Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a remarkable work that has been widely acknowledged for its ruthless exposure of the American Dream as a myth. However, while Ellison may have used American history and culture as the backdrop for his novel, focusing on his expose of the American Dream alone may actually be a far too restrictive assessment of his work. For, the fact is that Ellison's main purpose in the novel seems to have been to question the fundamental worth of the universally characteristic human quest for social success. Ellison achieves this through highlighting the fact that social success is usually built and maintained through the use of hypocrisy, deceit, sycophancy and power plays. Thus, Ellison's Invisible Man is a novel, which establishes the hollowness of social success when measured against the loss of individual values, dignity, and freedom. In fact, it is the loss of individuality that is signified in the work's title.
Ellison uses the experiences of the main protagonist, the invisible man, to demonstrate the worthlessness of trying to achieve social success. In fact, he begins his expose in the prologue itself by explaining what it means to an individual to be invisible to society: "I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook .... I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone ... And I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." (Prologue)
Ellison's opening salvo allows him to cleverly highlight the fact that the protagonist, an African-American, never had much hope of attaining the great American dream. For, it was of little consequence whether or not he possessed a mind or if he, indeed, was a man of substance. All that mattered was that he belonged to the black race, and that was the only identity he possessed in the eyes of society.
Although Ellison begins his novel in this fashion, he then goes on to narrate how his protagonist came to grasp the fact that he was invisible to society. But his introduction succeeds in making the later narrative of the invisible man's journey from innocent hope and optimism to disillusionment and finally self-realization, all the more poignant. This is particularly so because Ellison makes it clear that the invisible man's concept of success was initially no different from that of the average American, whether white or black. Indeed, every reader would probably empathize with the invisible man's description of his dreams of success: " ... Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillacs; a good salary ...." (p. 87)
Similarly, it is also evident that the invisible man's initial strategy for success was modeled on the promises held out by the American Dream: "For, like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism. I believed in hard work and progress and action ...." (p. 562) Thus, Ellison succeeds in invoking sympathy for the invisible man by demonstrating how his innocent desire for success was fuelled by the propaganda of the American Dream; a dream that was never really sincerely meant as far as the black community was concerned. This inference can be drawn from Dr. Bledsoe's admonishment to the invisible man, "With all your speechmaking and studying I thought you understood something .... These white folks have newspapers, magazines, radios, spokesmen to get their ideas across. If they want to tell the world a lie, they tell it so well that it becomes the truth." (p. 129)
But perhaps the more concrete evidence that the American Dream was always meant to be out of the reach of the racially discriminated and the socially downtrodden lies in the stillness that greets the invisible man when he mistakenly utters the phrase "social equality" during his speech at the first Battle Royal: "The laughter hung smokelike in the sudden stillness .... Sounds of displeasure filled the room." (p. 5)
In his innocence and naivety, however, the invisible man fails to recognize that he is chasing quite a pipe dream. Instead, he is so single mindedly focused on achieving success that he takes all the humiliation of the "battle royal" in his stride, only ironically worrying that fighting it may detract from the dignity of his speech (p. 1). In fact, the invisible man actually cuts a rather pathetic figure here, especially when he is so pleased with the scholarship he receives that he totally forgets the humiliation and shame that he had to suffer prior to getting it (p.5).
The promises held out by the American Dream may deceive the invisible man. But he is certainly not someone with a halo around his head. On the contrary, he displays all the frailty of human nature, as evidenced by the measures he takes to try and become successful. True, that he does work hard at studying but it is apparent that he works equally hard at doing everything possible to win the approval of wealthy, successful people like Norton: " ... It was advantageous to flatter rich white folks. Perhaps he'd give me a large tip, or a suit, or a scholarship next year." (p. 5) Ellison portrayal of the invisible man is, therefore, that of a sycophant and an individual without self-respect and dignity.
In addition, Ellison makes it amply evident that, for the invisible man, positive measures such as studying and hard work were simply not good enough to assure his success. Achieving his ambition also meant playing up to the white folks while simultaneously distancing himself from his own heritage: " ... For a moment I had almost allowed an old, southern backwardness which I had thought dead to wreck my career." (p. 394) Success, therefore, was the holy grail at whose altar the invisible man sees fit to sacrifice all decent values such as dignity and self-respect.
Ellison's invisible man also displays a rather calculating nature in his quest for social recognition and success. For instance, he is enthralled by Barbee's sermon, following which he resolves to "learn the platform tricks of the leading speakers. And I would make the best of my contacts. When I met the big men ... I would put on my best manner ...." (p. 143)
Interestingly, by portraying the invisible man as an individual with highly questionable values, Ellison spares neither the whites nor the blacks in his effort to establish that social success is usually gained through a loss of individual values, dignity, and freedom. Indeed, it is this aspect of Invisible Man that makes it a work of universal relevance, and of validity to all cultures and societies. For, it effectively illustrates the price that inevitably must be paid in any blind quest for social success.
The invisible man, too, eventually pays the price for his misguided behavior and values, as his quest for success leads to disappointment and finally, disillusionment. To start with, if it hadn't been for the invisible man's pandering to Norton, he may never have been expelled from college. But, while the invisible man's actions here may invite contempt, his naivety in not recognizing that power can also be covertly exercised must be acknowledged as well. In fact, this is perhaps the only point where the invisible man's strategy for success differs from that of Dr. Bledsoe: "Hadn't I seen him approach white visitors ... with his hat in hand, bowing humbly and respectfully?" (p. 92) However, what the invisible man fails to realize is that Dr. Bledsoe is merely wearing a mask, while manipulating the situation to his advantage all the time: "We take these white folks where we want them to go." (p. 88)
The invisible man experiences disappointment after disappointment in New York, as he continues to attempt to succeed socially by placing his faith in the system and doing what he is told. So much so, that the metaphor in the "savage beating of wings" (p. 167) of the aviary in Emerson's room is unmistakable, as it is reminiscent of the invisible man's futile attempts to succeed in a world whose game and rules he has yet to grasp. This indicates that the invisible man's desire and strategy for success does not change for a long time in spite of his frustrations occasionally boiling over, as evidenced by his retaliating against Brockway in the paint factory.
Even when the invisible man joins the brotherhood, it is apparent that he has failed to learn any real lesson from all the disillusionment that he has faced. Although he welcomes with relief that the brotherhood is "a way not limited by black and white," (p. 341), it is evident that his real motives lie in the hope that the organization was one "in which I could reach the very top and I meant to get there." (p. 366) Ultimately, the brotherhood, too, contributes to the invisible man…