Friday, September 04, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Title: Invisible Man
Author: Ralph Ellison
Year: 1952
Reason for reading: Battle of the Prizes Challenge

Meet the invisible man. As he so clearly tells us himself:
"... I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.... When [people] approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination -- indeed, everything and anything except me."
His invisibility occurs "because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom [he] come[s] in contact."

The narrator is an African American man who has worked diligently to become an integral member of a free society. He listens and follows instructions carefully so that he might learn how to join himself to this new equality. He even submits to humiliation from those in power in order to gain a college scholarship to a "state college for Negroes."

The narrator is academically successful and very positive about his future. He envisions using his learning and success to contribute to the betterment of society. Unfortunately, by following instructions and being truthful he unwittingly allows a white trustee of the college to see the reality of black life in the South. For this, his scholarship is rescinded and he is expelled. The college director is furious and says to him: "Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of an education are you getting around here?" The shamed and confused narrator packs his bags and moves to New York City. Here he plans to earn enough money so that he might return to college and again work toward that goal of true societal equality.

The narrator's persuasive speaking style brings him to the attention of The Brotherhood, a mixed race group that purportedly champions equality for all. He becomes a Brotherhood spokesman and believes he has found likeminded individuals. Over time, the narrator again discovers that he is a pawn in a larger agenda that has nothing to do with equality or the betterment of society. It is at this point that the narrator decides to "hibernate" and disassociate himself from the chaotic and senseless society in which he has found himself. He is tired of trying to make a difference in a world in which the rules, and even truth, seem to change at the whim of the powerful.

I read this quite lengthy novel in two parts because I lost interest about half way through and took a break. Once I finished the book, I was underwhelmed and disappointed that I was unable to find the supposed brilliance of the author and the story. I've been sitting on this review for quite awhile because I honestly didn't know what to say. I'm glad I waited. Watching a news story the other day, I suddenly had an "aha" moment. You see, I had been looking at Invisible Man as a story about race and the discrimination of African Americans ... and it is very much the story of one black man's struggle in mid-20th century America. But, the story has a much deeper layer to it that I was missing. I wasn't listening to what Mr. Ellison calls the "lower frequenc[y]." The author was writing on behalf of all of us. Anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of or been manipulated by those with more power; anyone who has ever been let down because they put their whole heart into something that really wasn't as it was presented; anyone who has ever felt invisible; anyone who has ever become wearied by societal chaos and lost the will to try and make a difference within that chaos. Somehow I missed Mr. Ellison's last and most important point, and it is this point that made me finally see the brilliance of this novel. I'll let his narrator tell you:
"Even hibernations can be overdone.... Perhaps that's my greatest social crime, I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.
'Ah,' I can hear you say, 'so it was all a build-up to bore us with his buggy jiving. He only wanted us to listen to him rave!' But only partially true: Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:
Who know but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" (emphasis mine)

Invisible Man is my review of a National Book Award winner for The Battle of the Prizes reading challenge.


  1. Isn't it interesting how books sometimes don't really click for us until after we've had a chance to mull them over--and anything can trigger it, like the news story for you. You've written a great review, Terri. I'll have to look into this one further.

  2. You know, I love it when that happens - when thinking about a book finally leads to that "ah-ha!" moment.

  3. Well, you managed to get me interested in this book! :) And, yes, a-ha moments when reading -or afterwards- are wonderful.


  4. Thanks for the review and participating in the Battle of the Prizes challenge! I linked your review in the wrap up post.

  5. I'm glad that you let this one sink in a little bit--sometimes it takes a little mulling over. I read this one for a course several years ago and would like to revisit it--especially as I can't remember how I felt about it (other than that it was work!)

  6. The books which click after I've had time to ponder on it are really special. I feel more of a connect with the book then, sometimes more than other books where I get the message as I go along.

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