by Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man Theme of Memory and the Past
Most of Invisible Man takes place in the narrator's memory, which inherently brings up issues of how well memory works – in other words, the nameless narrator character is choosing specific scenes to portray in specific ways; the entire novel is written from his perspective. Aside from this observation, memory and the past are also important in the novel as the narrator reflects on his past and uses the perspective to derive new feelings and opinions on his experiences. Although the Brotherhood tells him to put aside his past, we see that the narrator's personal journey requires him to square with his past, to acknowledge and embrace it.
Questions About Memory and the Past
- Imagine if Invisible Man was written minus the Prologue, meaning, imagine if the story was not told retrospectively. What effect would this have on the story?
- As the narrator is telling his story, he doesn't inject commentary into it. For example, he tells of receiving his battle royal briefcase with gratitude and joy, when from his current vantage point in the manhole, he understands the gesture from the white leaders to be richly imbued with racism. What is the effect of this narrative choice?
- Why is confronting his past so important to the narrator? Is it important to any other characters?
Chew on This
Because one's past helps comprise one's identity as a person, the narrator learns to embrace it rather than renounce its perceived shameful parts, as he was originally taught to do.