Ralph Ellison painstakingly crafted a separate world in Invisible Man , a novel that succeeds because it is an intricate aesthetic creation -- humane, compassionate, and yet gloriously devoid of a moral. Social comment is neither the aim nor the drive of art, and Ellison did not attempt to document a plight. He created a place where race is reflected and distorted, where pithy generalities are dismissed, where personal and aesthetic prisms distill into an individualized, articulate consciousness -- it is impossible, not to mention foolish and simplistic, to attempt to exhort a moral from the specific circumstances of the narrator, who is not a cardboard martyr and who doesn't stand for anyone other than himself: he does not represent the Everyman, nor does he epitomize thesufferings of his race. The narrator can prompt questions about and discussions on both themes precisely because his is an individualized experience -- unassailable, apolitical1 and ultimately aesthetic. Ellison succeeded by projecting his words through several funhouse mirrors, and particularly by carefully layering the valences and meanings of specific images -- any aesthetic experience, specially the written word, is inherently a distortion of reality.
Saussure, the founder of modern linguistics, believed that the written language depended on sequentiality to be intelligible2. Sense and coherence require scanning one significant unit at a time, phoneme by phoneme, word by word, phrase by phrase, paragraph by paragraph, until significant meaning is achieved and stacked on to other units for an expanded or qualified signifying body, each separate signifier expanding on the previous and preparing the groundwork for the next.
Signifiers in literature are trickier. Whereas a signifying unit elsewhere represents a simple, straightforward symbol (a "No Parking" sign) a unit in literature is intended to convey several things at once. Conscious repeated variations of a word or image portray both what is readily apparent to the eye and also recall previous incarnations of the same trope, both in and out of the corpus of the aesthetic work itself. This stacking of signs explains the nature of metaphorical literary language, and it particularly explains why Ellison's use of ironic and stacked imagery works so well.
The dream imagery of Invisible Man's prologue3, "I entered [the cave] and below that I found a lower level I wandered down a dark narrow passage" echoes the dream imagery of the last chapter in the novel, "still whirling on in the blackness, knocking against the walls of a narrow passage... and the darkness to light..." Darkness and light play an important role throughout the book but specially in these bookend images, and so does the image of the passage, but the reader should be impressed by the stacking involved and not by obvious symbolism (race, knowledge, etc). The prologue image is a chemically-induced hallucination, whereas the one at...