The Invisible Man Analysis Essay

In his book The Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture, Franco Moretti describes the transition from stable, traditional societies, to more sporadic modern societies as a “problem”. The “problem” itself refers to the dissolution of apprenticeships between generations, and as a result, the movement towards a future more uncertain but also more free. The unidentified narrator of The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, is a prime example of an individual caught in the transitional phase of Moretti’s two societies.

Ellison’s narrator finds himself torn away and thrown back into multiple apprenticeships, all while being haunted by his grandfather’s ambivalent dying words. Through the invisible man’s first person narration, Moretti’s “problem” becomes more apparent in the context of the book’s fictional society and works as a suitable model to analyze it. The idea of society as a loose dichotomy of traditional and modern, as Moretti suggests, is broken apart by the many characters the narrator encounters throughout the novel, ultimately commenting on the instability of one’s identity in such a time, and how that translates to one’s place in society.

Firstly, to fully comprehend why any of the characters matter in relation to this specific analysis of the narrator’s identity (or lack thereof), one must first understand what is meant by the term “problem”. Moretti describes it specifically as a state mostly associated with the youth; traditional societies break apart as one moves from country to city, as do the social rules that govern traditional societies, resulting in no continuation of generational roles within society.

With this newfound lack of a forced direction, the current generation – the youth – encounters Moretti’s “problem”. As Moretti implies, the issue itself is not the newfound freedom, but a lack of direction and more importantly, the lack of a social and personal identity that results from that. At the same time, the “problem” does offer “mobility” of one’s identity, which allows for a more individualistic, but also precarious choice of a future. The problem is a sacrifice.

It can be argued that the essence of a society is a projection of the individuals that are a part of it. Not all individuals are accounted for, however; some are invisible and do not contribute to this identity of the society. Traditional societies are, in a way, more representative of the individuals than modern society, because everyone’s role is clear and there is not much deviation between generations. However, this is not the case in modern society; there exists an entire generation that finds itself face-to-face with the “problem”, and free from these rules.

Ellison’s narrator in particular seems to be almost personally victimized by the “problem” as he is forcibly relocated from the south to the north, from countryside to city center, and cycled through multiple identities in an attempt to find his own. The narrator himself is of African-American descent, and so has restrictions placed upon him by society; stereotypes, expectations and his grandfather’s haunting words all affect his initial view of the world.

The narrator unknowingly introduces the “problem” with his grandfather’s dying words: “I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open. ” (Ellison 13). From this, the narrator’s ideals and upbringing in a traditional southern society are turned upside- down as his grandfather reveals that his identity thus far had been a facade; his outward conformity had been nothing more than a show.

The narrator finds himself in question of his own identity, and this persists until the end of the book, as he has his grandfather’s “deathbed curse” hanging over him like a dead goose (Ellison 26). However, the idea that one is restricted to a single role is broken very early on. Throughout the book, the narrator displays hypersensitivity to the roles people play in society; by having the idea of a role be split into an internal role and an external role, the narrator own role is cut apart, and made unclear. The narrator is thrown into “restlessness” as Moretti would describe it.

Furthermore, the grandfather’s deathbed curse can be regarded as the first example of an apprenticeship; his phrasing of if translates to something along the lines of: “I want you to follow in my footsteps”. By giving the narrator an order to follow and carry out, but at the same time, unveiling multiple identities, the grandfather forces the narrator into an apprenticeship – one that spans the story’s entirety. This also falls in line with Moretti’s idea of a traditional society, as the grandfather’s apprenticeship takes place within one.

The apprenticeships continue even as the narrator moves towards a more modern society, in fact, they stack upon each other in a way, building towards a completely unclear identity – which is part of the “problem” in a sense. Rather than abandoning the apprenticeships, the narrator’s “mobility” refers to multiple apprenticeships existing at once. The narrator’s first major identity crisis occurs during his time at college, where he aspires towards a role in society akin to Dr. Bledsoe’s, or as the narrator himself phrases it: “[Dr. Bledsoe] was the example of everything I hoped to be” (Ellison 79). The narrator at this point still believes that whites are above blacks, and that in a way, the highest point of success for a black person would be to reach the point right beneath a white person, such as Dr. Bledsoe. In seeing Dr. Bledsoe so close to the white folk of his time, the narrator assumes that Dr. Bledsoe is the definition of success – a leader, powerful, respected, and not nobody.

