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Sight and Blindness in "the Invisible Man"

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Throughout the novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison works with many different images of blindness and impaired vision and how it relates to perception. These images prove to be fascinating pieces of symbolism that enhance the themes of impression and vision within the novel. From the beginning of the novel when the narrator is blindfolded during the battle royal to the end where Brother Jack's false eye pops out, images of sight and blindness add to the meaning of many scenes and characters. In many of these situations the characters inability to see outwardly often directly parallels their inability to perceive inwardly what is going on in the world around them. Characters like Homer A. Barbee and Brother Jack believe they are all knowing but prove to be blind when it comes to the world they are living in. By looking at instances in which vision is of great consequence, the most central themes of the novel--sight and blindness--can be analyzed.

Beginning in the prologue, the narrator shows to the reader how he is invisible. He tells us, "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me" (3). He insists that people cannot see him, not because of their physical eyes, but because of their inner eyes, which is a reference to their thoughts on race. Since he is a black man, he believes that they overlook him for this fact. From the first page of the prologue, we begin to feel the narrator's strong emotions about being invisible. One night, he bumps into a blonde man who calls him an insulting name. The narrator beats the blonde man nearly to death and is about to slit his throat when he realizes that the man never really saw him.

...it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare...I was both disgusted and ashamed...Then I was amused: Something in this man's thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life. I began to laugh at this crazy discovery (4-5).

Here in these paragraphs we see the narrator go from murderous to guilty to delighted all within a few seconds. From the author's so-called invisibility, which causes the blonde man to be blind to his presence, the narrator gains a distinct power which he lacked in the earlier years of his life.

In the first chapter, the narrator gives a speech at his high school graduation that quoted the ideals of Booker T. Washington, "that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress" (17) for black and white race relations. The speech was so renowned in his community that he was asked to give it again at a town meeting of white higher-ups. Almost immediately, they are forced to watch a naked white woman dance. Then, they are blindfolded with "broad bands of white cloth" (21) and made to fight each other. These are two examples of the white power over the blacks. If they do look at the woman or if they try to look away, the white men tell them to do the opposite. Either way, their vision is a disadvantage. Then when they are blindfolded, the cloth being white is another representation of white supremacy. In the next few chapters, there is another profound example of blindfolding related to white supremacy.

At the narrator's college, in which Ralph Ellison emulates his own college of Tuskegee, there is a statue of the Founder lifting a veil from a slave's eyes. However, as the narrator looks at the statue longer, he realizes the ambiguity of the motion the Founder is actually making. Is he removing the veil, or lowering it "more firmly into place" (36)? The narrators and other students at the college depend on the Founder to help the "poor, ignorant people out of the mire and darkness" (99). This is an impossible task for a man with "empty eyes" (36) and with ideals like Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee. Ellison uses the statue's empty eyes as a metaphor for the delusional ideals of the Founder and his stubborn neglect of racist reality. The narrator later in the novel came to the realization that those types of standards for race relations truly do blind the black race to a white dominated culture. It should also be noted that the narrator never gives a name to the Founder or mentions Booker T. Washington. The author uses this to signify their invisibility in the real world.

Related to the veiling Founder is a man who avows to the Founder's extraordinary principles and astonishing contributions to the black community. Homer A. Barbee speaks about the Founder to students at the college and makes his life sound like a verse out of the Bible. He speaks of how the Founder "miraculously recovered" (119) as a baby, his incredible journey through the Underground Railroad, and the seemingly magnificent message he spread to the people:

Ah, those days of ceaseless travel, those youthful days, those springtime days; fertile, blossomy, sun-filled days of promise. Ah, yes, those indescribably glorious days, in which the Founder was building the dream not only here in this then barren valley, but hither and yonder throughout the land, instilling the dream in the hearts of the people (124).

Barbee makes the Founder sound like Jesus leading a flock of sheep. Barbee's speech was so powerful and moving that he made the narrator "see the vision" (133), and only after Barbee was done speaking did the narrator realize that he was blind. This actual blindness is symbolic of Barbee praising a man that he sees fit, yet the Founder is not truly worthy of Barbee's praises. Barbee can only see the Founder through blind eyes, in which he appears God-like. The speaker's blindness also makes him figuratively blind to Bledsoe's true character, of whom he also sings praises. Barbee's blindness serves to make him unable to see a person's genuine character.

Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the narrator's college, proves selfish, ambitious, and treacherous. He is a black man who puts on a mask of servitude to the white community, when really all he cares about is his position of power at the college. He tells the narrator, "I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am" (143). Bledsoe is just a tangible, visible representation of the college's theory of black thralldom to whites, even if he does not completely subscribe to the idea himself. The white trustees see Bledsoe as an honest associate dedicated to the cause, but he is really quite deceitful. "The white folk tell everybody what to think--except men like me. I tell them; that's my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about" (143), he explains to the narrator. After the narrator accidentally takes Mr. Norton, a trustee,

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