Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man may be centered on the unnamed narrator of the novel who cannot seem to find himself, but the book has more subtle, possibly unintentional, underlying themes. Throughout the course of the novel, Invisible Man comes across several different women who are all displayed essentially the same: underappreciated and unvalued and often promiscuous. It might have been Ellison’s intent to throw these kinds of women in the novel, or it might just be that Ellison himself is sexist. Regardless, the female figures portrayed in Invisible Man represent the unfortunate truth of the exploitation, degradation, and invisibility of women in society, before the novel and since.
Invisible Man’s first contact with a woman in this novel occurs at the Battle Royale. She is a nude dancer that is described as “a magnificent blonde”(19) who has a “small American flag tattooed upon her belly”(19). While it’s true that some dancers choose it, the narrator shows that she is not one of those women because he “saw the terror and disgust in her eyes”(20). She is not there on her own free will and she is treated like a thing, not as a person. No one actually sees her, her. The men there probably would not have even noticed the woman if she didn’t naturally provoke certain emotions in the men. She is only visible as the producer of certain urges in men. She is shown again as an object when the men start tossing her into the air without regard to her person whatsoever. She was undoubtedly forced into her circumstance by unfortunate events and, like several other women in the novel, was exploited by some dominate male figure.
Women are also exploited by the Golden Day. The girls come to the Golden Day in the first place because they are generally discriminated against in almost every other profession. They are also black, which is like a double-blow to them. Since they are turned away from more respectable jobs like teaching or practicing medicine, they are forced to the Golden Day if they want some income. So they come to the Golden Day and are stuffed into “short, tight-fitting, stiffly starched gingham aprons”(74) and made to parade around to attract male customers. It is inferred that the women are prostitutes as well as waitresses. Invisible Man says that the vets had “their day to visit the girls”(73) of the Golden Day. The women here are seen either. They are only noticed as pretty bodies that carry around ones food. Just like the blonde, they are being exploited for the benefit of their employer. Once again, a positive female image is nowhere to be found. Ellison shows women not only being exploited, but also them being promiscuous and degraded.
Invisible Man also comes across two, essentially the same, white women while in Harlem. One of them, a neglected unnamed wife of a man called Hubert who works for the Brotherhood, gets the narrator to come with her back to her place to talk about the Brotherhood. She is also, once again, “so striking that [he] had to avert [his] somewhat startled eyes”(411) and seductive, like the blonde. What ends up happening is she wants to do a bit more with Invisible Man than have him “teach [her] the beautiful ideology of the Brotherhood”(415). She is also shown to be very weak in the presence of a man. She is “afraid”(413) of Invisible Man and also emotional calling his voice “so powerful, so—primitive”(413) that is makes he “tremble just to think of such vitality”(413) This is showing a representation of the inferiority of a woman next to a man. They are not thought to be equal at this time, almost a second-class citizen.
The other woman he meets is named Sybil who he met at a bar. The same events unfold similar to what happened with Hubert’s wife. He ends up going home with her and finds out she wants Invisible Man to do something to her that one of her friends experienced. She ends up being “more interested in the drinks”(516) than in their conversation and ends up telling him that she is “a nymphomaniac”(519). She seems to need to be wanted by strong or powerful men. The narrator wonders if women are “taught to worship all types of power”.(520) Sybil doesn’t have any independence of her own. These portrayals of woman show them as almost whorish and unintelligent. They are shown as vulgar, uncontrolled, undisciplined, and only interested in sex, a disgusting image of a woman. The least Ellison could have done would be to throw in a positive female figure in somewhere, at least as a comparison between the two.
Throughout the novel there is maybe only one woman that is shown as a good, regular person. All the other female figures are shown as weak, inferior, exploited, or degraded. Many could easily be compared to prostitutes or other women of such professions. Many of them are exploited or used in the worst way. For example Trueblood raped his own daughter. Mr. Norton probably didn’t actually see his daughter. He seemed to see her only as a beautiful girl that he could not believe was actually his. The women in this novel are as invisible as Invisible Man. Nobody looks at their personality or characteristics, which are also not really described except negatively. It is ironic that the only person who actually sees and tries to actually understand and talk with the girls is the other invisible person in the book, the narrator. Everything is negative when it comes to women: an unfair representation. Ellison decides to focus more the degradation of females rather than uplifting them, for reasons unknown. This theme of the novel definitely has its counterpart in present day life. The degradation and exploitation of women is a serious issue. But, based solely on this novel, it would indeed seem that “the conquerors conquered.”(520)
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison