Study Guide

Invisible Man Identity

By Ralph Ellison

Identity

Prologue
Narrator

Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music. (Prologue.8)

Here, the connection between jazz and invisibility is more directly laid out.

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. (Prologue.1)

This suggests that people are capable of seeing the narrator, but that they choose not to.

Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one's form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility. (Prologue.6)

The narrator suggests that invisibility is part of his identity.

Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It's when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful. (Prologue.2)

A large part of one's identity is shaped by others' perceptions – without others' perceptions of who he is, the narrator feels lost.

And I love light. Perhaps you'll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form. (Prologue.6)

The narrator loves light because it allows him to see himself. This is part of the light/dark imagery that Ellison utilizes throughout the novel.

I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. (Prologue.2)

The narrator confesses that there are advantages to being invisible, a sentiment that lines up well with the double-consciousness of W.E.B. DuBois. Still, being invisible is most often very frustrating.

Chapter 1
Narrator

And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable. It was as though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself. And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct – just as my grandfather had been. And what puzzled me was that the old man had defined it as treachery. When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. (1.3)

The positive reinforcement the Invisible Man receives only succeeds in confusing his sense of self. He feels undeserving of their praise because of his grandfather's lasting words, which imply that what he's doing is really treachery.

All my life I had been looking for something and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man! (1.1)

For a long time, the invisible man was obedient to the various life paths that society laid out to him as a black man, but here he discovers the existence of an invisible identity, an identity that no one can see.

Chapter 2
Narrator

They were all such a part of that other life that's dead that I can't remember them all. (Time was as I was, but neither that time nor that "I" are any more.) (2.7)

The narrator considers himself to be radically different from the college version of himself – so different that he considers the college version basically dead.

Chapter 3
Narrator

Many of the men had been doctors, lawyers, teachers, Civil Service workers; there were several cooks, a preacher, a politician, and an artist. One very nutty one had been a psychiatrist. Whenever I saw them I felt uncomfortable. They were supposed to be members of the professions toward which at various times I vaguely aspired myself, and even though they never seemed to see me I could never believe that they were really patients. (3.35)

The narrator's belief that occupations serve as good tip-offs of a person's insanity is confused when he goes into the Golden Day. To file under Interesting Theories: Some critics believe that the Golden Day vets represent the black lawyers, politicians, doctors, preachers, etc. that might have come into existence had they not been repressed by white society.

He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn't digest it. Already he is – well, bless my soul! Behold! A walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man! (3.299)

The vet in the Golden Day is the very first to call the narrator invisible, criticizing him for being exactly what white people hope blacks to be.

Chapter 4
Narrator

Here within this quiet greenness I possessed the only identity I had ever known, and I was losing it. In this brief moment of passage I became aware of the connection between these lawns and buildings and my hopes and dreams. I wanted to stop the car and talk with Mr. Norton, to beg his pardon for what he had seen; to plead and show him tears, unashamed tears like those of a child before his parent; to denounce all we'd seen and heard; to assure him that far from being like any of the people we had seen, I hated them, that I believed in the principles of the Founder with all my heart and soul, and that I believed in his own goodness and kindness in extending the hand of his benevolence to helping us poor, ignorant people out of the mire and darkness…If only he were not angry with me! If only he would give me another chance! (4.2)

The narrator's college self is incredibly naïve; here he distinguishes himself (in his mind) from the "bad" black people who are poor, uneducated, and commit incest. He desperately believes in the idea of racial uplift through the helping hand of the white man (in this case, that white man would be named Mr. Norton).

Chapter 6
Narrator

For three years I had thought of myself as a man and here with a few words he'd made me as helpless as an infant. (6.82)

Dr. Bledsoe takes away the narrator's feeling of manliness – this is a moment of rebirth.

Chapter 7
Narrator

Play the game, but play it your own way – part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate – I wish I had time to tell you only a fragment. (7.28)

In other words, the vet tells the narrator to know thyself. Does this passage conflict with, agree with, or complement the grandfather's advice?

Be your own father, young man. And remember, the world is possibility if only you'll discover it. Last of all, leave the Mr. Nortons alone, and if you don't know what I mean, think about it. Farewell. (7.90)

By telling the narrator to be his own father, the vet is telling him to guide and discover opportunities for himself, as opposed to following those who want to give him a path to follow – Mr. Norton, Brother Jack, who are both called 'father' for some reason or other. This also cements the vet as one of the few characters in the novel capable of speaking the truth. And look where that got him.

Chapter 11
Narrator

I had no desire to destroy myself even if it destroyed the machine; I wanted freedom, not destruction. It was exhausting, for no matter what the scheme I conceived, there was one constant flaw – myself. There was no getting around it. I could no more escape than I could think of my identity. Perhaps, I thought, the two things are involved with one another. When I discover who I am, I'll be free. (11.103)

Aha! Does this mean the narrator is free at the end of novel?

