What makes us visible to others and how does sometimes society remains blind on the existence of someone are few questions the ‘invisible man’ addresses. The meaning of invisible in Ellison’s novel is essentially metaphorical. The term invisible is not used in literal sense in the novel and it relates to being noticed or ignored due to our perspectives of race, gender, or class. Throughout the novel, Ralph Ellison works with many different images of blindness and impaired vision and how it relates to perception. These images prove to be interesting pieces of symbolism that enhance the themes of impression and vision within the novel.
From the beginning of the novel when the narrator is blindfolded during the battle royal to the end where Brother Jack’s false eye pops out, images of sight and blindness add to the meaning of many scenes and characters. In the prologue, the narrator describes how he is invisible. He tells the readers, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). He further says that people cannot see him, not because of their physical eyes, but because of their inner eyes, which is a reference to their thoughts on race. Since he is a black man, he believes that they overlook him for this fact.
In the first chapter, the narrator gives a speech at his high school graduation that quoted the ideals of Booker T. Washington, “that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress for black and white race relations” (17). The speech was so renowned in his community that he was asked to give it again at a town meeting of white higher-ups. Almost immediately, they are forced to watch a naked white woman dance. Then, they are blindfolded with “broad bands of white cloth” (21) and made to fight each other. These are two signifiers of the white power over the blacks.
If they do look at the woman or if they try to look away, the white men tell them to do the opposite. Either way, their vision is a disadvantage. At the narrator’s college, he looks at the statue of Founder lifting a veil from a slave’s eyes the statue longer. The narrator asks the question whether the Founder is removing the veil, or lowering it “…. more firmly into place” (36)? The author uses the statue’s empty eyes as a metaphor for the delusional ideals of the Founder and his stubborn neglect of racist reality. The author uses this as a symbol of invisibility to the real world issues.
Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the narrator’s college is shown as a character who is putting on a mask of submission to the white community because all he cares about is his position of power at the college. He tells the narrator, “I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (143). The narrator’s job at a paint factory is symbolic of the interdependence of white and black color. The narrator finds out that to make the color ‘optic white’ ten drops of a jet black liquid are added (199).
The author here indicates that the white supremacy is only derived from the presence of blacks in society. Moreover, when the narrator is sent to factory hospital after an accident, he wakes up with a doctor examining his head wearing a mirror headband that reflected painfully bright light at the narrator. He referred to it as a “third eye that glowed from the center of his forehead” (231). This could be a reference to the mythical third eye that holds psychic powers. Also in the hospital, the narrator’s vision is often very blurry and he cannot see his surroundings clearly.
Later in the novel, the narrator discovers that Jack has a glass eye. His literal blindness thus symbolizes how his strong commitment to the Brotherhood’s ideology has blinded him. He tells the narrator, “We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them! ” (473). To conclude, we can say that the main theme of the novel is the concept of vision and blindness. There are numerous characters and incidents which symbolize and reinforce this perception.
However after having read the novel, one realizes that how the narrator’s believe of invisibility due to being black is actually making him so visible to everyone he comes in contact with. The narrator is often ignored, brushed aside, and overlooked by white characters not because he was not being seen but this is entirely because they all saw him as black in the first place. This is the essence or the main theme which Ellison very effectively portrayed in this novel.
Works Cited Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 2nd edition, March, 1995.