Many books have been written depicting life during a racist and segregated time in history. They all tell a different story of how a black man or black woman grew up during those times and the poverty they faced. They had to go through many difficulties in order to survive. This often led to the character having trouble finding his own true self and his role in society. The story of a man trying to find his true identity is shown through the novel Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man explains the different hardships a black man has to go through while living in a world filled with racism. He goes through many obstacles in order to find his true identity.
Invisible Man was published in 1952 by author Ralph Ellison. He uses many racial issues in his novel to express the universal dilemmas of identity and self-discovery (Hicks 1 of 4). Ellison began writing Invisible Man at the end of World War II while he served as a cook. He was also the editor of the Negro Quarterly and continued his novel (Hicks 1 of 4). Yet, this book gave Ellison a wide critical success among both whites and blacks. Many have concluded that the book is richly textured with ways a black man tries to find his true identity in a very racist society (Calendar). Millions of copies have been printed and are still being used in universities and schools throughout the country (Thorman 1 of 4). According to Irving Howe, “…Invisible Man is a Negro novel…it tells us how distant even the best of the whites are from the black men that pass them on the streets…” (Howe 1 of 2). However, many critics do not see the novel the same way as others do.
According to one critic,
From the start, ‘Invisible Man’ was a book that changed the way white Americans thought about black Americans. It also changed the way
black Americans thought about themselves. And it also caused major
disputes among both black and white critics (Thorman 1 of 4).
Thorman was correct that the novel caused disputes among blacks and whites. Many black critics stated that the book was too difficult to read (Thorman 2 of 4) and even though the narrator is a black man he acts as if he corresponds to all other races no matter what skin color or where they were born (Thorman 4 of 4). White critics responded by refusing to accept the fact that a black writer did not write from direct anger at whites. They did not want him to write from his mind, but more from his skin color (Thorman 2 of 4).
Racism is a big factor throughout the novel. The character is forced to live in a society in which he is ridiculed because of the color of his skin (Rand 5 of 12). Racism can be defined as a way a person is judged, not by character and actions, but rather by their characters and actions of his ancestors. A man’s convictions, values, and character are determined before he is born by the physical forces which he cannot control (Rand 3 of 12). A man’s internal body chemistry transmits a man’s intellectual and character traits (Rand 1 of 12).
According to Ayn Rand,
Like every form of determinism, racism invalidates the specific attribute which distinguishes man from all other living species: his rational faculty. Racism negates two aspects of man’s life: reason and choice, or mind and morality, replacing them with chemical predestination (Rand 1 of 12).
Racists often attempt to prove the superiority of a certain race by the historical achievements of some of its members. However Ayn Rand states that, “…a culture is not the anonymous product of undifferentiated masses, but the sum of the intellectual achievements of individual men.” (Rand 2 of 12). In the novel, there are many examples of black men struggling to get away from the racism that is directed towards them. For example, at the beginning of the book the main character and other black men are forced to fight for gold coins without getting shocked by the mat (Ellison 21). They are laughed at and verbally abused by the white men who are making a total mockery of the negroes (Ellison 22). Because of being treated in such a way, the main character is forced to live underground in a cellar so he can try to find a way to solve his relationship problem with the society. In his cellar, there are no colors anywhere showing his opposition to being treated differently based on his skin color (Hicks 2 of 4). In this type of society, identity is the hardest to achieve in finding.
Throughout the novel, Ellison gives his main character no name indicating his invisibility in the book (Rose 1 of 1). He lives in a world where he is unable to find his identity because of the prejudice and hostility that takes place in society (Hicks 2 of 4). The character is given his identity in the book by many groups and individuals on different slips of paper telling him what his role in the world is (Rose 1 of 1). Individual identity is the most important step in finding one’s true self. It is relatively dependent on the environment in which the person lives in (Ray 1 of 4). As mentioned in the prologue of the book, “I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber
and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” (Ellison 3 of 3). The absence of identity often leads to a person feeling invisible in society. A person’s skin color is often the primary reason in a person feeling invisible. For example, once someone has seen a black man, people automatically limit his ability to perform tasks successfully in society (Rose 1 of 1). This causes the person to feel very lonely and withdraws himself from society. In Invisible Man, the main character portrays this example very well. Ellison mentions in his prologue that, “A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” (Ellison 3 of 3). No body, neither black nor white, in the novel sees the main character as himself. They all see him as a black man and judge him accordingly. The “Invisible Man” is forced to only express thoughts and feelings that the white people give them. Because of that the black people become less human and more invisible (Ellison 1 of 3). In order for a man to find his identity he must achieve individualism.
According to Ayn Rand,
Individualism regards man as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights (Rand 3 of 12).
Individual identity and social identity are both defined differently in society. Individuality identity is about defining which individual a person is concerned with. Social identity is about understanding what type of person someone is (Ray 1 of 4). The
individual of a person is based on the core of reputation, control, and motivation (Ray 2 of 4). Others in society help shape how a person views themselves and how they act towards each other. In the novel, the main character is unable to achieve this step in finding his individuality. The people in his society communicate with him but this does not help him at all. This instead disables him longer from finding his identity because the people treat him in such a way that he still is not able to see who he really is. High identification in society helps enhance the accessibility of self-identity (Ray 1 of 4). The main character throughout the book encountered many different situations where people have forced him to act a certain way. He tries to see into the different “identities” that he is given but he still finds it difficult to find who he really is (Rose 1 of 1).
In conclusion, Ralph Ellison succeeds in describing life of a black male in a racist society. He explains in great detail how the main character was unable to find his true identity because the environment around him refused to let him see who he really is. The “Invisible Man” in the book went through many situations in which he had difficulty in getting through because of the way white people treated blacks back then. They were treated with the least respect and were never seen for who they really were. White people would assume that the blacks were only allowed to act in a way that the whites accepted and how they told them to act. By being told by others on how to live and act, the blacks
were shunned from society and were not able to show their true selves to the people around them. This leads to much isolation and loss of identity.