The First (of Many) Invisible Man Musings

My reading speed seems to have slowed considerably as of late. Being only eight chapters into Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man I feel like I haven’t even really broken the surface, but I’m trying not to be too hard on myself; maybe this book is just meant to be savored. Despite not finished the book yet–like I  normally would have–I’m still really enjoying it and my enjoyment has only grown as I’ve gone up in page number. One thing that I just can resist when it comes to literature are meticulous, intricate details and it seems to me that just that is Ellison’s forte.

In the first chapter of The Invisible Man, not only are we introduced to the invisible man himself (T.I.M) but also we’re indirectly introduced to his grandfather who imparts in him some eerie advice about how to deal with whites. He tells T.I.M to “keep up the good fight” and to “overcome ‘em with yeses” (16).  T.I.M’s grandfather is suggesting that through total complicity, he’s actually rebelling. This advice haunts him; it makes it so his grandfather “had not died at all” (16).  Yet, T.I.M lives in the shadow of the advice “even in spite of [him]self” (16). He openly shares that this advice was perplexing to him; it was also perplexing to me and it gets even more puzzling. After the mishap with Mr. Norton and when T.I.M is talking to Dr. Bledsoe, he acquires some more advice–he’s always getting advice from someone. Dr. Bledsoe tells him, “ the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie.” (139). Here T.I.M. is left with two pieces of at least partially conflicting advice and, arguably, it’s his grandfather’s advice that got him in trouble in the first place. I believe that Ellison, in having this advice continually pop up, is emphasizing how T.I.M.’s orientation is changing as the book goes on. It’s my contention that he will have to learn for himself what constitutes the ‘right way’ to live and in order to do so, he first has to realize his own invisibility.

T.I.M.’s growth is particularly noticeable, in the context of his thoughts about Dr. Bledsoe. At first, he hails Dr. Bledsoe as if he were a god. Dr. Bledsoe epitomizes all that T.I.M. hopes to be: “Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillacs, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy-complexioned wife.” (101). To me, it seems that his goals are more than a little superficial. Money, power, and status do not equal happiness, but, as a junior in college, that’s all T.I.M. hopes for.

After his and Dr. Bledsoe’s discussion, however, T.I.M. starts to realize that this man isn’t suited for the pedestal that he’s put him on. Bledsoe reveals his true colors–in disregarding Mr. Norton and showing his thirst for power– which causes T.I.M. to become physically ill; he says, “my stomach was knotted and my kidneys ached. My legs were rubbery.” (144).  His realization about who Dr. Bledsoe is, and who he is is, a lot for him to take. He “floundered upon Dr. Bledsoe’s decision” because it wasn’t consistent with T.I.M.’s prior conception of him as a principled person. Yet, this flourishes into a beautiful thing; He acknowledges his ignorance saying “I knew of no other way of living, nor other forms of success available to such as me.” (147). I think that this is crucially important because it’s foreshadowing his eventual complete revelation which is somehow tied to realization of his invisibility. At this point, he “still believing [him]self innocent,” yet, this line is half hinting at the fact that maybe he isn’t–at least not entirely. I’m willing to bet that in order to see the truth, he will have to face “the world of Trueblood and the Golden Day;” precisely what powerful, successful blacks like Dr. Bledsoe are trying to ignore and hide.

As I have said, I am enjoying The Invisible Man but as a woman, it’s impossible for me to not notice the shortage of female characters so far. It would also be impossible for me to ignore that the ones that we are already  acquainted with are terrible representations of women. The first woman mentioned in the novel is the blonde, naked dancer in chapter one. T.I.M. describes her as having “fine skin texture and beads of pearly perspiration glistening like dew around the pink and erected buds of her nipples,” making it clear that her only significance to him is that of a sexual object (19). He expresses the desire “to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V.”  (19). He boils her down to just “soft breasts” and “a capital V” (19).

This objectifying of women continues through the text. The next women introduced in the text are the Trueblood women, both of which are pregnant due to some unbearably gruesome circumstances. The father’s increasing awareness of his daughter’s womanhood plays some role is the mishap; he acknowledges this saying, “I’m realizin’ that she’s a woman now,…She said somethin’ I couldn’t understand, like a woman says when she wants to tease and please a man. I knowed then she was grown and I wondered how many times it’d done happened and was it that doggone boy”(56). That’s the only light we see his daughter in, in her relationship to the men around her.

Then there are the women of the Golden Day, all of which are prostitutes that are dressed in  “short, tight-fitting, stiffly starched gingham aprons”(74); again, they’re only seen objects of desire. The last woman we see is one that T.I.M. runs into on campus who asks him to deliver a message to her boyfriend. He criticizes her saying that if he delivers her message, “they’d meet and she’d be sent home pregnant” (105)–because, of course, there’s no way that she could be motivated by anything other than sex. All these encounters with women are summed up by the doc, on T.I.M.’s bus ride to New York, when he states “what will be…any man’s most easily accessible symbol of freedom? Why, a woman, of course. In twenty minutes he can inflate that symbol with all the freedom which he’ll be too busy working to enjoy the rest of the time.” (153). Women are valuable to men because men are free to do with they want with them. The naked dancing blonde, Trueblood’s daughter, and the prostitutes from the Golden Day all serve as examples of this. Whenever women are mentioned in The Invisible Man it’s only ever in the context of sex, the only thing women have to offer men. Ellison is clearly making a conjecture about the treatment of women; I don’t know if he’s critiquing it, reaffirming it, or a combination of the two.

I’m confident that as I continue to read, the story will only build on the things I’ve touched on. Despite my slow start, I think I’ll fly through the rest of the book. These short one-pagers (that I do a hell of a good job making much too long) motivate me to read–sometimes because they make me realize what a text has to offer and sometimes just because of the joy I get in writing about reading. While writing this, I noticed some of the subtleties woven through Ellison’s work that I would’ve otherwise missed; I also realized that I derive a lot of my happiness from writing–and what’s particularly profound about my writing-related happiness is that it’s a conscious happiness. It’s something I can cling to when I feel like I’m in a  “shoreless sea of toil.”

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