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False Identity In Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison

2203 words - 9 pages

In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, one of Ellison’s greatest assets is his ability to bestow profound significance upon inanimate objects. During the narrator’s journey from the bar to the hole, he acquires a series of objects that signify both the manifestations of a racist society, as well as the clues he employs to deconstruct his indoctrinated identity. The narrator’s briefcase thereby becomes a figurative safe in his mind that can only be unlocked by understanding the true nature of the objects that lie within. Thus, in order to realize who he is, the narrator must first realize who he is not: that unreal man whose name is written in Jack’s pen, or the forcibly grinning visage of ...view middle of the document...

And within the briefcase lies the hook at the end of the invisible, figurative fishing line: “a scholarship to the state college for Negroes” (32). The foundational persona of the narrator’s new, given identity is what “the Board of Education” calls a “good, smart boy” (32) who will dutifully “lead his people…in the right direction” (32). Shortly thereafter, the narrator has a dream. In this dream, he comes across an envelope that seems to be the exact one that contained his scholarship. However, when he opens the envelope in his dream, the note says, “to whom it may concern…keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (33). As the narrator will eventually learn, the effect of the scholarship and the effect of the dreamed version of the scholarship are essentially the same. Because the narrator does not realize this unfortunate truth about the manipulative nature of his scholarship, one may conclude that the narrator’s identity has already begun to be rewired to the model of the gullible puppet encouraged by white society.
The slip of paper Brother Jack gives the narrator at the Brotherhood party is another, even more blatant, example of an object from the narrator’s briefcase overlaying his identity. After reluctantly accepting Brother Jack’s offer to join the mysterious organization of The Brotherhood, the narrator attends a Brotherhood function. Immediately after arriving, Brother Jack asks Emma to give the narrator a white envelope. (A white envelope that, not insignificantly, up till this moment has been housed in “the bosom of [Emma’s] taffeta hostess gown” (309).) Before the narrator can open the envelope, Brother Jack tells him what is inside: “this is your new identity” (309). In terms of forcing an identity on someone, it does not get much more obvious than someone giving you a slip of paper and saying, this “is your new name… Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment” (309).
The cast iron figure that the narrator finds while packing to leave Mary’s house is a profound representation of how the narrator’s identity is warped by the racist society. As a condition of getting the job with the Brotherhood, the narrator is forced to leave all the things that made him who he was prior to his becoming a Brother behind. While packing his things in preparation of leaving Mary’s house, the narrator stumbles across a “cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro” (319). While he may not know it, the narrator is describing a figurine somewhat representative of the brutally racist tradition of lawn-jockeys. This fundamentally inhuman caricature of a “very black” (319), “red-lipped” (319) and “wide-mouthed” (319) figure presents a salient image of the stereotypical black man as a savage or ape—a persona common to the racist propaganda of the time. Moreover, to put this image in the perspective of where it falls sequentially in the text, it is no accident that this mindless creature appears immediately after the narrator takes...

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