Thursday, October 4, 2012

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (11 down, 89 to go)

I try belatedly to study the lesson of my own life ~ the invisible man

This is the first time I've read Invisible Man or Ralph Ellison. It is a modernist, existential, first person narrative of - the invisible man - who is never named. It is the agonizing tale of an African-American man, set mostly in 1930s, Harlem, New York. 


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, I need to point out that Invisible Man by Ellison is not to be confused with The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. If only someone had pointed this out to me, I wouldn’t have first read the latter, which was entertaining but hardly worthy of such high status. I caught my error when I started to prepare my blog entry, and checked the list to get the publication date, I noticed the author, slapped my forehead, and felt rather silly. I am glad however, that I caught the mistake before posting a review of Wells’ novel. In spite of this accidental detour, I will not be renaming my quest The 100 Greatest, Plus One Reasonably Entertaining but Hardly Great, Novels Quest.

So now about Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: I must admit there is much I don’t understand about this important novel. It is written from the perspective of an African-American man in the first half of the 20th Century. Reading his account offers insight, but can't truly make me understand his lot in life. So, if any of my commentary is wildly off the mark, I’d welcome alternative views.

I have not read extensively about Ellison himself, but I get the sense Invisible Man is based on his own perceptions of African-American life, though not quite autobiographical. The entire first person narrative is told by an unnamed African-American man, who is born and raised in the south and moves to New York (Harlem) in early adulthood, probably in the 1930s. The fact that the central figure is unnamed is doubtless intentional as it contributes to the title and theme of invisibility. The narrator, or invisible man, states:


I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

I believe this is an important novel, and timely, but I am reluctant to be more precise. I think there are lessons the invisible man learned that could serve African-Americans well, but I don't have the right to suggest it. Ellison on the other hand does, and I believe, at least in part, that was his intent. Take it or leave it.

Ellison did a marvelous job of making me empathize with the invisible man. I was angry at the injustice he faced, and stung bitterly by those who betrayed him. Ellison uses brilliant and subtle symbolism, such as Jack. Jack was a white leader in the Marxist brotherhood and a supposed friend and ally of the invisible man. Not until near the end of the story is the narrator aware that Jack has a glass eye. I think it symbolizes that Jack could see the narrator, and yet not see him. The leaders of the brotherhood never really saw African-Americans as brothers, they were assets used, and sometimes sacrificed to their own agenda. Similarly, the fact that the narrator was unaware of Jack’s half blindness symbolizes his own blissful ignorance that he was being used.

Overall, a great novel. It wouldn’t be quite correct to say I enjoyed it. There was too much injustice and ignorance left unanswered. But it is powerful and compelling, and also somewhat outside my comfort zone. Not the sort of novel I’d pick up on my own if it wasn’t on the list. I’m glad it was.

I was particularly happy, that in spite of the gross injustices he suffered, the invisible man remained hopeful.

But the world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase - still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.


Film Renditions: As I understand it, Ellison would not allow a film to be produced. There is supposedly a documentary about Ellison with dramatic portrayals of certain scenes interspersed, but I have not seen it.



  1. Funny that we both started our posts with a clarification of the right novel. : D Ellison needs to lift the ban on writing a screenplay. I think his is an important message. Some time later, I found this and thought it reminded me of Invisible Man.

    1. P.S. Except he can't lift the ban now b/c he died in the early 90s.


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