This traditional understanding of society led to the narrator’s self imposed apprenticeship under Dr. Bledsoe. It is noteworthy to mention that whilst under this apprenticeship, the narrator does feel a sense of betrayal when he recalls his grandfather’s words – that by striving towards acceptance by white people, he is not following his grandfather’s words, and by doing so, he feels trapped between his obligation as an apprentice, and his desire to choose his own path and follow in what he sees as Bledsoe’s footsteps.

Unfortunately for the narrator, the aforementioned dilemma is stripped away and his self-imposed apprenticeship under Dr. Bledsoe is revealed to be a re-skinned version of the same message his grandfather left: to put up a front and covertly work against the oppressors. As Dr. Bledsoe continues to explain this, he reveals that he is still playing out his expected role in society as a college representative, but only superficially; he continues by explaining his actual role: “the white folk tell everybody what to think – except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about” – in other words, a manipulator (Ellison 112).

The irony in all of this lies in the narrator’s inability to see through Bledsoe’s outer role until this point. The narrator faces a core aspect of Moretti’s “problem” because he is young. He does not realize the multi- dimensional aspect problem, and instead only sees what is at the surface. By assuming that Dr. Bledsoe achieved his position through affirmation alone, the narrator only sees part of the truth, and aspires towards this goal without fully understanding it.

Or as he himself would put it: he was plagued by the “[dispossession] of one eye since the day ? e was] born” (Ellison 266). He fails to see that Bledsoe had to “lie” to “please [white people]”, and that is how he achieved power (Ellison 108). Because of his youthful lack of insight, as well as the already present confusion, the narrator fails to realize the truth behind his endeavors and is left confused, and lost in the wake of his own “mobility” – just as Moretti predicts. Dr. Bledsoe’s seemingly harsh treatment of the narrator can be seen as if it were a catalyst in the narrator’s transformation towards vision, out of the blindness he was born with.

By sending him to New York City, Dr. Bledsoe – in the context of Moretti’s “problem” – relocates him from “the countryside, [to] the city”, and in doing so, moves him from a traditional society to a modern society (Moretti). The changes associated with such a change, described previously, take effect shortly after the narrator finds himself in the city; he immediately finds himself in “shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic — and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world. ; his previous notion of what is expected by people of different races is shattered as the modern society around him offers a glimpse into how people deal with the “problem” of freedom associated with modern societies (Ellison 124). However, because Dr. Bledsoe lies about the narrator’s future return to the college, the narrator remains blinded up until it is revealed to him, and it is not until this time that he considers the unbinding freedom of choice as a part of his own life too.

In the Men’s House, the narrator still finds himself “making a speech… striking a pose… [a] younger version of [Dr. Bledsoe)” – commenting on the magnitude of his uncertainty and the extent of his youthful innocence (or ignorance) (Ellison 127). He continues towards a goal because he does not have a solid grasp of who he is. The core of his “problem” is that he continues his goal as apprenticeship without any clue of what exactly the apprenticeship itself entails, and so suffers from repeated dissatisfaction and rejection.

After having his eyes opened, upon reading one of Dr. Bledsoe’s letters, the narrator is faced with a problem again, except this time it is not so much the problem Moretti defines, as much as it is the conflict between the traditional and modern sides of the society – both of which make uo the “problem”. The conflict between traditional and modern, past and present, certain and uncertain, shape much of the narrator’s journey in New York City. This is the first time the Narrator sees his ability to choose what to do in the larger picture.

