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Published:August 14th, 2007 12:14 EST
Where does 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison belong?

Where does 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison belong?

By Julie Whiteman

My opinion is that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man should be included in the “high modernist” canon because it portrays so many of the elements that other writers have used in this genre. Even though the form of the narrative seems somewhat traditional, it seems to me that the other elements of modernism are so evident in the work that they trump the traditional form.

Even just in the title Invisible Man, a sense of existentialism is present. The whole book seems to be formed around the concept of the shaping of our own existence. The narrator feels as though others see him as invisible, but eventually realizes that he has shaped this perception. And even though the issue of racism exists, and sometimes he may feel like he is meaningless-- as described through many different events and trials in his life, his life does actually have meaning, he just has to create it.

The other element of modernist writing that is so strong in Ellison’s work is that of subjectivity and being subject to our language. I think the idea of being born into a language can be paralleled in Invisible Man with being born into a certain race or culture. We are subjects of our race and culture. A perfect example of this is the song that Ellison uses called “What did I do to be so black and blue?”. It symbolizes the randomness and unpredictability of being born into a certain race and also the implications placed on innocent people who happen to be of a certain race or culture.

Ellison also uses other symbols in the novel, such as the yams that the narrator finally brings himself to buy and eat. This simple yam was such a liberating symbol for the narrator’s life. It symbolized the release of his fears, the acceptance of himself, and most importantly, his acceptance of reality. Ellison uses the Sambo doll as a symbol of the conventional ways that whites looked at and thought of blacks. They were a symbol of ignorance about what a black person is, and also-- because they were puppets-- they were symbols of the reality of the way whites used and manipulated black people... particularly the narrator who was used by the Brotherhood.

Besides all these things, Invisible Man, like any other high modernist work, was extremely experimental for its time. Racial boundaries were still very strong and just the fact that he wrote this book knowing some of the negative effects it would have shows that sense of urgency to get an important message across that has been seen in most all high modernist writers’ works. There is always a message that the writer is very concerned about. It is usually very controversial. But it seems that Ellison has taken this one step further and, unlike other modernist writers who may hide their messages within symbolic words, phrases, and settings, Ellison put the issue right out in the open... using words, phrases, and settings to contribute to the deeper understanding of the issue. To me, the deeper understanding seemed to be much more important to Ellison than the mere issue. His book has helped many people to gain a new perspective on issues, such as racial inequality. Just like a song or a picture can portray an issue or event better than mere words ever could explain, modernist writing has helped say things in ways that would otherwise go unheard. I think Invisible Man does an excellent job of giving racial inequality a voice it would not have had.