Literature Commentary: Invisible Man

31 Aug

(Originally published April 27, 2009)

After seeing selections from this book on the SAT and AP exams, I figured it was probably time to read Ralph Ellison’s modern classic “Invisible Man.” Normally, I’m not a big fan of “multicultural” literature, but I do believe in being sensitive toward other cultures and ethnic groups. So I promptly checked out “Invisible Man” from our library and packed it along to read during the campout this past weekend.

A brief note: this book is completely distinct from H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel “The Invisible Man.” There is no connection, despite the similar titles.

The book follows the titular Invisible Man, who is never given a name. The Invisible Man is a bright, hopeful African-American student with great ambitions for racial reconciliation. After witnessing firsthand the sharp conflict between blacks and whites – as well as between peaceful African-Americans and violent Black Nationalists – he hope to play a role in unifying a country that appears ever more sharply divided along racial lines. The Invisible Man goes on to settle in Harlem, where he joins an influential organization known as the Brotherhood. Using his oratorical skills, he quickly wins the respect of the black populace, yet draws ire from many of the rich white leaders of New York City.

But the seeds of racial hatred are already beginning to bear their ugly fruit. Enter the villain: a malevolent Black Nationalist calling himself Ras the Destroyer. As the book builds to its climax, Ras instigates a race riot in Harlem, and anarchy engulfs the borough. Despite the influence he has gained over much of the black population, the Invisible Man is powerless to stop the madness and destruction.

As the book concludes, the Invisible Man finds him trapped in a pitch-black coal cellar. To obtain light, he burns first his high school diploma, then several other papers that have had a formative effect upon his adult life. The symbolism here is obvious: all he has accomplished is futile, consumed in an instant by an insatiable, devouring force – the scourge of racial conflict. It’s a cold, bitter, brutal, and ultimately disheartening conclusion to a book that starts out grim and only gets worse from then on. The very last scene in the book is a nightmare in which the Invisible Man finds himself taunted, beaten, and finally emasculated by his enemies – both white and black. Harsh.

So is it worth reading?

Maybe, if you’re interested in gaining a better understanding of the racial struggles of the past. Ellison certainly does a good job of conveying the disillusionment experienced by the Invisible Man. But on the other hand…he fails to truly suggest any solution to the problems of discrimination and hatred. There is plenty of despair and misery in “Invisible Man”, but never any hope of a better future to come.

Then-Senator Barack Obama titled his most recent book, “The Audacity of Hope.” There is no “Hope” or “Yes, We Can” in Ellison’s monochromatic universe. There is Black, and there is White – a gap which is never successfully bridged by any major character. “Invisible Man” is dark and violent and very, very grim.

Not exactly pleasant bedtime reading.

(Note: “Invisible Man” contains strong language and extremely disturbing mature themes that put it off-limits for young or sensitive readers.)

Well-written, but depressingly bleak and hopeless.


Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Contemporary


2 responses to “Literature Commentary: Invisible Man

  1. Evelyn

    April 10, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    I’m failing to see why you give this novel a 4/10. You say it is ‘depressingly bleak and hopeless’; I’m assuming by this you mean the plot. However even if you believe this, surely it cannot denote such a badly given ‘score’. The ending is one of rebirth, as he decides that his period of hibernation is over. You say the narrator gives us no solutions to the racial problems he faces yet clearly the solution lies in the act of storytelling. Literature and art can transcend through racial and political barriers, (he was quite Emersonian in this sense). There has been much criticism over whether the novel achieves any political relevance but you cannot deny the pure skill that has gone into the making of this text. The idea that art can promote social action is what should give Ellison’s work a 10/10. A piece of advice to you my friend, is to read the novel again.

    • literaryanalysis

      April 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm

      This theory of literary criticism implies a level of meta-interpretation not delineated in the work itself. That being said, I’d be willing to give it a second shot (esp. with a more postmodern literary theory in mind). I think, though, Ellison’s work precedes such an interpretive mechanic…in which case my initial criticisms would apply.


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