by Ralph Ellison
When authors refer to other great works, people, and events, it’s usually not accidental. Put on your super-sleuth hat and figure out why.
Literature, Philosophy, and Mythology
The Bible: "Render unto Caesar that which was Caesar's…" (5.22)
Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (9.160)
James Joyce (16.133)
W. B. Yeats (16.133)
Sean O'Casey (16.133)
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness (epilogue.26)
Although Invisible Man's focus on black identity in white America places the novel squarely in the genre of African-American literature, Ellison is very much operating in, and drawing on, the full Western canon. While he doesn't specifically cite these allusions, those with a serious English education would recognize the works that Ellison draws on. We thought this was cool and would shed greater light on certain passages, so without further ado:
- Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: As the title might definitely suggest, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky's story has quite a bit in common with our nameless narrator – namely, they both live underground. Both are haunted by the necessity of hibernation before action, but where Dostoyevsky's character remains underground and miserable, our narrator ends on a more optimistic note. This is a loose association, but it's definitely there. Read Ellison's introduction if you don't believe us.
- The Odyssey by Homer: There are at least two interesting references to the Odyssey that we picked up on. The first is the magnificent blonde, who the narrator describes as "a fair bird-girl girdled in veils calling to me from the angry surface of some gray and threatening sea." If that wasn't a reference to the Greek sirens that Odysseus encounters on his way home from Troy (check out Odyssey within Shmoop if you're lost here), then we don't deserve our paychecks. Portraying the magnificent blonde in this way connects to the narrator's powerlessness to reject his adoring fan even when his rational mind tells him to get the hell out of the situation. The second reference concerns Brother Jack, whose one eye may be a reference to the Cyclops in the Odyssey. We were skeptical of this at first, but then we re-read a few passages and – get this – Brother Jack's one eye is described as "cyclopean." We have nothing significant to say about this, except that it's there.
- Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust: In Chapter Thirteen, the narrator bites into a yam and is immediately reminded of his childhood and home. If you want lengthier forays into the intersections of food and memory, pick up Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. The author eats into a madeleine (which he describes in excruciating detail) and immediately recollects his childhood in Belle Epoque France. In Invisible Man, Ellison does Proust one better by imbuing the moment with not only a definitive character transformation (the narrator is no longer ashamed of his past), but by the consumption of a second, frostbitten yam. What could that possibly mean? Is it a commentary on how you can't really return to childhood? That something so delicious looking on the outside can be very, very bad inside? Was it very cold that day? Is there a famous work of literature with a frostbitten yam scene? What's at stake in understanding the frostbitten yam?
Frederick Douglass (17.189 and recurring)
While Harlem is a real place historically linked to black culture, it's just about the only location that Ellison explicitly references. While the items below should not be considered exact or explicit references, we thought we'd highlight some things to help you put in context certain ideas presented by Ellison:
- The Brotherhood: A multi-racial doctrinaire organization professing to uphold the rights of all who are socially oppressed, the Brotherhood may have been drawn from the American Communist Party, where Ellison worked for a number of years. Its emphasis on the collective, the rational, the scientific, and the abstract makes it a very cold ideology that's often at odds with the narrator's own. The narrator's feelings of betrayal when the Brotherhood informs him that Harlem is no longer a locus of attention may have been drawn from Ellison's feelings when the American Communist Party shifted its focus away from blacks in the 1940s.
- The narrator's college: Said to be modeled after the Tuskegee Institute, a school founded by Booker T. Washington in the interests of educating newly freed slaves. Also Ralph Ellison's alma mater.
- Invisibility as both good and bad; contributions of black America are essential: In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois articulates his theory of the double-consciousness possessed by blacks. According to DuBois, blacks know and understand what it is to be both an American as white Americans understand it and what it is to be a black American. DuBois thought this had both ups and downs. On the one hand, it was extremely tough to be a black American for many of the reasons articulated in Invisible Man – ambition is thwarted, you have to pander to the whites, etc. On the other hand, however, their race allows blacks special insight into America. Since the American freedom is unrealized for blacks, they have a unique ability to understand true progress. In order for the American promises of freedom to be fulfilled, DuBois thus argues, the black contribution is vital.
- Racial Uplift Through Humility and Hard Work: This concept, which is espoused by the Founder (indirectly), Rev. Barbee, and Mr. Norton, has its roots in the work of Booker T. Washington, who (as discussed above) founded the Tuskegee Institute. A black leader prominent in the post-Civil War era, he has drawn criticism for being much too conservative and accommodating to white society. There is evidence, however, that his public work of accommodation differed greatly from his private work, which pushed the envelope more than he let on. A more explicit connection to Booker T. Washington in Invisible Man (aside from that time the narrator quotes him in his speech), comes in Chapter One, when the narrator writes of his grandparents: "About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand." This is a direct allusion to Washington's 1895 Atlanta Compromise address, when he said, "In all things purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." This is the most conservative approach in the discussion on black America.
- Ras the Exhorter: He may have been loosely based on the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who headed a back-to-Africa movement. While not as extreme as Ras, Marcus did believe that blacks had to better their lives by banding together, as opposed to obtaining help from white America.
Dvorak's New World Symphony (5.81)