Developing self-knowledge is a gradual, lifelong process. Each situation that an individual faces helps him or her to define a personal identity. Over the course of Ralph Ellison s Invisible Man, the nameless protagonist develops through several stages from a confident yet na ve student, to a degraded factory worker, to a member of a fraternal organization, and finally to a self-assured individual. Throughout his development, he looks to others to answer questions about his identity; in the end, however, he realizes that he can only depend on and trust in himself for self-knowledge. Early in the novel, the young invisible man yearns to be seen by others for his true self. A young man of African-American descent, he is invisible because people refuse to see [him].
It is as though [he is] surrounded by mirrors of hard-distorted glass, and when people approach [him], they see only [his] surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination indeed everything except [him] (Ellison 3). He becomes very frustrated and aches with the need to convince [himself] that [he] does exist in the real world, that [he is] part of all the sound and anguish, and [he] strikes out with [his] fists, [he] curses and [he] swears to make them recognize [him] (Ellison 4). In order to stay sane, the young protagonist convinces himself that he has some importance to others. He receives constant praise from the most lily-white men of the town (Ellison 16). This praise makes him feel like he is somebody, like a potential Booker T. Washington (Ellison 18).
Even after being horribly humiliated, by being forced to fight other black men for the entertainment of a group of whites, he arrogantly makes a speech in front of this mixed group of spectators. Minutes later, one of the white onlookers presents him with a scholarship to a prominent Negro college. At college, the invisible man tries to win the approval of Norton, a wealthy whit trustee. The narrator understands the advantages of [flattering] rich white folks and therefore does anything the trustee wants (Ellison 16).
Unfortunately, the narrator makes the grave mistake of agreeing to Norton s request to take him to visit Trueblood, a sharecropper who has brought disgrace upon the black community by impregnating his wife and daughter at the same time (Ellison 46). Norton, shocked by Trueblood, grows faint and is taken by the narrator for a restoring drink to The Golden Day, a rowdy whorehouse filled with black people. The university s president, Bledsoe, becomes angered with the invisible man because he did not show Norton the more positive aspects of the university s surrounding Black culture. The next stage in the invisible man s development takes place after he leaves college. Following the incident with Norton, Bledsoe sends the na ve narrator to New York for a summer to earn [his] next year s fees, and the invisible man mistakenly believes he has been offered a special honor (Ellison 145). Bledsoe sends him away with several sealed letters which the narrator naively believes to be letters of recommendation.
In New York, the proud invisible man wishes for someone to show the letters to, someone who [can] give [him] a proper reflection of his importance (Ellison 163). He expects that he can look to others to tell him who he is. In actuality, the letters are warnings to prospective employees saying that the narrator has been expelled [from the college] for a most serious defection of [the] strictest rules of deportment (Ellison, 10). This horrible news comes as a complete shock, causing his self esteem to plummet. He begins to realize that he can t live up to others expectations of him. The only job he can get is in the Liberty Paints Factory.
After being injured in a factory accident, the invisible man begins to find his true identity while in the hospital. At the hospital, he is treated brutally by uncaring white doctors. The doctors perform an experimental lobotomy on him, pronouncing him cured when they think he can no longer remember his [identity] (Aull). The doctors refusal to recognize the narrator as a person pushes his fragile state even further down.
He begins questioning himself, having the feeling that [he has been] talking beyond [himself, using] words and [expressing] attitudes not [his] own, [as if he were] in the grip of some alien personality (Ellison 249). He begins fretting over [his] identity (Ellison 248) and begins to search for an authentic identity beyond the labels the world [has given] him (Weinberg). After leaving the hospital, the narrator continues to gain self-confidence after tasting sweet yams he buys from a street vendor. The familiar taste rekindles memories of his childhood, his heritage, his blackness, his roots in black folk culture, and his southern heritage (Nev lon). For the first time, his sense of identity is linked to memories of his own childhood rather than to other people s approval. The invisible man uses his newfound confidence to fight the eviction of an elderly couple onto the streets of Harlem.
He stands on a platform and delivers an arousing speech. Brother Jack, a leader of a mixed-race band of social activists known as the Brotherhood hears the protagonist and recruits him to join the organization. The invisible man is attracted to the Brotherhood and its communal ideology because he does not want to struggle alone any longer. He dislikes the prejudice he faces every day; and by joining the Brotherhood, gains equal status to every other member. Eventually, however, the invisible man realizes that the Brotherhood is so focused on the development of the organization that it cannot meet his individual needs.
The invisible man comes to believe that living as an individual is more important than being immortalized in history books, and he chooses to leave the organization. While masquerading as Rinehart, the narrator realizes that Rinehart s near celebrity status binds him inside confining labels that others have given him, and the true complexity of his nature is hidden. While parading as the well-known Rinehart, the invisible man finally realizes that invisibility is actually the key to freedom. Invisibility is the narrator s protection from the world s evil.
Why should I worry about bureaucrats, blind men I am invisible, he declares (Ellison 528). Invisibility allows the protagonist to have an infinitely complex identity without having to worry about living up to society s limiting labels. Ultimately, the invisible man rejects the idea of a single Black American identity that has been forced upon him and finds his own answer. He realizes that he was looking for [himself] and asking everyone except [himself] questions which [he] and only [he] could answer (Ellison 15). Throughout his life, he has subscribed to different ideologies; however, each ideology demanded that he submit his identity to a definition determined by others. The ideology of the model black citizen promoted by the college demands that its followers shun the heritage of black, southern, folk culture.
The brotherhood demands that its followers break completely with their individual pasts and assume a new group identity. At the end of his process of self-discovery, rather than offering a single definition of himself, the invisible man paints a portrait of many selves. Work Cited Aull, Felice. Literature and Medicine Database. April 7, 2000. web Ellison, Ralph.
Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1980... Moving Day in Harlem. July 27, 1998. web Weinberg, Helen. The Kafka n Mode in Contemporary Fiction.
Contemporary Literary Criticism vol. II. Ded ria Bryfonskied. Chicago: Bale Research Company, 1979.