The conflict spawns instability within the narrator, which exists in the first place because of uncertainty in such a transitional time, in a modern city. As the story progresses, the roles of apprentice and wanderer overlap and result in a problem different to Moretti’s; the southern narrator in a northern city finds himself looking for southern, traditional apprenticeships while still trying to stand apart and beat his invisibility – and this, is the core issue that perturbs him. The reason the narrator even finds himself in such a situation can be explained by the time period.

The novel is set in what can be assumed to be the 1920’s, a time of racial change as blacks gained more rights, and a time of cultural change, where the south and north differed a great deal in norms. If placed alongside the narrator’s identity crisis, the three simultaneous changes bring out a very volatile desperation within the narrator, to belong to a society and to not fade away into a mere “someone”. Throughout the novel, Ellison presents characters for the narrator to analyze and break down, one at a time.

And usually, these characters are one-dimensional, providing a mere personified example of a stereotype; this is seen through Mr. Norton – the white philanthropist, and Trueblood – the black incestual rapist, amongst others. Because of the prevalence of this, one is inclined to dismiss most characters as one- dimensional too, but upon closer inspection, characters such as Dr. Bledsoe, Lucius Brockway, Brother Jack and Ras the Destroyer, all display added complexity and can be juxtaposed with the narrator to comment on the prevalence of the “problem” in such a time – extending it past the narrator as an example of its effect on youth.

And of course, there is also Reinhart, not one-sided, or very complex, but an important personification of the freedom described by Moretti. Stumbling through the city, lost and confused, the narrator’s interactions with Lucius Brockway, a worker at Liberty Paints, works like an ironic slap to the face for the narrator. When first looked at, Lucius is a mere worker – old, cranky, and “in charge” of the underground level of Liberty Paints (Ellison 160). Upon closer inspection, Lucius is really an image of the narrator, had he stuck to his initial path of pleasing the white oppressors of the time.

Lucius is in a position of leadership, just like how Bledsoe is “leader of [the college]”; the narrator still desires this position of leadership – ignoring the context in which it exists (Ellison 110). But little does he realize that by solely trying to please the white people to succeed, he is really working towards a position like Lucius’ rather than Bledsoe’s – a cog in the machine . Lucius, unlike Bledsoe, has little respect, is hated and called a “fink” by union workers, and remains invisible – conveyed quite accurately through his physical position underground and out of sight (Ellison 170).

Bledsoe’s manipulation of people, and his ability to willingly backstab ultimately differentiate him from Lucius and the Narrator (at this point). Ellison doesn’t allow the narrator to ponder on the path Lucius lays out for him, instead, the narrator is forced away from it altogether when the plan explodes. However, the narrator embarks on a similar path through the Brotherhood, and the similarities between him and Lucius surface at the peak of his popularity, when he gets relocated to speak on the “Woman Question” (Ellison 315).

His thoughts echo Lucius’ when he starts to see his relocation as a theft of his position of power, commenting on how the brothers “[think] that because [they’ve] got a little more education [they’re] better than anybody else. “, just how Lucius suspects the narrator upon first meeting him (Ellison 311). Furthermore, the irony in the narrator’s reaction is that he claims that Brother Westrum is a “petty individualist” while he himself is worried more about his own lost position than anything (Ellison 311). Brother Westrum and the narrator are not the only “petty individualists”, for there exists deception around every corner.

Brother Jack, arguably the unofficial leader of the communist Brotherhood, is also an individualist, though not so petty. Moretti’s “problem” addresses one very important issue that manifests the book’s very title: the importance of having an identity. Jack, much like the narrator, fears “plunging out of history” and becoming insignificant; to maintain his status and relevance, he takes up the role of the secretly individualistic leader of the communist Brotherhood – directly going against the communal values he preaches (Ellison 346).

The “problem” is localized amongst the youth, and extends to anyone who is trying to be someone. Jack and the narrator are both trying to be relevant, and so condemn themselves to the restlessness, and “dissatisfaction” (Moretti). Another problem that arises from this is linked directly to the deception; whilst in the Brotherhood, the narrator makes the same mistake of becoming Jack’s apprentice in a sense; he even thinks of Jack as “fatherly” at some points – which resonates perfectly with Moretti’s description of traditional apprenticeships.

