As readers of "The Invisible Man," we can all see some part of ourselves reflected in Ellison's character. Throughout the novel, the Invisible man searches for his identity, and for what he can believe in. He goes through many steps, and at each point in his journey, he seems to be wearing a different 'mask.' Each mask carries with it a different persona and set of beliefs with it that all serve to shape the character. These are masks that many of us have also put on at one time or another, too. Within the Invisible Man, we can see ourselves. Hopefully, we can also learn from him, and see the faults within him, and maybe ourselves.
The Invisible Man starts out the book by illustrating his acceptance of society's lies when he was young. "All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often... self-contradictory.
I was na ve." (15) Here the Invisible Man accepts the masks others have given to him of submissiveness and expected "black behavior," thus becoming the hopeful, innocent boy at the beginning of the novel. As Invisible Man recounts his degrading experience with the white town leaders, he remembers that his lack of indignation was so great that he did not even mind scrambling for the faux gold pieces, which were only brass coins. That the Invisible Man appears to have little reaction to his debasing experience indicates how firmly others have placed his mask of passivity and tolerance of others' actions. Next, the Invisible Man changes his mask to one of a hard worker. This mask, handed to Invisible Man by parents and teachers, dictates that because the Invisible Man is black he should do whatever a white person tells him to do.
That Invisible Man has accepted this mask is indicated by Invisible Man's servile attitude towards Norton. After Bledsoe censures the Invisible Man for taking Norton to the Quarters and the Golden Day, the Invisible Man resolves to do everything that Norton wishes; a clear submissiveness to the will of the trustee. His illusion that, if he works hard, he is sure to succeed is very well imprinted in his brain. Even Norton admits the Invisible Man has a certain machine-like obedience to him in the following dialogue between Norton and the Invisible Man. "'Will you need me this evening sir' 'No, I won't be needing the machine.' 'I could drive you to the station, sir.' " (108) The Invisible Man here seems like a puppy dog eager to play fetch with his master, and even Norton seems to be a little frustrated at the Invisible Man's subservience.
Brockway also comments on Invisible Man's status and his own when he says, "We the machines inside the machine." (217) The Invisible Man's unconditional obedience to others is indeed unnaturally machine-like. Then, the Invisible Man puts on a mask of violence. The Invisible Man angers after Bledsoe calls him a ni-r and expels him from the college. "It must have happened when the metal struck the desk, for suddenly I was leaning toward him, shouting with outrage." (141) Even the Invisible Man is surprised at his anger, indicating that his actions are not characteristic of his true self, but instead are just part of another mask he is trying on. After the Invisible Man learns of Bledsoe's insulting "recommendation" letters, he becomes very emotional. He "felt numb...
and was laughing. When [he] stopped, gasping for breath, [he] decided... [to] go back and kill Bledsoe." (194) This drastic emotional reaction is quite different from the Invisible Man's normal behavior. It is as if the Invisible Man has become disgusted with his previous mask of servility, has thrown it on the floor, and then taken up an entirely different mask of aggression, especially against blacks who seem to want the Invisible Man to just "stay in his place." The next mask the Invisible Man puts on is one of a peaceful, yet fervent orator. The Invisible Man's first public speaking occurs in front of a home whose elderly owners are being evicted. Although he appears to be speaking against taking action against the landlords, the effect is the opposite.
He "stood on the steps facing those in front [of the crowd], talking rapidly without thought but out of my clashing emotions. They stopped, listening." (279) Here he discovers that he has a talent for speaking, and it seems to be more effective than his previously violent acts, so he switches his mask yet again. Brother Jack hires the Invisible Man to work for the Brotherhood, and gives him a new name, telling him, "You must put aside your past... This is your new identity." (309) With this new name, Jack also hands the Invisible Man a new mask, very similar to the one the Invisible Man adopted while speaking at the Provos' home, but this one is fastened in place with a thick band of money and security.
At his first public speaking for the Brotherhood, the Invisible Man is an immense success, although he does not speak exactly the way the Brotherhood wants him to. He begins to forget the pamphlets that the Brotherhood gave him, and instead speaks from his heart. The Invisible Man for once does not accept a mask handed to him, for here the Brotherhood tries to make him their puppet, but instead of saying "the correct words," the Invisible Man uses his own tactics. However, the Invisible Man's popularity begins to impinge on his individuality, for he is trying to be who the people want him to be instead of who he is. Although many people know his name, it is not his real name or him that they know.
It is only the name and identity given to him by the Brotherhood. Finally, when the Invisible Man discovers his invisibility, he takes off his masks and his true self. The Invisible Man expresses his frustration at Ras' men being unable to understand his position. "I was invisible, and hanging would not bring me to visibility, even to their eyes." (559) The Invisible Man is invisible to not only white people, but to blacks as well.
He now knows who he is, but that does little to help his standing among Ras' men, and it may make him even more invisible. As a member of the Brotherhood, people would listen to him, even though he was often told what to say. Now, however, no one is telling him what to say, but no one is listening to him, either. In the conclusion of the novel, Invisible Man describes how he can finally be himself, and, although he may not be anymore successful as himself, at least he knows now who he is. "I'm shaking off the old skin and I'll leave it here in the hole.
I'm coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless." (581) The Invisible Man is determined to leave his confused identities behind him. In conclusion, as the Invisible Man flings off his masks, realizing that none of them have made him any more visible, he also recognizes that he is not visible as his unmasked self. This is clearly stated when he says "It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!" (15) Yet, to the Invisible Man, some sense of self is more important than visibility to everyone else. At least now he knows what he is, and to him, that is what matters.
As it should also matter to the reader. In our everyday world, we all wear many masks. Sometimes we do it to fit in, or sometimes we do it to hide our feelings, and maybe these masks are necessary. However, it is very important to be able to take off that mask at the end of the day, and be able to see a true reflection of ourselves, whether or not we, like the Invisible Man, see nothing there. As the Invisible Man takes his journey, we as readers should move with him, and learn from him the problems with constantly changing masks.
We must find our own path, and follow it as best we can, or we are only doomed to waft through life like so many snow-flake dandelions being blown on the whims of others.