Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. Specifically, it will contain a brief biography of the author; address the topic of alienation as it pertains to the work, and include some critical reviews of the novel. Many critics consider novelist Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" a classic in American literature, and a treatise on how blacks have been treated by white society throughout the decades. His story is a tale of alienation, prejudice, and the strength one man has to rise above these obstacles to become the best man he can be.
The Invisible Man - The Author, Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1, 1914. His parents, Lewis and Ida Ellison, were from the South, but had moved to Oklahoma searching for racial equality they could not find at home (Watts 33). His father died when Ellison was three, and his mother raised her two sons in virtual poverty after his death. However, even though he grew up poor, Ellison was raised with the notion he could accomplish and enjoy the same things as the whites in society. His parents encouraged their sons to read, learn, and experiment. He also learned to love many stereotypical "black" cultural icons, including the blues, jazz, and spiritual church music (Watts 35). Ellison learned to play the trumpet, and played in his high school band, and because of his musical talent, he won a scholarship to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1933, where he majored in music and music theory. However, while he lived in Alabama, he discovered the true prejudice and hatred blacks in the South faced, and learned how to deal with prejudice on his own terms. He once said, "I learned to outmaneuver those who interpreted my silence as submission, my efforts at self-control as my fear, my contempt as awe before superior status, my dreams of faraway places and room at the top of the heap as defeat before the barriers of their stifling, provincial world "
Watts 36-37). Many critics believe it was Ellison's experiences at Tuskegee that would later influence his writings and his thoughts about black America and Americans.
In 1936, Ellison was forced to leave Tuskegee because of a "mix-up" regarding his scholarship funds. He would never return to the school. He traveled to New York, and expected to make his way as a musician, but he ran into prejudice and misunderstanding, and sometimes ended up sleeping outside, with no home, and little money. He did manage to meet many influential black writers and musicians, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and it was during this time he first began to think of writing as a living, rather than being a musician. His mother died in 1937, and he attended the funeral in Dayton, Ohio financially destitute, and full of self-doubt. It was after his mother's death that he threw himself totally into learning all he could about writing, and began to make his living as a writer. Richard Wright helped him get a position in New York with the Federal Writer's Project, and finally, Ellison was able to make a decent living while honing his craft.
Economically stable, Ellison learned to write. He contributed several essays to the Writers' Project volume, "The Negro in New York." Ellison also worked on a project compiling black folklore. Ellison's exposure to the richness and diversity of urban black folklore may have subsequently inspired his use of folklore in his fiction
After 1942, Ellison worked as an editor, wrote essays and commentary, and began working on his fiction. "The Invisible Man" was first published in 1952, and was Ellison's first work of fiction, and ended up being his only published novel. The book was a national bestseller for 16 weeks after its publication in April 1952. It won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction, has been translated into 17 languages and has never been out of print. In 1999, a group of prominent writers and scholars placed "Invisible Man" in the top 20 list of the most influential fiction from the 20th century (Thomas).
Ellison continued to write throughout his life, and he attained success and praise from white and black intellectuals. His essays and journal articles addressed alienation and prejudice in society, but most of all, his writing also celebrated the things that made America great, such as music and literature. Some scholars considered Ellison an elitist and intellectual snob, while others found his writing to be profoundly moving and relevant to black society. Some blacks felt he had "sold out," and was more an advocate of white elitist society than the true black experience. However, Ellison lived in both worlds during his life, and seemed to understand each with deep knowledge and awareness. For many years, Ellison taught at New York University as an Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities. Ralph Ellison died in 1994, and his novel "Invisible Man" is still remembered as his greatest literary effort.
Alienation and the Invisible Man
Ellison's "The Invisible Man" is a treatise on alienation from start to finish. As one critic noted,
The entire story centers on an anonymous, young black man's painful acceptance of his social alienation, which is so extreme that he has virtually no control over the sequence of events that directs the course of his life. He receives so little recognition for his efforts to define a meaningful identity for himself that he assumes a new name, which characterizes his feelings of acute marginality: the Invisible Man (Ellison and Bloom 82).
As a black man, Ellison knew what it was like to be alienated from the rest of society, just as his character experiences alienation and prejudice throughout the novel. As the narrator says early in the book, "It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen" (Ellison 3). For blacks in America in the 1950s, when this novel was first published, it was much better to be unseen and unheard, because they were not accepted or even allowed in most white society. Blacks suffered the indignities of separate restaurants, separate railroad cars, and even separate restrooms from white people, and they suffered great persecution and prejudice because of their skin color. They were truly alienated from mainstream society, and "The Invisible Man uses this theme of alienation to illustrate the narrator's invisibility. In truth, blacks were largely invisible to whites, and so, if they were "unseen," they could not cause problems or raise doubts about the humanity of prejudice.
Early in the novel, there is a scene with several young black boys competing for a scholarship who are electrocuted for "fun" by a group of white business people. This is deplorable, but it quite realistically portrays how whites treated blacks during much of the 20th century, and immediately illustrates the theme of alienation and people at odds with society. The young black boys do not understand what is happening to them, and what is so funny about them jumping around on the electrified mat as they scramble for gold coins. They are innocents who have just been introduced to hatred and prejudice, and this theme continues throughout the novel. As the narrator says, "I remember that I am invisible and I walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things as dangerous in the world as sleepwalkers" (Ellison 5). This could be the core theme of alienation for the novel - the image of an invisible man moving stealthily throughout society, trying desperately not to awaken the prejudice and hatred of the "sleepwalkers" around him. Only those who have been alienated by society could understand his fear, and his need to remain invisible. Indeed, sometimes it is better to be invisible, because alienation in society is so cruel and so inhuman. It does not matter if you are black, fat, or poor, if you do not fit into the "normal" pattern of society, you will be ridiculed, reviled, and will have to surmount great obstacles to find happiness and success.
This alienation and not fitting into society is a constant theme throughout the novel, as the Invisible Man makes his way to the city, and learns more about a society where he does not fit in.
Walking about the streets, sitting on subways beside whites, eating with them in the same cafeterias (although I avoided their tables) gave me the eerie, out-of-focus sensation of a dream. My clothes felt ill-fitting; and for all my letters to men of power, I was unsure of how I should act. For the first time, as I swung along the streets, I thought consciously of how I had conducted myself at home. I hadn't worried too much about whites as people. Some were friendly and some were not, and you tried not to offend either. But here they all seemed impersonal; and yet when most impersonal they startled me by being polite, by begging my pardon…