However, the problem lies in the deception on Jack’s part; by having a completely different motive, Jack’s superficial qualities once again throw the narrator off, who is still dispossessed of one eye. Moretti would argue that this is all a part of the “necessary exploration” and a movement towards the “capitalistic mobility” that results in freedom.

And this proves to be true; in ultimately rejecting the Brotherhood towards the end of the novel, the narrator embraces his grandfather’s words, and begins unknowingly following in Jack’s (and arguably Bledsoe’s) footsteps – this time – the ones previously hidden from his sight. Giving currency to himself before society, the narrator adopts a capitalistic view of the world, and so finally breaks out of traditional apprenticeship.

The interesting part about it is, by rejecting traditional apprenticeships, the narrator embraces the mindset of his grandfather, Dr. Bledsoe and Brother Jack. And in doing so, still finds himself in a form of apprenticeship. This raises the question as to whether one can ever not be in an apprenticeship. In a way, Moretti’s version of the traditional apprenticeship refers to a passing on of a role within a family, and his modern apprenticeship refers to an exploration. The narrator seems to be stuck halfway between the two; he does follow people unrelated by blood, but also allocates a “fatherly” tone to Jack, hinting at a familial apprenticeship of sorts (Ellison 363).

Moretti’s model doesn’t fit completely but still holds value, seeing as the transitional state of the apprenticeship is only appropriate, given the transitional state of the culture at the time. This is a clear example of the previously mentioned idea that society is a mere expression of the individuals within it. Unlike Jack, Lucius, or anyone else even mildly prevalent in the book, Rinehart plays a major role in the narrator’s transformation without actually showing himself.

As a personification of Moretti’s “mobility” in existence, the character of Rinehart is appropriately played by the narrator, who uses the mobile nature of Rinehart’s multiple roles as an anchor for his own identity; holding onto his “dark glasses” and “white hat” until he falls into the hole, and out of history (Ellison 385). Rinehart can be seen as an embodiment of Moretti’s fully modernized individual – one who is mobile, and can exist in such a fashion without sacrificing one’s identity.

The narrator however, is still unable to, even though aware; he ponders on the role of integrity, and values it. But as rinehartism seeps into his mind, he begins to think “What was integrity? What did it have to do with a world in which Rinehart was possible and successful? ” (Ellison 385). This once again resonates well with Moretti’s model, whereby dissatisfaction can arise from mobility; rinehartism is devoid of integrity, and this proves to be the main problem the narrator has – especially since he does not want to dissolve into invisibility.

But to become like Rinehart, one must embrace the individual and be willing to risk invisibility for “mobility”: The narrator’s journey from when he starts till the point he finds himself in at the epilogue, displays his own “mobility” throughout the book, and how – in the grand scheme of Moretti’s model, he plays the role of both apprentice and wanderer over the course of the book, slowly transitioning from the former to the latter without isolating himself to either.

His fate remains unknown, at the end of the book, commenting on his newfound grasp of his mobility; the reader cannot determine his fate because he is not restricted to playing one single role in society anymore. Does this mean he has abandoned his grandfather’s apprenticeship? That remains unclear, but his position on Moretti’s spectrum is now quite apparent. However, Moretti’s focus on the youth refers to their psychological maturity, the youth cannot be regarded as the sole victim of the “problem”.

Moretti mentions that Hamlet’s character serves as a middle-man to which this would apply, but it does not explain the character of Lucius – who is described as an old geezer. Lucius strives towards mobility and is not a traditional apprentice, but still finds himself trapped at the peak of a racial ceiling of power and recognition, he also fits into Moretti’s individualistic modern character, but does not possess the mobility of one.

Ellison’s book draws light to many exceptions to what Moretti suggests, and this is propagated by the society itself, as well as the problems within it. The ultimate reason there are so many exceptions to the rule is the many transitional layers of the novel, as outlined through the characters and, because of the characters’ problems, their societies.