Invisible Man

April 4th, 2007

Funny story. I read an excerpt from this book back in high school in English class. And although we weren't going to read the whole book, there was something in that one chapter or one section that strongly appealed to me. What I don't know is what it was. At the time we were doing a lot of reading, so although I was interested, it wasn't practical to pick up the book then and there. Then I forgot about it, and as it is with memories, you never know when you'll remember what you once forgot. So over the years the idea has returned a couple of times, and I didn't act on it. Until a couple of months ago when I actively started looking for it.

The book is Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. And the odd thing is that as I was reading, I kept anticipating that I would remember what it was I liked about it, that "aah, here it is" feeling. But.. it didn't come. So I had the strange sensation of searching for what it was that was supposed to strike me about the book.

The story is told in a first person narrative. The protagonist is a youth from the South whose life story is skimmed with the crucial parts described in detail. He finds himself in New York, where the plot culminates. It is a familiar account (and in fact the character also comes to understand this at the end) of how a wide eyed, well intentioned kid, who is always trying to do the right thing, is raised up into the cold world where no one cares about him. How trying to please everyone, and never straying from the path, is itself filled with a danger of never seeing the truth behind things, of staying naive and ignorant forever. Or rather, until life forces that much more cruel reality upon you, which will happen sooner or later.

There is some kind of despair in this truth I think, because I tend to see people as one of two types. There are those who always try to be correct, to obey their parents, to do what people expect of them. Then there are those who challenge authority. And well since I was never the former, I suspect that those who always try to be correct do so out of fear that otherwise they will get in trouble, make life harder for themselves. And as long as they stay on the path, they will always be safe. And there's a fallacy in that, because there isn't always a path, the path may end at some point, and you have to make a choice until it continues again. Not only that, as long as you have that mindset of following a path set out for you, you're also vulnerable to malicious influence. Because who decides how you should live? If you don't feel up to it, and you let someone guide you, how can you be sure that they will not abuse your confidence in them?

And as a big, happy coincidence, we land right back in the crux of the story. The character, whom Ellison actually does not mention by name, is led by various people in his life, diligently following that path made out for him. The baton passes from one authority figure to the next, as his life progresses. Until eventually, after many deceptions, in their various forms, he frees his mind of the notion that anyone but himself should decide how he should lead his life. In fact, this decision is made right at the end, and exactly what he decides to do is not said.

A more obvious central theme here is plain simply race. Ellison ranges from describing the most primitive notions of racial distinction, in downright vile scenes of drunkenness and complete indecency, to [which is interesting] a far more refined and sophisticated racial discrimination, among people who consider themselves great thinkers, and strong believers in scientific method. As in a cartoon, the culmination of the story is a great social breakdown as riots break out in Harlem, looting, clashes with the police, all of which is described through a fog of confusion and contrasting ideals within the character.

One very strong contrast is the character's social significance, which ranges drastically from completely meaningless, to greatly influential. And moreover this distinction is muddled through the character's own fluctuating perception of that reality.

It is somewhat difficult to offer a conclusion about the book, I'm at a loss in what it is supposed to convey if not.. everything.

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1 Responses to "Invisible Man"

  1. erik says:

    I haven't read the book myself but you made me curious