The novel, Invisible Man by American author Ralph Ellison follows the life of unnamed narrator and his personal quest of gaining societal acceptance and finding self-identity. As the narrator, he remains nameless as he journeys from the South, where he studies in an all-black college, to Harlem where he joins a party, known as the Brotherhood. Throughout the novel, the narrator appears invisible to the world around him because others fail to acknowledge his presence. He has no true identity because of the existence of a racially charged society. The protagonist struggles in this process because he does not identify himself with the black society, but is also not part of the white culture. In the text, Ellison incorporates the use of motifs to help develop and enlighten the novel’s central theme of racism. The use of masks, blindness, and invisibility are three motifs established by the author to illustrate the narrator’s struggle in fighting oppression in society.
Ellison utilizes the use of masks to convey the theme of racism in the novel. In chapter six, the unnamed narrator meets with Bledsoe to discuss the afternoon’s events. Bledsoe is exceedingly furious and decides to punish the narrator for driving Mr. Norton to the black quarters and the Golden Day. “‘Ordered you,?’ he said. ‘He ordered you. Dammit, white folk are always giving orders, it’s a habit with them. Why didn’t you make an excuse?…My God, boy! You’re black and living in the South- did you forget how to lie?'” (139). This exchange between the two characters depicts Bledsoe’s true character. He tells the narrator that certain white people tend to give foolish orders; it is quite ironic because Bledsoe, himself, is a white male. In addition, he makes a stereotypical reference that generally, the black race are liars and calls the narrator as one of them. The scene illustrates Bledsoe’s role as the manipulator. He uses his status in college to hold a powerful position over others. Thus, this power hinders the social progression for the black community. Bledsoe behaves in this manner because he fears that if he does not discipline the narrator, then he will lose his authority. Bledsoe uses a form of a mask to deceive the college’s students as well as the white establishment. The motif of the mask connects back to the scene on chapter one, when the narrator recalls his dying grandfather’s final words. “‘Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up a good fight…our life is a war…Live with your head in the lion’s mouth.’…his words caused so much anxiety…It had a tremendous effect upon me” (17). The grandfather hopes to relay this particular message to his family; he tells them to utilize a mask as a form of self-defense and resistance against the racist white community. The exchange between Bledsoe and the narrator, in chapter six, illustrates the tension between the two races. The narrator seeks acceptance and equality, but Bledsoe prevents it from happening because he wants to remain authoritative over him. Therefore, this illustrates the narrator’s struggle to eliminate racism and stereotypes in society.
Blindness is a prevalent motif in the novel. This idea recurs repeatedly to illustrate how individuals fail to realize the existing truth. Certain members of the black community refuses to see the way the white race treats them because they want to believe that the white men treating them in a positive manner. The narrator comes to realize that people in society refuse to acknowledge the reality of the truth; this denial is evident in the scenes of the book where characters are associated with the motif of blindness. In chapter one, the unnamed narrator and group of boys are forced to partake in a town event known as the battle royal. The boys fight in the battle royal wearing white blindfolds, symbolizing their powerlessness to realize their exploitation at the hands of the white race. “All of us climbed under the ropes and allowed ourselves to be blindfolded with broad bands of white cloth…I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to the darkness” (21). The black race does not have the ability to see how the white men treat them; they feel degraded because the white establishment controls them. Ellison uses other instances in the book where imagery of blindness surfaces. For example in chapter sixteen, the narrator undergoes a moment of blindness when he addresses a large, black audience at a city rally. “I went toward the microphone…entering the spot of light that surrounded me like a seamless cage of stainless steel. I halted. The light was so strong that I could no longer see the audience, the bowl of human faces” (341). The bright spotlights prevent him from seeing the audience. In his speech, the narrator calls for an end to the blindness that causes the interracial divisions. An irony is presented in this particular scene because the readers learn that he cannot even see the audience because of the bright lights; he becomes a sightless leader of a blind audience. Thus, this illustrates that failure to see reality causes the lack of insight in the black community; the narrator struggles to end oppression.
The most essential motif of the novel, invisibility, ties in with the idea of blindness. Because the unnamed narrator believes people, in the world, walk and perceive matters blindly, he declares himself invisible. The motif of invisibility may bring fragility, but it can also bring free will and mobility, as evidenced of the narrator’s liberty to tell his story anonymously. The narrator views invisibility as a form in which a person can safely have power over others or challenge other people’s authority, without the possibility of being caught. Early in the novel, the protagonist appears to keep his opinions to himself, and proceeds to do only what he is being told to do. As the book progresses, he leaves this state and decides to put his personal power into use. He starts to fight for equality, but no one takes notice of him. In chapter fourteen, the narrator decides to accept the offer of joining the Brotherhood, after realizing how much rent he owes Mary. “And here I’ve been congratulating myself for refusing a job, I thought, when I don’t even know how much money I owe her. I felt a quick sickness grow within me” (296). Thinking about the situation, the narrator realizes that joining the Brotherhood will not only pay his debt, but also further advance his place in society. Furthermore, he hopes to eliminate existing oppression. Once he is initiated into the party, his name and identity changes, making his personal beliefs remain invisible. At times, he wants to challenge the Brotherhood’s authority and belief system, but he stays powerless because his viewpoints remain often ignored; he is just another voice in the group so as a result, his presence does not stand out from the rest. Thus, Ellison uses motif of invisibility to exemplify the obstacles faced by the narrator.
Throughout the novel, the narrator feels imperceptible because society does not see him for who he truly is. Ellison uses the motifs of masks, blindness, and invisibility to illustrate the narrator’s obstacle to fight oppression in the world. Towards the end of the book, the narrator realizes that he wants to remain true to his own identity, without giving up himself to others again. For many years, he has been trying to break away from black stereotypes, but remains controlled by the white establishment. After writing and narrating his life in the underground, where no white man can direct him, he realizes that he can rise and make a change. The unknown narrator is now ready to emerge from the darkness to make a positive impact in society and become visible in a world full of complexities.