Somehow I had never heard of this book before I read it, so I had very little idea of what I was getting into. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, follows an unnamed young African American narrator as he struggles to find his identity and place in society in pre-civil rights movement America.
From the start, Ellison’s novel is dense, powerful, and graphically violent. The story opens by describing a speech the narrator gives to a white audience in order to receive a college scholarship – preceded by a dehumanizing battle royale he is forced to compete in. During the battle royale, he is forced to fight a group of larger, more experienced men until he is bloody and barely conscious, and then made to crawl around on an electric rug grabbing at fake gold coins. All of this dehumanization and violence serves to make his speech calling for peace and cooperation seem weak and comical, thereby appeasing the consciences of his oppressors. Throughout the rest of the novel, the narrator finds himself in similar situations of degradation because of his race, and it is interesting to follow the shifts in how he describes and processes these events as his ideology changes.
The narrator spends most of the first half of the book believing, as he has been taught to, in white superiority and seeking only to be an exceptional member of his race. When a series of encounters at his southern all black college leads to his expulsion, however, he is sent North to seek employment in Harlem, New York. Slowly, New York and the treatment he receives from the various people he interacts with lead the narrator to understand and question the systemic racism he experiences in both the North and the South. He cycles through different levels of disillusionment, serving for a while as a community civil rights organizer, but ultimately finds that his skin color makes him invisible to everyone with real power.
The first person narrative allows for a fascinating documentation of the narrator’s convoluted thoughts and emotions as he processes his experiences. His internal dialogue is frustrating at times but realistic and empathizable as he progresses from a naive, obsequious student to a disillusioned former activist who muses that “my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself.”
In all, Invisible Man was an excellent book that explores themes of race, identity, and discrimination that echo problems in contemporary America with disturbing similarity. Although Ellison’s novel is long and requires close reading, it is eloquently written and well worth the time.
Reviewed by Reed F. ’17 for Literature of the Millennium