Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man observes a young unnamed narrator as he recounts his journey in discovering his own invisibility. In his struggle with existentialism, the narrator is faced with racial discrimination and the inability of others to recognize him as an individual, rather than a tool to manipulate or just another member of his race. The narrator is repeatedly manipulated and defined by society, and depends on various systems to give his life purpose. Ellison presents many themes in the novel, such as racism, existentialism, blindness and invisibility, all of which are subtly introduced in the opening chapter. Each of these themes gain definition and solid presence as the story progresses, but one seems to be more all-encompassing and prevalent than the others: Existentialism.
The narrator introduces his story with an existentialist statement that echoes throughout the rest of the book: “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was…I was looking for myself and asking questions which I, and only I, could answer” (15). In retrospect, the narrator realizes his naivety, and reflects upon his life to identify what caused all the trouble: His grandfather’s dying words of, “I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16) . He realizes this is where the trouble began because he was carrying out his grandfather’s advice in spite of himself; he was acting with obedience and humility, doing exactly what the white men wanted him to in order to achieve progress. He follows the demands of others to receive praise and success, but in the process he loses himself. When he is invited to give a speech at a gathering of the town’s leading white officials, he is forced into fighting his schoolmates in a battle royal for the entertainment of the men before he can deliver his oration. Even though he “visualized [himself] as a potential Booker T. Washington” (18) and thought himself to be superior to his peers, he does not protest the humiliating and racist battle. He obliges and subjects himself to the mistreatment because he wants to deliver his speech; he feels that “only [those] men could truly judge [his] ability” (25). The narrator is blindfolded for the fight, and finds himself in a “sudden fit of blind terror. [He] was unused to the darkness” (21). In effort to receive approval from his superiors, he allows himself to be manipulated and even blinded. In the first chapter, his blindness is literal, but as the story continues it becomes figurative and representative of the darkness he is kept in by accepting each identity he is given by everyone he meets.
The narrator’s existential crisis is consistent through the whole of the novel,...