4-Part Analysis of Invisible Man (Part 1)

Originally written for my AP Lit class
IM stands for the main character, the titular Invisible Man
Each part of this series will cover material on approximately every 100 pages of the book, although there will be some overlap.

[Battle Royal scene]

The blacks in this society are treated as little more than circus monkeys, there to mock and as entertainment. What praise they get are for performance measured in standards humiliating their individuality and intelligence. It’s like how a raven is judged to be smart because it knows how to use a stick to get at a morsel of food. The IM is similarly being judged to be smart based on the presumption of his inherent stupidity and the reward he gets (the scholarship) is something that is not worth anything to the people he gets it from. When he performs a seemingly unlikely feat for his race (being intelligent and articulate), the so-called patrons of the advancement of black youth congratulate themselves, crediting themselves with the work he did. They were the ones responsible for pulling up his race’s dignity and intelligence because they were the ones that allowed him the opportunity of education. They see the rise of black people from a “lower” society as a sign of their own generosity, never thinking that the right to life, liberty and prosperity is truly unalienable to any man. The discrimination and microaggressions in IM is subtle and often hard to grasp because it’s layered in honeysweet words and actions. Everything is done in insinuations and the threat of ingratitude and a return to poverty hangs over the black people who are gifted this taste of a white man’s “superiority”. It is similar to a government cruelly taxing its citizens to the point of famine and then demanding gratitude when they decide to redistribute a little of the food stores. This way, there is no way for people to address this attitude because they would be seen as a troublemaker and ungrateful. The patrons speak of the black race through their own perspective which is why Mr. Norton was fascinated with both Trueblood and what happened at Golden Day because while he was going on about how his fate was tied to the success of the black students, his experiences with Trueblood and in Golden Day affirms his superiority over the very race he’s trying to “raise” and empowers him in this task by making him a saintly figure gracing these fallen people with his gifts when really, he and his kind are what took these people and crushed them under their well-shined shoes and then put themselves as false prophets bringing to the people something which should have been a natural right. A modern example can be seen in the label of ungrateful over social movements like TakeTheKnee and Black Lives Matter.


[Dr. Bledsoe’s Meeting with the IM]

“The only ones I even pretend to please are the big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me… These white folk have news… to get their ideas across. If they want to tell the world a lie, they can tell it so well that it becomes the truth; and if I tell them that you’re lying, they’ll tell the world even if you prove you’re telling the truth. Because it’s the kind of lie they want to hear… I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am. I had to be strong and purposeful to get where I am. I had to wait and plan and lick around… Yes, I had to act the nigger!” (pg 142-3)

Here, we see a more vicious side of Dr. Bledsoe. We see that the IM is starting to get a taste of what it is outside of his idealistic world. We see that the mild-mannered Dr. Bledsoe is actually someone who is very pragmatic in his methods to gaining and keeping his power. He is willing to sacrifice one member of his race in order to maintain the status of the rest, especially of himself and his institution. He has no illusions about uplifting his race to an equal level to the whites that he pleases on the surface. He wants to keep what he has and is content to work his “power” from the shadows.

Like with every other social issue, the question of racial equality is something that many people have different opinions about. Some take the high road with peaceful protests and civil disobedience. Others don’t wait for change to happen, they respond with terrific passion and sometimes, it leads to physical confrontation. Still others believe in reforming the system from the inside. There is another type who, like Dr. Bledsoe, is someone who is jaded about how society works and doesn’t hold any ideals or illusions of changing the way things are and instead choose to focus on elevating themselves; the fate of similar others are a secondary priority and oftentimes neglected altogether. This brings the motif of power. All of these methods are to gain power. With Dr. Bledsoe’s two-faced act, he doesn’t pretend to really care about the rest of his race. It just happened that his position is the director of an all-black school. Everything he preaches is just something for the patrons to hear; he’d rather see the rest of race lynched if only he could retain his power. However, his method does seem to have worked out for him; it’s been noted that he was the only black man the IM has seen who is able to touch a white man and he does have a measure of immunity against the distaste and contempt the rest of the white folk seem to show so far in the story. Meanwhile, the similarly intelligent but blunt doctor from Golden Day can’t bring himself to scrape and bow and is instead institutionalised. So, the theme here seems to be that pragmatism about your cause in some cases can bring better results than facing a problem head-on which, when you think about it, is something that Booker T. Washington employed with his intent to slowly empower his people through education to become more like the white folk rather than to use blunt force to change legislation and people’s perceptions of black people. I also have a strong suspicion that the Founder is based on Washington; the book even mentions the ambiguity of the statue where the IM isn’t sure the veil is being lifted or brought down on the slave and this reflects the conflict between Washington and W.E.B Du Bois’s views on how to go about bettering the situation of the emancipated slaves with Du Bois believing that a more direct approach would yield better results. By mentioning this, Ellison is weighing in on the debate and it’s clear that he supports Du Bois’s philosophy.

