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RALPH ELLISON AND INVISIBLE MAN
ELLISON BACKGROUND The grandson of slaves, Ralph
Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma.
His father was a construction worker and his mother was a domestic servant.
At an early age Ellison developed an interest in music, particularly jazz
BACKGROUND He planned a career as a jazz
musician and left Oklahoma in 1933 to study music at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. (The institute was founded by Booker T. Washington and served as the model for the black college attended by the narrator in Invisible Man.)
BACKGROUND Ellison moved to New York in 1936 and
settled in Harlem as an employee of the Federal Writer’s Project.
Ellison eventually left for the Merchant Marines, in which he served during World War II.
After the war, Ellison won a Rosenwald Fellowship, which he used to write Invisible Man. The novel was published in its entirety in 1952.
BACKGROUND-LAST SLIDE Steeped in the black experience in
America and the human struggle for individuality, Invisible Man – due to its overwhelming success – was the only novel that Ellison published during his lifetime.
Ellison died in 1994
INVISIBLE MAN - PROLOGUE The Prologue introduces major
themes that define the rest of the novel.
The Metaphors of invisibility and blindness allow for an examination of the effects of racism on the victim and the perpetrator.
PROLOGUE Because the narrator is black,
whites refuse to see him as an actual, three-dimensional person.
Hence he portrays himself as invisible and describes them as blind.
PROLOGUE In a larger literary and
philosophical context is the influence of existentialism, a philosophy that originated in France in the mid-twentieth century, which sought to define the meaning of individual existence in a seemingly meaningless universe.
PROLOGUE This novel proposes to undertake a
similar examination of the meaning of individual existence, but through the lens of race relations in postwar America.
PROLOGUE The narrator’s central struggle
involves the conflict between how others perceive him and how he perceives himself.
Racist attitudes cause others to view him in terms of racial stereotypes-as a mugger, bumpkin or savage.
PROLOGUE The narrator desires his
recognition of his individuality rather than recognition based on these stereotypes.
The “blindness” of others stems from an inability to see the narrator without imposing these alien identities on him.
PROLOGUE The episode with the blond man
and its treatment in the newspaper serve to illustrate the extent of the narrator’s metaphorical slavery.
The man’s insult dehumanizes the narrator, who attacks the man in order to force him to recognize the narrator’s individuality.
PROLOGUE Invisibility is also used to his
advantage as the narrator speaks to us without a name, shrouding himself in another form in order to gain freedom to speak freely.
CHAPTER 1 Begins with the narrator’s
grandfather counseling the narrator’s father to undermine the whites with “yeses and grins” and advises his family to “agree ‘em to death and destruction.”
This shows the grandfather lived a meek and quiet life after becoming a freed slave
CHAPTER 1 The grandfather deems himself a
traitor for his policy of meekness in the face of the South’s enduring racist structure.
For the interest of the family’s self-protection he advises two identities:
CHAPTER 1 1) on the outside they should be
stereotypical “good” slaves and behave as their former masters wish
2) on the inside they should retain their bitterness and hatred.
By following this model, the family can refuse internally to accept second-class status and protect their own self-respect.
CHAPTER 1 They are wearing masks and can
manipulate the white people with manners and can manipulate how other perceive them and how they perceive themselves.
CHAPTER 1 The narrator lives meekly and
receives praise from the white members of his town. His speech urges humility and
submission as the key to advancement for black Americans and proves to be such a success he is invited to present it to the leading white officials of his town.
CHAPTER 1 Here the narrator shows his
“blindness or mask” because he believes that genuine obedience will win him respect and praise.
He is right to an extent as the white men reward him with a briefcase and a scholarship.
They also take advantage of his passiveness as he is forced to join in the battle royal.
CHAPTER 1 The literal blindfolding of the boys is
a metaphor: 1) the men see the boys as animals or
inferior beings 2) the boys lack the ability to see through
the false masks of goodwill that barely conceal the men’s racist motives.
CHAPTER 1 The men force the boys to conform
to the racial stereotype of the black man as a violent, savage, oversexed beast.
The narrator has not yet learned to see behind the masks or veils put up by white society.
CHAPTER 1 When it comes time for the
narrator to give his speech, the white men laugh and ignore him until he makes a slip and says the words “social equality”. The men act with some benevolence
toward the narrator when he embodies the model black citizen
CHAPTER 1 They show their true faces when he
threatens white supremacy.
The narrator’s blind obedience to a good slave role doesn’t free him from racism and the moment he exhibits and individual opinion, the men demand that he assume the role of the “good slave”.
CHAPTER 1 By rewarding him with the briefcase
and scholarship only when he does so, the men restrict his social advancement to their terms.
The term “badge of office” is ironic because the only “office” the narrator has assumed is that of the “good slave” which the men have forced upon him