Ralph Ellison's novel, Invisible Man depicts women as marginalized either as maternal or sexual figures. The stripper, Edna, Hester, Sybil, Emma, the rich woman, and Mattie Lou Trueblood are seen largely as sexual objects. In contrast, Mary Rambo is a maternal figure who cares for the narrator. Overall, the female characters are seen as secondary, with little character development in comparison to the male characters. This treatment of women in Invisible Man as primarily sexual or maternal objects largely reflects the traditional views of women's roles in society during the 1950s.
Women are often seen as sexual objects within Ellison's Invisible Man. The most obvious examples of this sexual identification of women is seen the characters of Hester and Edna. Edna and Hester are both black prostitutes at the Golden Day. Hester hates white men, while Edna is convinced that white men make better sexual partners. In either case, both of these women are defined through their sexual relationships with the male characters in the novel.
The stripper that appears at the beginning of the novel also illustrates Ellison's depiction of women as sexual objects, and in a way that is perhaps even more graphic and obvious than his depiction of the prostitutes Edna and Hester. The narrator is asked to give a valedictorian speech to a number of his town's leading white citizens, and is surprised when he is confronted with a white, female stripper. He and the other black boys are alternately repelled and attracted to the stripper. He feels "a wave of irrational guilt and fear," and notes "I felt a desire to spit upon her as my eyes brushed slowly over her body." The narrator notes, "I wanted at one and the same time to fun from the room, to sink through the floor, or to go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V" (19).
The actions of the white businessmen toward the stripper further show her as a sexual object. The white men are shown as clearly seeing the woman as little more than a sexual plaything, and depicted as "laughing and howling," with "beefy fingers," and "clumsy like an intoxicated panda" (20). One man watches with "lips loose and drooling" (20). Later the white men begin to chase the woman around the floor. Writes Ellison, "Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilled, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys" (20).
The white businessmen's treatment of both the boys (who are forced to fight each other for the businessmen's amusement) and the stripper reveals their desire to subjugate both black men and women of any color. As such, Ellison's depiction of events reveals the social structure of the time, with white men in a position of power, black men subjugated below them, and white women apparently below either, and seen primarily as sexual objects.
Of interest in this scene is the narrator's sympathy with the stripper, and the reaction of some of the white men to chasing the stripper. He notes that the other black boys are also terrified, and some ask to leave. Further, the narrator notes that some of the white men try to stop the others from touching the women. Here, the narrator, though briefly, reveals that some of the men and boys see the stripper as more than a sexual object.
The sexual objectification of women is also seen in Jim Trueblood's relationship with his daughter. Trueblood is a black sharecropper who is ultimately rewarded by the white community for impregnating his own daughter. Here, the daughter is seen as little more than a sexual object, as Trueblood's character is well developed, but we learn little about…