In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, the narrator is a young, African-American male who believes that he is invisible. Throughout the novel, he spends a great amount of time and effort trying to figure out his identity and find a way to make himself visible in society. One of the narrator’s main attempts brings him to join an organization known as the Brotherhood, where he is able to utilize his talent for public speaking as an advocate for the Brotherhood and all that they stand for. But even this is not enough to satisfy the narrator’s need for an identity. It is not until the very end, however, that he is able to realize his own identity by confronting himself and ultimately committing suicide. The narrator’s suicide is not a physical death, rather it is a psychological death of who he is in his own mind. The only way for the narrator to fully realize who and what he is, is to kill the person that he does not believe that he is. The most likely victim for this murder therefore must be the one who seems to be the most unlikely candidate.
There is a definite connection that can be found between the narrator and another character within the novel by the name of Ras the Exhorter. He is an outspoken Black Nationalist; an eccentric and powerful speaker. Ras is also the Brotherhood’s greatest opponent. At first glance, Ras the Exhorter appears to be a character of great depth who has a strong sense of who he is and what his roots are. From the narrator’s initial meeting with Ras, he is pitted against him, a sworn enemy through the ways and teachings of the Brotherhood. But are these beliefs still valid to the narrator, even without the bias notions that result from his association with the Brotherhood? There comes a time within the novel that the narrator discovers he still has no identity, even under the title of a Brother. The narrator’s hopes of achieving individuality are soon destroyed when he realizes that he was only being used as a pawn in the Brother’s game with Ras. The scene where Ras and the Brotherhood members are all involved in a violent riot provide an intriguing insight to the narrator. He realizes that the entire situation is “absurd” in that it all seemed to be perfectly planned out ahead of time, with a motive to simply cause violence and destruction between the two groups. Ras appears before the crowd of Brothers dressed in African clothing, wielding a spear and shouting how the narrator is a traitor to both sides. The entire scene is like that of a terrible nightmare. In a fit of anger, the narrator grabs the spear from Ras’s hand and says:
“They want this to happenThey want the streets to flow with blood; your blood, black blood and white blood, so that they can turn your death and sorrow and defeat into propaganda.” (Ellison 558).
After this speech, the narrator takes it upon himself to throw the spear at Ras while he is in mid-sentence. The spear hits him in the jaw, tearing it away. By doing this, the narrator has not only killed Ras the Exhorter, but he has also committed the act of his own suicide.
Technically, the narrator’s speech during the riot scene is directed at Ras. However, he is also talking to himself about how insignificant he really is. The two men are simply members of the black race, and who are equally insignificant to the Brotherhood, except as means of propaganda. It is not until the narrator finally comes to this conclusion about the Brotherhood, that he also realizes that the mighty Ras is as invisible and insignificant as he is. In the essay “The Symbolism of Vision”, Charles Glickberg writes about the riot scene, and comments on the psychological aspects of the narrator’s hatred for Ras. He describes the scene as somewhat of a “nightmare” and Ras is the monster that the narrator is trying to destroy. This interpretation of the symbolism behind the narrator’s vision of Ras provides somewhat of an underlying motive for his desire to kill him (49). In other words, there is some unresolved, inner conflict within the narrator that is represented by the presence of Ras and the only way that this can be resolved is for him to die.
The concept of Ras being a part of the narrator’s “nightmare” can be further investigated using the Freudian theories of dream analysis. According to the article “Strangers to Ourselves” by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, dreams and nightmares play an important role in discovering what lies within the human subconscious mind. By using the theories of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, Rivkin and Ryan discuss how the subconscious mind will allow feelings, fears and desires that are normally repressed to emerge during dreams. Often, desires and fears will surface in the form of
terrible nightmares (120). The chaotic and violent riot towards the end of Invisible Man presents a scenario much like a nightmare. If it was in fact a nightmare come to life, would Ras represent the darkest hidden emotions of the narrator? Who exactly is Ras the Exhorter and what does he stand for? Glicksberg provides one possible answer:
“For him Ras blackness of skin is all, color is the badge of brotherhood, nothing else. Everythingis interpreted in terms of blackness: the holy color” (53).
Ultimately, Ras represents the definition of true blackness that lies deep within the narrator. He had tried to suppress him, because of his relations with the Brotherhood, but in the end it was inevitable that he discover that Ras was a part of him. In Ras’s final scene in the novel, he appears as an African warrior, like the subconscious black heritage of the narrator who finally surfaces and threatens to destroy him. Here is where the narrator comes to realization that there is nowhere for him to turn.
“I was invisible, and hanging would not bring me to visibility, even to their eyes, since they wanted my death not for myself alone but for the chase I’d been on all my life;” (Ellison 559).
If the white people did not see him and the blacks were out to destroy him, the only identity that he had was to be invisible.
As the Harlem figurehead for black nationalism, Ras the Exhorter found that his only strength was in the people he led. But, his strength ended where his voice could not be heard. Without his followers he was nothing, very similar to the fact that without the Brotherhood, the narrator was completely invisible. Public speaking was the one thing that gave the narrator some sense of self confidence, a feeling that he was actually being heard and accepted by his peers. Ras had the very same situation. As long as the Brotherhood was in opposition, he had something to preach about in the streets. That is what he was known for and he thrived on it. Once the narrator took that away by removing his jaw, Ras becomes invisible and so does the narrator.
After the riots, the narrator runs away from the Brothers who want to lynch him, because he knows that they are trying to kill him. Now that he has come to an understanding of who he is and that he is invisible, he also becomes aware of the reality surrounding his death. Should he succumb to those who want to kill him he would be giving in to the absurdity of those who are blind to his existence. A part of him has already died through the murder of Ras. He then chooses not to let himself be killed, but to hide from reality underground. In his realization of the fact that he is truly invisible in the eyes of others, the narrator eventually accepts it, hoping that this knowledge will help him to someday find a way to achieve some form of identity.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York. Vintage Books, 1980.
Glicksberg, Charles I. “The Symbolism of Vision”. Twentieth Century
Interpretations of Invisible Man: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice Hall, Inc. 1970.
Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan. “Strangers to Ourselves”. Literary Theory:
An Anthology. Malden, Massachusetts. Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1999.
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