Thursday, March 30, 2023

Remembering His Invisibility

Invisible Man
Invisible Man 

“I remember that I'm invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.”   ― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Beginning with a prologue that reminds the reader of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Ralph Ellison creates one of the best first novels I have ever read. His writing in Invisible Man, while filled with literary references, is truly in the tradition of the great American novel as he pens the evolution of a modern underground man. His protagonist grows invisible to those who look beyond him as he experiences disappointment in the hypocrisy of white and black men alike. The result is a novel that rejects conventional social protest to proclaim the humanity of the individual by making him invisible.

In a similar manner to Dostoevsky's Underground Man, Ellison begins the story by telling us that the only thing he has accomplished in the world is to experience rejection from it, but at least he has opened his mind to its essence. The protagonist of Dostoyevsky's novel was addressing the naive idealism of Russian social reformers of the time, who believed that equality and justice would come about through labor and effort. The main character of Ellison is aware of this presumption as being Booker T. Washington's thinking. He quotes a Washington speech to the town's white elite in the opening chapter, however it is not credited to Washington. Instead of saying "social responsibility," which causes the storyteller to choke, he or she says "social equality," earning the ire of the audience.

The protagonist of the book describes his existence as a black man in modern-day (1930s or 1940s) America. His experiences have exposed every aspect of civilization and every social lie. The understanding is dark, yet at its core, it belongs to a lone, invisible human being. Therefore, the narrator waits in what he refers to as "hibernation" at a subterranean location. According to him, "a hibernation is a concealed preparation for a more overt action," and "not every sickness is unto death, neither is invisibility," thus he believes he may return to the world. But by the end of the story, we know that he will continue to live underground, at least psychologically.

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