This was the first time that a character acknowledges the invisibility forced onto black people. For all of Dr. Bledsoe’s faults, he is being honest here and this is the first major blow that the IM gets to dispel his illusions about the purpose of the white people. He learns from his most respected role model that lying to the white people is how you please them and that lying is the best way to accomplish anything if you’re a black person in this society. Lying is so integral to the position of members in this society that the white people would be more willing to believe lies even if they know otherwise. So the illusions in this story are present two-fold: in the narrator (aka the IM) and the white folk. People like the IM are what feeds the self-illusion of the white folk. The white folk self-deceived because it will be too much if they were to see how things really were (like with Trueblood) and see that their philanthropy was a sham and that the students they educate are just tolerated. The IM perpetuates this self-congratulatory cycle by showing the dull intelligence and obedience that they would expect out of a well-trained dog and they compare that to the violence and baseness they think is inherent to the black race and say that they’ve contributed to the empowerment of the race.


Applying psychodynamic concepts to IM (Mr. Norton, on hindsight, is super creepy)

https://www.simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html

Defense Mechanisms with Mr. Norton-

Sublimation – satisfying an otherwise unacceptable impulse in a socially acceptable way

Examples –

-racist beliefs (that black people are inferior)

– absolved with sublimation where he supports a black college by hiding behind a screen to philanthropy but holds the belief of the “white man’s burden”

–  delights in the ways the that the black people are inferior to justify his cause

– “rewards” Trueblood by giving him a lot of money after he was told the story about incest with his daughter. He definitely enjoyed the story and walked away feeling superior to this moral-less man. By giving him money, he also absolves himself of the guilt of his social conscience by feeling this way

– his actions are definitely not fuelled by his daughter’s death. Rather, it seems like Mr. Norton personally related to Trueblood’s story especially with how he had previously described his own daughter’s perfections. So, it may be a way to defend himself against his own thoughts about his late daughter. Human psychology is hard to understand and is oftentimes disturbing.

Repression – preventing disturbing or anxiety-causing thoughts from rising to consciousness

Example –

-what I mentioned about Mr. Norton towards his daughter (the money could also be used as a distraction from his thoughts)

Displacement – satisfying an unacceptable impulse to a substitute and

Projections – attributing unacceptable thoughts or impulses to another person

Example –

– battle royal

– displacement – any anger from other sources (argument with wife, feeling inadequate, feeling that they’re treated unfairly at work etc.) is directed towards the blacks instead and they get to yell obscenities and threaten physical violence, letting them vent their anger and frustration onto people that can’t defend themselves (aka kicking the dog or beating your wife).

-projections – (once again, Mr. Norton’s fascination with his daughter) The violence and hatred that the patrons of the “fight club” feel is exemplified in the blindfolded participants of the battle royal and they get to avoid responsibility for their own feelings because they can then attribute these feelings to a people that they feel is safely separated from them

In reality, the Mr. Nortons of society is more poisonous to social progress than the overt racists we see in the battle royal scene. Both promote the worst parts of the black race and reward them but the covert racists like Mr. Norton are able to do so with a smiling front and are harder to confront because their methods of undermining the people’s dignity and status are more subtle and casts doubt on people’s suspicions.


