Fiction Analysis: Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

I didn’t know much about Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” before I picked it up. I knew it was a semi-popular classic, I also knew that Obama shaped his memoir after the image of this work. It’s a prominent work of African-American literature. This also happens to be the first book I will study as a part of my writing apprenticeship.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. 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. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

How powerful is that? This is the first paragraph of the prologue. These are the first words of the story that you read and how does Ellison deliver? With one of the most powerful paragraphs I can remember. I want to memorize these words and know every intimate detail about them. I’ve thought about this passage a lot since reading them a few days ago but I saved all my analysis for now. So like last time, you will be getting my spontaneous analysis and impression of the work.

“I am an invisible man,” it’s an interesting statement that begs many questions. Of course the first thing I wanted to imagine was something like a ghost, but simultaneously I was trying to understand what other ways he meant it. I find it interesting that he is quantifying himself in these sentences by what he is not after the statement. Since I knew this was a work of a black author, it was easy to decided that he was invisible because of his color. We know the nature of the times (mid 1900s), racism was still rampant despite slavery having been abolished  in the late 1800s. But I’m digressing.

He is quantifying in what way he is invisible. I believe he’s deliberately listing the things those in his target audience would think of first: Edgar Allan Poe and old school Hollywood thrillers. In picturing these things, I immediately have a feeling “old-school”. When juxtaposed to those ideas it seems like the main character’s invisibility is completely disparate and more novel than those things. Also the word ectoplasms works wonderfully there.

By the third and fourth paragraph you get the real glimpse of my earlier digression. He’s not invisible but dejected, ignored.

“Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows…” This following sentence really draws my eye. Not so much for the bodiless head illusion imagery but more for the alliteration in the back half of the sentence. The “S” sound creeps its way into the sentence and doesn’t let go until the end of the end of the sentence. Actually it’s more than that, I didn’t notice at first but the “S” sound actually shifts. At first it’s on the back half of the word “bodiless” and “and “heads” and then it switches to the front of the word. I don’t really know if there is a word for it but it’s really interesting. The phrase following puts the sentence into an even greater context. Referencing the video link above, the way the bodiless head illusion works is by using a simple mirror trick that fools the viewer into thinking the reflected space is real. In this context though, Ellison’s main character is completely surrounded by the mirror, thus making him invisible. It’s very good imagery; its not necessarily the most awe striking one, but it’s impressive in its own right.

The following sentences only go on to support the imagery. He describes what people see when the look into the mirror causing the illusion. I’m picturing passerbys looking at this “mirror” and catching sights of everything and anything. I’m picturing things like a fly passing by, or a cloud in the distance drifting by; insignificant things that one wouldn’t really notice normally but they notice even these things before they notice the man behind the illusion.

That’s about all I got from this passage. I definitely missed something about how it stuck me so profoundly. I’m a bit upset I can’t voice it exactly so, but I at least hope I pointed out something you could appreciate from it. If you think I missed something from the passage, let me know in a comment. If you’d like me to view a passage from another work or want to  recommend a book to me, leave that in the comments too.

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24 thoughts on “Fiction Analysis: Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

  1. I’m not very good at literal interpretation and I’m no expert on African-American literature, unfortunately, but this passage piqued my interest…so I’ll give it a go!

    This sentence caught my attention after I read it a second time – “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.” He first describes himself as a person of flesh, but the last bit, especially the usage of “might even be said” imbues this sentence with a mythical tone that nearly borders on the absurd. It’s a bit like suddenly seeing a unicorn in the desert. If we interpret it along the context of racism, this could be a possible satirical comment on how black people were, and are, still being perceived as less smart than their white counterparts.

    This bit right here was quite startling: “I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.” This sentence did make me think of the potential distorting effects of current media, where information can be subtly manipulated, resulting in the inevitable tendencies of emotional swaying, such that rational thinking becomes impossible in this surge of feeling, or is inevitably coloured by our emotions.

    Who exactly is the victim, and who is the antagonist? Do we see the object in itself, without immediately associating it with restricting labels – that black people just want to lead their lives peacefully without any trouble, which is the main goal for most people living on this planet – or what is around them (black lives matter, riots, fights, blood being spilled), or, even worse; are we seeing what we want to see? These would be some possible points to consider here.

    Your explanation about the bodiless heads is spot-on in describing the undercurrent of illusion, which fits in very well with what he may be trying to show: that black people are simply people, if we can look past these preconceived notions about them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, anything and everything except me.” That’s powerful.
    I recently finished watching Luke Cage, and I really loved the scene in Pop’s shop where they’re talking Black literature and Black hero figures. I have to admit, I’ve never read The Invisible Man, but I have always wanted to.
    This line reminds us that the character is not the one who is invisible. He is made invisible by our own judgments, misunderstandings, fears of that which we don’t know-figments of our imagination and ourselves. I think he is referring to how we sometimes focus so much on those ideas when we see someone who is Black, we forget how to act with him or her as an individual. I don’t understand what it means to be Black, but I do know that people of color experience racism on a daily basis (that line about his mind…many racists deny the intelligence or thinking abilities of people of color. ) I should probably definitely go read it. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I am envisioning this man as a servant or slave. He himself is not seen, or meant to be seen; but when he is around the world for his masters is what it should be. Without him there would be turmoil or disorder that the fragile white gentry can’t bear to imagine.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read Invisible Man when I was a teenager. Profound book. Lilked Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land too. Black Like Me is another good one. I’ve read so many books.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Fiction Analysis: Simon and Garfunkel, A Poem on the Underground Wall | Writings By Ender

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