A Deep Read of “Invisible Man”

Sometimes I find it challenging to write about books, albeit rarely. In those situations, the challenge is usually rooted in the fact that I can’t really relate to the text. However once the themes of a novel start to reveal themselves to me, I normally cling to one and can’t let it go. This is definitely the case for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I’ve found the topic that I’m passionate about: the invisible woman–yes, it maybe be a touch ironic considering the title but that doesn’t make me any less passionate about it. I also feel the need to say that I have, indeed, nearly finished the novel at this point, but will limit my analysis to the allotted chapters for two reasons: 1) we haven’t spoken in class about the rest of the chapters yet, and I don’t have enough confidence in my own unaided insight to reveal them and 2) there’s more to talk about in just the allotted chapters than I have words for in the “approximately 500” word limit.

In chapter thirteen, we are introduced to the Brotherhood that is lead by Brother Jack. Upon entering their hangout, the Chthonian, T.I.M discovers that the brotherhood isn’t all brothers; there’s women and they’re alluring at that. It’s at the door we meet Emma with her “hard, handsome face” (300). In this scene there’s a few different paradoxes and a weird disoriented feeling at play–T.I.M.’s unsure if he’s ascending or descending in the elevator, he sees a knocker on the door yet they use a doorbell, and depite entering the brotherhood’s domain, the door is answered by a woman. Emma, herself, is also a paradox. Her initial description is followed with another conflicting one. T.I.M. is easily distracted (or maybe just excited) by “pressing tensely against her perfumed softness, seeing her smile as though there were only she and I” (300). This representation of women is incredibly annoying to me; it causes me to scoff at the novel and its women yet again. Why does she have to be “soft” and “exotic.” Despite T.I.M’s proclamation that he was “disturbed not so much by the close contact,” I just don’t buy it; he seems pretty enthralled by Emma. It’s also worth noting that Emma is a sort of show piece, with each time she’s mentioned she’s smiling.

After the introductions have been had, Brother Jack takes to ordering Emma around like a dog, instructing her, “Emma, the bourbon! Two bourbons” (302). While Brother Jack is distracted by securing his beverage and making his plans concrete, there’s something going on between Emma and T.I.M. They’re making eyes at one another. He classifies her glare as “not the harsh uninterested-in-you-as-a- human-being stare that I’d known in the South, the kind that swept over a black man as though he were a horse or an insect; it was something more, a direct, what-type-of-mere-man-have-we-here kind of look that seemed to go beneath my skin;” Emma is sizing T.I.M. up and he feels uncomfortable about it and my bet is it’s because she’s a white woman (302). At the same time, however, after his blackness is called into question he thinks, “I’d like to show her how really black I am” (303). This scene allows Emma more power than most woman in the book, she’s a little bit of a seductress, but at least she’s clever in her actions.

T.I.M. and Emma’s flirtation peaks when “Emma came up and challenged [T.I.M] to dance” (314). This line was particularly interesting to me because of the verb “challenge.” With the situation being so reminiscent of Battle Royale to use a verb like challenge, which Oxford defines as “A call to someone to participate in a competitive situation or fight to decide who is superior in terms of ability or strength,” is a very deliberate choice by Ellison. This word choice isn’t the only thing interesting about this description. Ripples of a statement made earlier by the doc on the way to New York are very much present. He told T.I.M. that he “might even dance with a white girl,” a prediction made true with Emma (152).

I knew that there was something more to Emma than meets the eye. Doc tells T.I.M a woman is “any man’s most accessible symbol of freedom,” but I still felt there was more to her than just representing freedom–she wouldn’t be the first woman to do so. Battle Royale flashback anyone? Me being me, I decided to search for some more criticism. It seems to me that our relationship has made it to the next level; there’s no going back now. It’s a lifestyle that I entirely endorse. My first search was in the Gale Virtual Reference Library, but its results were lackluster.

After searching a couple dozen literary journals, I found these five (count ‘em: 1  2  3  4  5) takes on the role of woman in the text. All five seem to agree that “the Invisible Man has been taught, by indirect cultural affirmations, to equate white women with power and possession and not as human beings” (4).  The third builds on this idea saying, “The narrator of Invisible Man in fact loses what slight recognition he has of woman-as-human at the beginning of the novel as he becomes more closely allied with manhood, Brotherhood, and his own personhood.” I know what you’re thinking: “How does all this relate to Emma?” Critical essay number one answers this. The author claims that Emma “represents stage two of [T.I.M.’s] development which is apparent when he tries to convince himself that he is not intimidated by her, but the fact that he overcompensates for his past feelings of racial anxiety makes us believe the contrary…the young protagonist doesn’t realize that he shares Emma’s fate. Both are instruments for the exercise of another’s control and assertion of power” (1). This parallel is important. Maybe, Ellison gives the women of the text more precedence and power than meets the eye. Maybe, that’s the whole point. Number five agrees with my assertion stating, “Women help the progression of the nameless narrator…because they aid him in recognizing the fundamental truths underlying the dangers and powers of his invisibility: manipulation of others, dehumanization, freedom, and responsibility.” There are so many connections and so little time. It is abundantly clear to me, however, that this book is

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The minute I think I have a handle on it, I further entangle myself in its web of complexities.

At the start of this, I intended on touching on the interesting things that Ras the Exhorter had to say about women, but it seems I’ve already said far too much; I get carried away easily. I also must point out the difficulties of piecing together different critical essays to further a point–interesting and rewarding, but difficult. There’s so much I have to learn…and I’m not just talking about from criticism. To think, I only have two more responses to flush out the rest of the novel. What ever shall I do? Our time is dwindling and I’m just getting started. Must all good things really come to an end? I hope not. Alas, time is not yet up. I have two more response in me. The best is yet to come.

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