Discussion Questions

  1. What fears does this text generate?

The fear of not being seen, the fear of being powerless and the fear of not knowing what’s going on. One of the running themes in the book is in how people see what they want to see of you and not what you really are. Your existence depends on other’s validations of you so if you’re denied of that, especially when it’s a core trait of yourself, you lose your sense of self and you feel invisible. The book demonstrates this right out of the gate with the IM, after being humiliated in the battle royal, was to give a speech and while he was speaking, the men he was supposed to be giving the speech to ignored him. Then, there’s Mr. Norton in the car scene where instead of asking what aspirations the IM has for the future, he instead talks about his own vision and his daughter and in asking the Invisible Man to confirm his fate, he is showing that his philanthropy is just for the statistic of how many people he helped and how many careers he helped make. These people to Mr. Norton are merely numbers, a trophy to add to his wall of accomplishments. So when he asked to know his fate, what he’s asking isn’t in what happens to the people he helps but in what he can use to as evidence of his own goodwill.

With power also comes with influence over reality. Dr. Bledsoe talks about how the white people can make others believe whatever they want through media and that he can make the white people think what he wants them to think and see what he wants them to see (which is why he is threatened when the IM brings Mr. Norton to the old slave quarters). This brings up the second fear of being powerless. The IM is told explicitly that he has no power because his opinion can be overridden and he can be easily discredited.

Then, there’s the big reveal of Dr. Bledsoe’s true self and how the IM doesn’t know what’s true and what’s false because reality seemed so contradictory to his idealistic worldview and he has trouble reconciling the two. This is the fear of not knowing what’s going on. The IM has always carried around a sense of unease about his lack of knowledge about the world ever since his grandfather’s dying words implicated that things aren’t always the way they seem. Together, these fears are what contribute to many of the plot points and revelations in the book and through these fears, Ellison is then able to articulate the more subtle aspects of racism that is otherwise hard to grasp and empathise with especially for those who have never experienced it before.

 

  1. How is the IM able to maintain his identity if there’s no one to confirm his existence?

Since we’ve established that a person’s identity is through the perceptions of others around him, the IM is a paradox where, in the present time, he isn’t acknowledged by anyone but he still retains a strong presence in his environment. The way he seems to confirm himself is through light. Light is the source of our primary sense: sight. Through light, his solid physicality can be confirmed in the form of a shadow. In a sense, this could be a physical manifestation of cogito ergo sum where it’s instead I see therefore I am. He also triumphantly declares his existence through his thousand-plus light bulbs. He is able to exert influence on the outside world even though he’s invisible by leaching energy from the electricity company and racking up electricity bills. This is the biggest confirmation of his existence. Although they know the electricity is being used up, they couldn’t figure out that it was him and so, ironically, in being invisible, his presence is louder than when he was trying to be visible. In becoming invisible, he can live outside the laws and basically squats in an unused living space right underneath the people who refused to acknowledge his existence and syphon free electricity.

 

  1. In the story, being invisible is a sign of discrimination, however, what are some advantages to being invisible?

Under the cover of invisibility, the IM can punch someone out and have them be clueless as to who the culprit is. With this anonymity, the IM is able to move around and do more without anyone knowing. This reminds me of masks and other face-coverings associated with protests and activism. The massive anonymity in those protests has the powerful effect of protecting the members and making them more menacing since you don’t know who they are. If you take activist groups like Anonymous where the members wear Guy Fawkes masks, the effect of thousands of masks becomes eerie since the masks also suppress any signs of humanity the wearer shows by blocking the entire face and our ability to read intention and emotion in facial expressions. In wearing the same mask, the wearers can also assume a collective identity instead of being individuals.

In this case, the collective anonymity of a race can also be advantageous to its members where it’s hard to pick out an individual among a sea of faces and where because people take less notice of what you do individually, you’re able to slip under the radar as the IM did. This was the purpose of the slave codes pre-1860s and many of the laws in the slave codes were to prevent slaves from communicating so that they couldn’t plan revolts. Those codes were in part fuelled by the need for control and also by the constant fear of the slaves’ masters because, in many places, the numbers of slaves significantly outnumbered their masters. So, in numbers come strength and if the whole of the race were to stand together, then their invisible status would make them a formidable threat both physically and psychologically since the segregation of white and black also meant that to the white folk, the black people’s culture would be alien to them and the lack of knowledge would breed fear. It’s scary to think of the Mr. Nortons that existed and still exist, working a persistent poison among the people. The same powers that work in the IM are at work today and in a lot more ways than just towards someone’s race.

On the other hand, this invisible status means that people are more likely to generalise about the entire race so the attributes of one person or a group within the race are generalised to the rest of the population. This results in persistent stereotyping and subsequent bad treatment to all members of the race.

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