Book Review: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

 Invisible Man


Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, (not to be confused with The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells) is one of the best books you will ever read. It is brilliantly written, is from the point of view of a man, and does not go heavily into love and sex. It is therefore high on the list of Man Lit. It is a riotous and violent ride, and one that is difficult to put down.

Ellison starts the story at the end, where our hero is in his lightbulb-filled room in the cellar of a building, telling what happened to him, and bragging about the fact that he is stealing the electricity for his room, which is his way of getting back at society.

He begins as a promising young black man in the south wanting to go to college, and ends up a somewhat older man living in the room I have described. We never learn the name of the protagonist of the story, which I suppose adds to the notion of his invisibility. He is not really invisible, but he feels that people don’t see him.

Through a series of events and misfortunes, none of which are his fault, he is kicked out of college, fails at several other endeavors, and ends up in the cellar full of light.

The book, written in 1947 and published for the first time in 1952, on the surface deals with the treatment of blacks in the United States at that time. There is a certain amount of description as to how that was, but the book does not go overboard, or become preachy. But the book to me is about much more than black men living in a white world. In fact, the hero could have been any of us. It was not, to me, a black theme, so much as it was a human theme.

Writers are taught never to give the hero what he wants, at least not right off. Ellison had apparently learned that lesson. Nothing the guy did worked out—he was defeated at every turn. No matter what he tried to do, he failed, or the result was different than he expected.

For example, when as a young man he was going to give a speech to a group of white men in the south, for which he would receive some sort of reward, he first had to take part in a “battle royal,” where he and a number of other black men were expected to fight nearly to the death. In the end they fought on an electrified grid. He manages to come through it and give his speech through bloody and swollen lips, but he finally does, and gets a beautiful briefcase and a full scholarship as a prize. During that whole scene, though, I found myself wondering why he didn’t just tell them to go fuck themselves.

He does go to the black college, but because of another white man, ends up being expelled. And so his struggles went, all the way from being kicked out of school to not being able to accomplish even the slightest thing without failure and struggle. Sounded quite familiar to me.

The story is full of symbolism, some of which I suspect was obscure, but some of it was right out there. For example, there is an old iron bank in his room, which was being used as a doorstop, and which happened to be fashioned to look like a black man. He smashes it, but then has to hide it in his briefcase, and finds that he is unable to get rid of it. He ends up toting it around in his briefcase for half the novel. The briefcase was perhaps a symbol of the white man’s world, into which he would have to any dream of equality, and the bank is the weight of the past as slaves. 

This man finds himself scratching and clawing and fighting every minute of every day just to survive. This is not only the realm of the black with respect to the white, it is also the lot of the poor with respect to the rich, the citizen with respect to the state, the employee with respect to the boss, etc., etc. His greatest enemy in the story turns out to be another black man. What does all this mean? That the black man’s worst enemy is himself?

So far as I am aware, this was the only novel published by Ellison during his lifetime. I read an interesting theory that the invention of the word processor made it impossible for him to complete a book because he was an obsessive revisor, and the computer made doing that very easy.

This book is a must read for any Literary Man.


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