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Invisibility of the Invisible Man

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Invisibility of the Invisible Man

Living in the city, one sees many homeless people. After a while, each person loses any individuality and only becomes "another homeless person." Without a name or source of identification, every person would look the same. Ignoring that man sitting on the sidewalk and acting as if we had not seen him is the same as pretending that he did not exist. "Invisibility" is what the main character/narrator of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man called it when others would not recognize or acknowledge him as a person.

The narrator describes his invisibility by saying, "I am invisible ... simply because people refuse to see me." Throughout the Prologue, the narrator likens his invisibility to such things as "the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows." He later explains that he is "neither dead nor in a state of suspended animation," but rather is "in a state of hibernation." (p.6) This invisibility is something that the narrator has come to accept and even embrace, saying that he "did not become alive until [he] discovered [his] invisibility." (p.7) However, as we read on in the story, it is apparent that the invisibility that the narrator experiences, goes much further than just white people unwilling to acknowledge him for who he is.

While searching for his true identity, the narrator frequently encounters different people who each see him differently. "Who the hell am I?" is the question that sticks with him as he realizes that nobody, not even he, understands who he really is. At some points in his life, identities are given to him, even as he is still trying to find himself. While in the Brotherhood, he was given a "new identity" which was "written on a slip of paper." (p.309) He was told to "starting thinking of [himself] by that name ... so that even if [he were] called in the middle of the night [he] would respond." (p.309)

In a similar sense, the narrator was given an identity while working at the Liberty Paint factory. Upon first meeting Lucius Brockway, another worker, Lucius only thought of the narrator as a threat to his (Lucius') job. Despite the narrator's constant explanation of merely being sent to assist Lucius, Brockway repeatedly questioned the narrator on what his purpose was in being there. During Brockway's questioning, not once did he ask what the narrator's name was. To Brockway, the only thing that was important was that the narrator was nothing more than a threat. Identity is only in the reflection of the immediate surrounding that viewers can relate. In this particular case, the narrator's identity is derived from Brockway's perception of him (the narrator) being a threat.

A person's identity is never the same, in comparison to the many people that view that person. This is something that the narrator recognizes but does not fully understand. While at the University, the narrator was only a petty "black educated fool" in the eyes of Dr. Bledsoe. At the same time, Mr. Norton (a white trustee of the university) saw the narrator as being an object, who along with his "people, were somehow closely connected with [his (Mr. Norton's)] destiny." (p.41) To the members of the Brotherhood, the narrator is only what they have designed him to be: someone who "was not hired to think," but to speak only when ordered to do so by the committee who "makes [his] decisions." (p.471-472)

By joining the Brotherhood, the narrator was given an opportunity to re-invent himself as a leader and as someone to be honored.



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