The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

coverSomehow 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

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

danteImagine a place beyond the universe and time, where the sun never shines, where you can smell dripping, roasting flesh and “sighs and cries and wails [coil] and [recoil] on the starless air, spilling [your] soul to tears.” This is Hell, and this is where Dante Alighieri, the author and narrator of The Inferno, must risk his life and his eternal soul to venture.

It’s Good Friday. The year is 1300. The story begins in a dreamlike, dark forest. Stumbling through literal and symbolic shadows, Dante finds himself mysteriously commanded to travel through the circles of Hell, to observe the sufferings of the damned. Dante is stunned: in his own words, “I felt my senses reel and faint away with anguish. I was swept by such a swoon as death is, and I fell as a corpse might fall to the dead floor of Hell.” And so begins his epic journey into the heart of human evil.

At each level of Hell, Dante observes a different group of sinners being punished, along with mythical monsters that guard them. The book is carefully, meticulously structured; each aspect of each circle holds meaning, and each punishment corresponds allegorically to the sin. From the Falsifiers, whose guts are eternally ripped out of their bodies, to the Thieves, who are locked in a cycle of shape-shifting between human and lizard form in representation of how they stole the substance from others in life, the pace never flags over nine circles, each more imaginative and excruciating than the last. Nor are the sinners simply homogenous metaphors for the sins they committed. They are individuals: in each circle, Dante converses with notable people, including recent popes and Muhammed, the founder of Islam (whom Dante as a medieval Christian believed guilty of disloyalty to the true God).

The Inferno was written over 600 years ago in Italian verse. It is not easy reading. As I worked through it, I found it was jam-packed with references to people and events I’d never heard of; it was a jumble of names, like wandering through the story in a cloud. Reading the footnotes and section prefaces only confused me more. I really wanted to understand the “poetical and architectural brilliance” the footnote author kept referring to, but sometimes I could barely make it through a page without misunderstanding the basic plot, never mind stretch my brain to the heights of metaphorical and allegorical genius Dante had reached. So, about eighty pages in, I found myself wondering the same thing you are probably thinking if you are reading this book review: why read The Inferno?

In retrospect, most of the reasons I originally wanted to read the book had to do with its age. I wanted to learn about history, about the dawn of modern Western literature, to get a seminal perspective on Western civilization. All of those are excellent reasons to read The Inferno, but the most compelling reason has nothing to do with any high-minded intellectual fancies—nothing to do with everything that is insanely hard and scary about The Inferno. It is that even though this book is over 600 years old, even though the language is so archaic you can feel the rust around its edges and it’s full of characters whom you can never quite understand—it’s timeless. The drama of the story, the richness of description, and the flights of imagination still strike a chord, can still give you tiny shivers, like slivers of magic sent through time. That is what is amazing about the Inferno—not what makes it unique, or binds it to its time period, but the fact that it’s still accessible after so long—the fact that you can enter worlds—universes—beyond time, so central to human consciousness and storytelling that they can conjure the same feelings across centuries. The Inferno is breathtaking—and because of this, because it is still so powerful in scope and detail—it speaks to the universality of human experience as well as its diversity. In short, The Inferno may be archaic, and scary, and confusing but it will leave you with hard questions, deep insights, and most of all a new understanding of beauty—and this is what makes it such a masterwork and so worth reading.

Reviewed by Victoria A ’17 for Mr. Mossop’s Literature of the Millennium class

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