norton, the narrator is expelled from college. The college president Dr Bledsoe gives him seven letters of recommendation addressed to the college‘s white trustees in New York City, and sends him there to find work
Narrator Travels to Harlem, New York
The narrator looks for work but is not successful. He has one letter of recommendation left and will have to leave New York if he does not get a job.
He Gets a Job!
The narrator goes to the office of Mr. Emerson with his last letter. There he meets Emerson’s son, who opens the letter and tells the narrator that he has been betrayed: the letters from Bledsoe actually portrays him as dishonorable and unreliable. But he helps the narrator get a job at the Liberty Paints plant, whose trademark color is “Optic White”.\
Mary to the Rescue
While at the paint plant, the narrator is injured and sent to the plant hospital where he wakes up with memory loss and not able to speak The white doctors use this black patient to conduct electric shock experiments and turn him out on the street.
Some black community members take him to Mary, a nice black woman who lets him live with her for free while he recovers.
Eviction Inspires a Speech
One day the narrator witnesses an old black couple being evicted from their home in Harlem. He becomes angry and gives a speech to the crowd that is gathered around. The crowd is inspired by the speech and carries the couple’s belongings back into the house.
Brother Jack and the Brotherhood:
Brother Jack, a man in the crowd, hears the narrator’s speech and offers him a job working for his political organization, the Brotherhood. The narrator takes the job and Jack tells him that he must change his name, buy new clothes and move to a new apartment.
THEMES IN “INVISIBLE MAN” by Ralph Ellison”
The unnamed narrator wants nothing more than to be seen as an individual in a society where racist expectations label what he “should” be before he has the chance to prove anyone wrong.
As a result, the narrator feels unseen or invisible. In seeking to create a unique identity for himself, the narrator repeatedly denies his true self-his culture and heritage-to create an identity that will make others proud.
First, he tries to suppress his Southern heritage, then he tries to cover his “blackness” with “white manners and ideologies” while in college.
In Harlem he literally takes a new name, Rinehart, only to find that this, too, pushes him further from his true self.
As the narrator matures, however, he begins to see that invisibility isn’t always a bad thing. When he “meets” Rinehart, for example, he learns that by donning disguises, he is able to pursue his own goals without others’ expectations getting in the way.
He had always believed that pleasing others would bring him success, but as Rinehart, he follows his own pleasure and creates his own rewards. It is also by being “invisible” that the narrator learns to change society. In the novel’s prologue, the narrator wonders how an invisible man could be held accountable for his actions.
Ultimately, however, the narrator is desperate to create a unique identity, one that will be remembered in history, which would be impossible if he remains invisible.
Summary of “INVISIBLE MAN” by Ralph Ellison – RACIAL EXPECTATION
As the narrator tries to form a unique identity for himself, he finds that everyone else in society has an expectation of what it means to be a “black man.” At college and at the Brotherhood, he is expected to embody Booker T. Washington’s ideologies that “white is right,” dutifully following the orders of his white leaders without question.
He, and those in power, believe that obedience will bring success. In New York he is immediately identified as a Southerner who likes soul food, folktales, and jazz music. White women view him as a sexually powerful “black bruiser,” whereas white men view him as a sort of Sambo (a negative stereotype of blacks based on an 1808 short story by Edmund Botsford).
All the narrator wants is to be seen as an individual.
Although the narrator was born a free man, he is forced to carry the baggage of slavery’s legacy with him everywhere.
The “baggage” is symbolized in the calfskin briefcase the narrator wins at the end of the battle royal.
Throughout the novel he fills the case with other symbols of enslavement to white men, such as the letters, his diploma, the Sambo doll, pieces of Mary’s broken bank, and Brother Tarp’s leg chain.
Even when he is in the middle of the tenement fire, the narrator returns for the briefcase, suggesting the impossibility of simply leaving this baggage behind. It is only at the end of the novel, when the narrator chooses to plunge into darkness, that he is able to rid himself of the baggage and truly create a new identity for himself.
CHARACTERS IN “INVISIBLE MAN” by Ralph Ellison”
The unnamed narrator is a young, light-skinned black man who becomes disillusioned in his quest to create a unique identity for himself within a racist society.
