Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison Invisible Man is a story told through the eyes of the narrator, a Black man struggling in a White culture. The narrative starts during his college days where he works hard and earns respect from the administration. Dr. Bledsoe, the prominent Black administrator of his school, becomes his mentor. Dr. Bledsoe has achieved success in the White culture which becomes the goals which the narrator seeks to achieve.
The narrator’s hard work culminates in him being given the privilege of taking Mr. Norton, a White benefactor to the school, on a car ride around the college area. After much persuasion and against his better judgement, the narrator takes Mr. Norton to a run down Black neighborhood. When Dr. Bledsoe found out about the trip the narrator was kicked out of school because he showed Mr.
Norton anything less than the ideal Black man. The narrator is shattered, by having the person he idealizes turn on him. Immediately, he travels to New York where he starts his life anew. He joins the Brotherhood, a group striving for the betterment of the Black race, an ideal he reveres. Upon arrival in the Brotherhood, he meets Brother Tarp and Brother Tod Clifton who give him a chain link and a paper doll, respectively.
I choose to write about these items because they are symbolic of his struggle in his community fighting for the black people and of his struggle within himself searching for identity. The narrator works hard for the Brotherhood and his efforts are rewarded by being distinguished as the representative of the Harlem district. One of the first people he meets is Brother Tarp, a veteran worker in the Harlem district, who gives the narrator the chain link he broke nineteen years earlier, while freeing himself from being imprisoned. Brother Tarp’s imprisonment was for standing up to a White man. He was punished for his defiance and attempt to assert his individuality.
Imprisonment robbed him of his identity which he regained by escaping and establishing himself in the Brotherhood. The chain becomes a symbol between the narrator and Brother Tarp because the chain also symbolizes the narrator’s experience in college, where he was not physically chained down, but he was restricted to living according to Dr. Bledsoe’s rules. He feels that he too escaped, in order to establish himself again (386). The narrator identifies with Brother Tarp because he too is trying to be an individual free of other people’s control.
He does not want to be seen as a tool to be exploited, but instead as a free-thinking human being. This chain which is an object of oppression becomes a symbol of the link between the two generations, passing on the legacy and pride of Brother Tarp’s accomplishments . Tarp fought for his freedom and rights and now he is passing the chain onto the next generation who will take up his mission. Not only is this chain a symbol of the link between the two men, but it is also serves as a link to the past. Brother Tarp carries it around to remind himself of his imprisonment and his fight for freedom. Similarly, it reminds the narrator of his own past and of the circumstances of events that led to him ultimately working for the Brotherhood. It reminds the narrator of his grandfather, an individual repressed by the system who went through his entire life obsequiously saying yes to all the men in power.
The narrator also spent his life trying to please his superiors and in the end he had lost his identity. He would follow instructions and became a tool to be exploited. For example, he aspired to emulate Dr. Bledsoe, but the older man used him to promote his own power. Additionally, the chain not only serves as a reminder of Tarp’s fight against slavery, but is ultimately used as a weapon of defiance and an implement of strength, as it is used by the narrator during a riot.
Just as Brother Tarp lashed out against slavery and the people that suppressed him, the narrator is metaphorically lashing out at the injustice that he has seen. He ultimately discovers that he and the people of Harlem have been used by the Brotherhood for the promotion of the institution’s power and he is lashing out against this. During the riot, the narrator gets trapped in a hole where he decides to stay in isolation and search for his own identity. The other symbol that is relevant to the narrator is a paper doll given to him by Brother Clifton. Brother Clifton, another member of the Brotherhood, is a dashing young Black man who is sympathetic to the narrator’s ideas.
Brother Clifton was an individual who seemed to be stable and seemed to enjoy success in the brotherhood, but he mysteriously disappeared. Clifton is next found by the narrator selling Sambo dolls on a street corner. The narrator wonders why Clifton, an established and respected member in the Brotherhood, would lower himself to becoming a street merchant. The Brotherhood had shifted some of its emphasis away from Harlem and maybe Clifton felt betrayed because the Brotherhood used him and then left him alone. It is no accident that Clifton was selling puppet dolls because it is symbolic of Clifton’s sense of being played as a puppet by the Brotherhood. The word Sambo is appropriate because it is a term used to describe a Black who is manipulated by Whites.
Clifton sense of worthlessness is so extreme that he almost invites a situation which leads to his demise. He resists arrest in a way that leads to his death because his identity and purpose in life has been stripped away from him. The narrator’s dilemma is similar to that of Brother Clifton. He comes to be convinced that he has been used by people all his life and that this has stripped him of his identity. As Clifton assumes the doll’s identity, the narrator assumes many other people’s identities trying to discover who he is. The best example of this is when he takes the identity of an individual named Rinehart’s.
It is no accident that he chooses someone with no single identity, himself, but rather a chameleon who is a preacher, a gambler and many more personalities. Through this he broadens his horizons on many different lifestyles and possibilities, but despite all these possibilities he cannot find satisfaction. At the end of the novel the narrator continues to fight for his community while the brotherhood shifts its emphasis away from Harlem. He feels betrayed and attempts to destroy the brotherhood. His plan does not work the way he expected it.
Instead of destroying the Brotherhood he invokes the people of Harlem to riot. In the riot he falls down a hole where he goes into isolation. While in isolation he is able to contemplate his situation more clearly and ultimately comes to terms with his identity. Unlike Clifton who feels completely alone and lets himself be killed the narrator decides to, “shake of his old skin” and go back into society.(580). He realizes that the people or institutions (Dr.
Bledsoe and the Brotherhood) he reveres are as flawed as the system they are fighting. He grows to understand what the brotherhood and what Bledsoe could never understand, that individuality does not exclude being part of a group. Ultimately, he learned to be an individual for himself.