Mother, who was my mother? Mother, the one who screams when you suffer – but who? This was stupid, you always knew your mother's name. Who was it that screamed? Mother? But the scream came from the machine. A machine my mother?…Clearly, I was out of my head. (11.83)

Lobotomies mess with your sense of self. Now, your turn to come up with some DHM (Deep Hidden Meaning).

Chapter 13
Narrator

"They're my birthmark," I said. "I yam what I am!" (13.33)

This is the first time the narrator is willing to embrace Southern food in New York, marking an important step towards uncovering his full and complex identity.

What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do? What a waste, what a senseless waste!…I would have to weigh many things carefully before deciding and there would be some things that would cause quite a bit of trouble, simply because I had never formed a personal attitude toward so much. I had accepted the accepted attitudes and it had made life seem simple… (13.37)

Here, the narrator admits his long-time passivity towards his life. He had once been content to merely follow societal dictates, but this quote indicates that he recognizes the need to develop his own opinions.

Chapter 14

"That is your new name," Brother Jack said. "Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment. Get it down so that even if you are called in the middle of the night you will respond. Very soon you shall be known by it all over the country. You are to answer to no other, understand?" (14.133)

…and again, rhetoric of rebirth. Some critics have noted that this moment is similar to how slaves were renamed by their masters, highlighting the idea that the Brotherhood is no better than white enslavers.

"You must realize immediately that much of our work is opposed. Our discipline demands therefore that we talk to no one and that we avoid situations in which information might be given away unwittingly. So you must put aside your past. (14.120)

Notice the rhetoric of rebirth? This suggests that a new identity soon will be fashioned for the narrator.

Narrator

For one thing, they seldom know where their personalities end and yours begins; they usually think in terms of "we" while I have always tended to think in terms of "me" – and that has caused some friction, even with my own family. Brother Jack and the others talked in terms of "we," but it was a different, bigger "we." (14.187)

The narrator is used to thinking for himself and finds it difficult to speak for an entire group of people.

Chapter 16
Narrator

Perhaps the part of me that observed listlessly but saw all, missing nothing, was still the malicious, arguing part; the dissenting voice, my grandfather part; the cynical, disbelieving part – the traitor self that always threatened internal discord. Whatever it was, I knew I'd have to keep it pressed down. I had to. For if I were successful tonight, I'd be on the road to something big. (16.7)

The narrator is willing to suppress central parts of his identity in order to fulfill his ambition.

No, I thought, shifting my body, they're the same legs on which I've come so far from home. And yet they were somehow new. The new suit imparted a newness to me. It was the clothes and the new name and the circumstances. It was a newness too subtle to put into thought, but there it was. I was becoming someone else. (16.6)

Ellison really dramatizes the idea that joining the Brotherhood means the narrator is becoming a whole new person.

Chapter 17
Narrator

And it went so fast and smoothly that it seemed not to happen to me but to someone who actually bore my new name. I almost laughed into the phone when I heard the director of Men's House address me with profound respect. My new name was getting around. It's very strange, I thought, but things are so unreal for them normally that they believe that to call a thing by name is to make it so. And yet I am what they think I am. (17.195)

By joining the Brotherhood, the narrator has been reborn. Here we see the faint glimmers of his understanding that identity is a fluid construct.

And the Brotherhood was going out of its way to make my name prominent. Articles, telegrams and many mailings went out over my signature – some of which I'd written, but more not. I was publicized, identified with the organization both by word and image in the press. On the way to work one late spring morning I counted fifty greetings from people I didn't know, becoming aware that there were two of me: the old self that slept a few hours a night and dreamed sometimes of my grandfather and Bledsoe and Brockway and Mary; the self that flew without wings and plunged from great heights; and the new public self that spoke for the Brotherhood and was becoming so much more important than the other that I seemed to run a foot race against myself. (17.198)

As the narrator's self is being sundered or cut in two, we can see the faintest hints of Brotherhood manipulation as the narrator is pushed to embody the Brotherhood to Harlem.

Chapter 23

Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway?…His world was possibility and he knew it. (23.203)

More fluidity of identity business here. Can the narrator take on such contradictory personas? Probably not (we'd imagine it'd be hard to combine a career as a pimp and a reverend), but this epiphany opens the door to the narrator's understanding of identity as being extremely complex.

He was around and others like him, but I had looked past him until Clifton's death (or was it Ras?) had made me aware. What on earth was hiding behind the face of things? If dark glasses and a white hat could blot out my identity so quickly, who actually was who? (23.151)

After the narrator dons a disguise, he understands the fluidity of identity.

Narrator

Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music. (Prologue.8)

Unawareness of one's invisibility leads to great art, but awareness of invisibility leads to comprehension.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...