The narrator feels invisible because everyone sees him as they wish to see him based on their expectations of black men, not as the unique individual he desires to be. Throughout the novel, the narrator is haunted by his grandfather’s deathbed advice and, as a result, is “kept running” by the white men in power. In his pursuit of making a name for himself, he fulfills his grandfather’s ominous prediction that he will act “treacherously” against his people by inadvertently “selling out” the black residents of Harlem.
When the narrator first arrives at the college, he idolizes everything about Dr. Bledsoe— his legacy, his sway with white men, his wealth, even his light-skinned wife.
He blindly follows Bledsoe’s philosophy that “white is right,” hoping that it will earn him the same prestige.
When the narrator is expelled from school, however, he learns that Dr. Bledsoe only acts subservient to whites because doing so affords him a position of power. In addition to expelling the narrator, Dr. Bledsoe also sends him to New York with treacherous letters of recommendation.
Mr. Norton is a wealthy, white trustee who has spent his life making large donations to the black college the narrator attends.
Mr. Norton claims he supports the college because he has always felt his fate was tied to the fate of the black race, and to honor his deceased daughter’s memory, but it soon becomes clear that Mr. Norton is only interested in creating a philanthropic legacy that suggests he is concerned with racial equality. He shows little interest in the real struggles of black individuals, except in the case of Jim True blood, whom he finds voyeuristically fascinating.
Living just outside campus, Jim Trueblood represents the black “savage” stereotype of the uneducated Southern black man. Trueblood gained notoriety in town for his incestuous relationship with his daughter, whom he impregnated while he was having a dream.
Although “ignorant,” Trueblood has learned to exploit the story to his family’s advantage. He knows that white people like Norton want to save the lowest of black people, so he uses the story to gain work and charity, even if it means being forced into the outskirts of society.
Mary Rambo represents the strength of the black community. After witnessing the narrator collapse on the street after being released from the factory hospital, Mary takes him in, feeds him, and even offers him a room.
When the narrator can no longer pay rent, Mary allows him to stay for free, hoping that he’ll become a strong leader in the black community someday. Although the narrator is initially grateful for Mary’s generosity, his time at the Brotherhood leads him to resent her.
Ras the Exhorter, who later becomes Ras the Destroyer, is a violent black separatist, which means he believes black Americans should start a society completely separate from white Americans.
He refuses civil rights help from sympathetic whites, and believes anyone who takes it to be a traitor to the race.
Ras believes that any relationship with the white race is a continuation of oppression, so he preaches for all black people to quit working for white bosses and to refuse to shop at white-owned stores or even hold civil conversations with white men.
He hates the narrator and his affiliation with the Brotherhood, which is multiracial and therefore blasphemous.
Brother Jack is the white leader of the Brotherhood in Harlem. Although the Brotherhood is formed to improve the lives of black Americans, in reality, it is a corrupt system exploited by Brother Jack and his cohorts.
When the narrator first meets Brother Jack, he seems like a heroic force, quickly giving the narrator a respectable job and wage.
Over time, however, it becomes clear that Brother Jack is using the narrator as a tool to advance his own motives. He has no real desire to improve the life of Harlem residents-easily abandoning them at the end of the novel-and is only interested in amassing personal power and wealth.
He is described as having red hair and a glass eye, two characteristics that illustrate his evil and flawed vision regarding racial equality.
Tod Clifton is the black member of the Brotherhood who becomes disillusioned with the organization and turns to selling Sambo dolls on the street to white tourists.
Crenshaw is the attendant to the veteran doctor.
Dupre is a looter who misleads the narrator into helping burn down a tenement building during Harlem’s race riots.
Young Emerson is the seemingly homosexual son of a wealthy white man who self- servingly helps the narrator find a job.
Emma is BrotherJack’s mistress and a powerful female member of the Brotherhood.
The Founder is the educator who founded the black college the narrator attends; he is a civil rights leader with a mythic legacy.
The narrator’s grandfather advises him to remain subservient to white men even if doing so is treacherous.
Brother Hambro is the leader in the Brotherhood charged with the narrator’s training and indoctrination into Brotherhood ideologies.