Study Guide

Invisible Man Women and Femininity

By Ralph Ellison

Women and Femininity

Chapter 1
Narrator

Another boy began to plead to go home. He was the largest of the group, wearing dark red fighting trunks much too small to conceal the erection which projected from him as though in answer to the insinuating low-registered moaning of the clarinet. He tried to hide himself with the boxing gloves. (1.8)

This young black man is ashamed of his physical attraction to the naked woman. He doesn't want his sexuality to be a source of entertainment for the white men.

I noticed a certain merchant who followed her hungrily, his lips loose and drooling. He was a large man who wore diamond studs in a shirtfront which swelled with the ample paunch underneath, and each time the blonde swayed her undulating hips he ran his hand through the thin hair of his bald head and, with his arms upheld, his posture clumsy like that of an intoxicated panda, wound his belly in a slow and obscene grind. (1.9)

Unlike the embarrassed black boys, the white men openly display their vulgar attraction for the naked woman.

A sea of faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed around us, and in the center, facing us, stood a magnificent blonde – stark naked. (1.7)

Both the young black men and the magnificent blonde are sources of entertainment for the white town leaders; their placement in similar situations reinforces this idea.

Then I became aware of the clarinet playing and the big shots yelling at us. Some threatened us if we looked and others if we did not. (1.8)

In the novel, the black men face a double standard of being seen as either hypersexual or asexual objects.

I felt a wave of irrational guilt and fear. My teeth chattered, my skin turned to goose flesh, my knees knocked. Yet I was strongly attracted and looked in spite of myself. Had the price of looking been blindness, I would have looked…Her breasts were firm and round as the domes of East Indian temples, and I stood so close as to see the fine skin texture and beads of pearly perspiration glistening like dew around the pink and erected buds of her nipples. I wanted at one and the same time to run from the room, to sink through the floor, or go to her and cover her from my eyes and the eyes of the others with my body; to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs forms a capital V. (1.7)

The naked woman's body enraptures the narrator, even though he knows that she is being objectified in a room full of men. This presages his later dilemma with the adoring fan, when his biology ultimately overcomes his ideology. This suggests that sex is at least one area of human life that cannot be systematized and neatly encompassed by ideology.

They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. (1.9)

The white men objectify the naked woman as well as the black men, so this is really just Oppression Central as the white men take advantage of both gender and racial inequalities.

Chapter 2
Narrator

But I'm realizin' that she's a woman now, when I feels her turn and squirm against me and throw her arm across my neck, up where the cover didn't reach and I was cold. She said somethin' I couldn't understand, like a woman says when she wants to tease and please a man. I knowed then she was grown and I wondered how many times it'd done happened and was it that doggone boy. (2.189)

Trueblood remembers the moment he viewed his daughter as a sexual being. He later has sex with her body, suggesting that he sees his daughter's sexuality as something he rightfully has control over.

Chapter 7
Narrator

Most of the time he'll be working, and so much of his freedom will have to be symbolic. And what will be his or any man's most easily accessible symbol of freedom? Why, a woman, of course. In twenty minutes he can inflate that symbol with all the freedom which he'll be too busy working to enjoy the rest of the time. He'll see. (7.19)

The vet suggests that a man's freedom can most easily be found in having sex with a woman, suggesting that dominating a woman's body is liberating.

Chapter 17
Ras the Exhorter

"Women? Godahm, mahn! Is that equality? Is that the black mahn's freedom? A pat on the back and a piece of cunt without no passion? Maggots! They buy you that blahsted cheap, mahn? What they do to my people! Where is your brains? These women dregs, mahn! They bile water! You know the high-class white mahn hates the black mahn, that's simple." (17.146)

Ras the Exhorter clearly does not have an exalted view of women; he is outraged at the thought that the narrator and Brother Clifton are working for the Brotherhood in exchange for women.

Chapter 19
Narrator

And my mind whirled with forgotten stories of male servants summoned to wash the mistress's back; chauffeurs sharing the masters' wives; Pullman porters invited into the drawing room of rich wives headed for Reno – thinking, but this is the movement, the Brotherhood

I was heading for the door, torn between anger and fierce excitement, hearing the phone click down as I started past and feeling her swirl against me and I was lost, for the conflict between the ideological and the biological, duty and desire, had become too subtly confused. (19.70 – 19.71)

This is an incredibly un-sexy love scene. The narrator is torn in a million different directions: She's married! Am I being set up? I'm attracted! This is an unequal sexual relationship – is she just using me?

Chapter 24
Narrator

I looked at the red imprint left by the straps of her bra, thinking, Who's taking revenge on whom? But why be surprised, when that's what they hear all their lives. When it's made into a great power and they're taught to worship all types of power? With all the warnings against it, some are bound to want to try it out for themselves. The conquerors conquered. Maybe a great number secretly want it; maybe that's why they scream when it's farthest from possibility – (24.54)

Here, the narrator speculates that women are socialized into certain types of desires – for instance, that power is erotic. As a white woman, Sybil has been taught to fear the power of the black man, but at the same time she occupies a "greater" position (in relation to the black man) because of her race. This dynamic creates a space where she feels free to ask for rape – not realizing, of course, that not all black men are or want to play rapists.