Sick of Ellison Yet? I’m Not

If I had to sum up my Invisible Man “one-pagers” thus far I would title the collection “A Novice Wades Through a Sea of Invisible Man Criticism.” Maybe I’m too dependent on criticism. Then again, maybe not. I’m going to diverge a little, out of concern for the interests of my reader(s), because me liking criticism doesn’t mean everybody does. So to get out of my rut of feminist rants and criticism analysis, I’m going to shift foci. In my opinion, one of the most compelling scenes in the novel is the funeral scene following Brother Clifton’s death. In some ways, it acts as a climax to all the Brotherhood-related drama, but it also opens the door to T.I.M questioning the Brotherhood’s motives. In the end, however, the funeral scene is just of one many flickers of light in the darkness that is T.I.M.’s ignorance. It takes T.I.M. nearly one hundred more pages to evade the darkness and step into the light.

Before talking about the funeral scene, it’s important to put into context Clifton’s death. T.I.M witnesses Clifton selling paper Sambo dolls in the street prior to his murder. The mention of Sambo reminded me of the Battle Royale scene when a blond man looks at T.I.M and says “That’s right, Sambo” (26). This connection made me think that there’s something going on with the Sambo dolls. I had no idea what this doll even was so I Googled it and was very disturbed by the result. T.I.M. sees Clifton controlling the doll with “some mysterious mechanism…causing [it] to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion” (431).  The fact that Ellison has a character refer to T.I.M. earlier in the novel as Sambo and then shows a Sambo doll being controlled by some invisible means makes it impossible for me to not think that the situation represents something deeper–that T.I.M.’s is being controlled by his circumstances and by the Brotherhood.

T.I.M. is just as disturbed by the Sambo dolls as I was. He thinks, “Why had he picked that way to earn a quarter? Why not sell apples or song sheets, or shine shoes” (434). He knows Clifton is above such baseness. However, this questioning is before he realizes the pernicious nature of the Brotherhood. T.I.M. wonders why Clifton “had chose to fall outside of history” when “he knew that only in the Brotherhood could we make ourselves known, could we avoid being empty Sambo dolls” (434). Oh, the irony! Isn’t that exactly what the Brotherhood is making them, these Sambo dolls? After T.I.M sees Clifton gunned down in the middle of the street, he asks all the ‘why’ questions. Why did he choose to sell those dolls? Why did he provoke the cop; didn’t he know better? Why did he “plunge outside of history and peddle an obscenity” (438)?

It is through his questioning that T.I.M. comes to a revelation about the nature of history. He concludes, “history records the patterns of men’s lives…All things, it is said, are duly recorded — all things of importance, that is. But not quite, for actually it is only the known, the seen, the heard and only those events that the recorder regards as important that are put down, those lies his keepers keep their power by” (439). History is a tool used by people like the Brotherhood to justify their methods. The Brotherhood worries about itself first, leaving groups, like blacks, behind. T.I.M’s clearly disoriented by this conclusion; all of his pondering causes him to “tremble so violently [he] had to lean against a refuse can” (441). Finally, he has a little aha moment thinking “what if Brother Jack were wrong” (441)? Reading this line gave me a little hope. It’s unbearable watching T.I.M. constantly walk into terrible situations blindly. The worse part is that it takes him forever to figure out he’s being deceived. My hope, however, was false, despite declaring that he “had been asleep,” T.I.M. doesn’t disentangle from the Brotherhood and remains almost as clueless as he was before his revelation.

Now on to Clifton’s funeral. What I found so interesting about the funeral scene is the shift in sentence length. Most of the book is relatively long-winded and sing-songy but when it comes to the funeral you get these short choppy sentences like “His name was Clifton and they shot him down. His name was Clifton and he was tall and some folks thought him handsome” or “He often smiled. He had good eyes and a pair of fast hands, and he had a heart” (455). The repetition in the first parts of these sentences also gives T.I.M.’s speech at the funeral a sort of poetic flare. Later in his speech, this continues; he says, “Here are the facts. He was standing and he fell. He fell and he kneeled. He kneeled and he bled. He bled and he died” (456). This language is beautiful. It’s passages like these that make me forgive Ellison for writing a book about 150 pages too long and what makes this scene my favorite in the novel; it’s truly a pleasure to read lines like these.

Aside from the rhythm of the speech, I noticed some other, strange things about the funeral service. The first thing I noted was a description of a peanut vendor who “stretch[ed] out his arms with his palms turned upward” (454). This made me immediately think that some sort Christ-related allusions were at play. This combined with the fact that the funeral procession was happening on “the top of [a] little mountain,” which is reminiscent of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, made me more certain that something was going on. The last straw for me, in all of these allusions, is when T.I.M. says in his speech, “His name was Clifton, Tod Clifton, and, like any man, he was born of woman to live awhile and fall and die. So that’s his tale to the minute.” How can you read this and not think of the Apostle’s Creed? So what does this all mean; I think that perhaps Tod is a Christ figure…or maybe T.I.M. is. I’m uncertain. All of these details attest to Ellison’s writing prowess. The man has skills.

Ellison’s novel, sort of like my response, meanders a lot, but it is filled with many profound little details. While it was incredibly frustrating at times to “bear with” T.I.M.’s ignorance, I concede that in the end, it’s worth it. It pains me to say that in spite of its length, Invisible Man has the same artistry as Toni Morrison’s Beloved–though I have to say I still prefer that novel over this one. Also, to hell with it, I’m going back to writing about women or criticism (or even better, women and criticism) because I find it more interesting–not that I didn’t enjoy decoding this scene, I just prefer that topic more.

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