The Importance of Setting in Invisible Man
The Liberty Paint Factory in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man provides the setting for a very significant chain of events in the novel. In addition, it provides many symbols which will influence a reader's interpretation. Some of those symbols are associated with the structure itself, with Mr. Kimbro, and with Mr. Lucius Brockway.
The first of many instances in these scenes that concern the invisible man and the symbolic role of white and black in the novel is when the narrator is sent to the paint factory by the young Mr. Emerson to try to find a job. Mr. Emerson, however, only sends him out of pity. The narrator arrives and immediately notices the huge electric sign that reads "KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS". Later on, the reader will learn that Liberty Paint is famous for its white paint called none other than "Optic White". In effect, the sign advertises to keep America pure with whites and not just white paint. Next, the invisible man must walk down a long, pure white hallway. At this time he is a black man symbolically immersed in a white world, a recurring idea of the novel.
After receiving his job, the narrator goes to meet Mr. Kimbro. In this scene, Kimbro teaches the narrator how to make the ordinary white paint into "Optic White": Ten drops of a black formula must be mixed in to the white paint, of which the surface is already brown. The narrator does not understand this, and inquires about it, only to be insulted by Mr. Kimbro. Mr. Kimbro, in no way what so ever, wants any of his workers to think. He just wants them to obey. So the invisible man, although still unable to comprehend this idiosyncrasy, does not persist. The white paint may represent the white world, perhaps even America, as alluded to in the company's advertisement. The black formula is what makes the white paint into "Optic White", a much better, whiter, white. The formula, perhaps, represents the behind the scenes blacks that worked for the whites so that society persisted as it did in that time period. This idea will be touched upon once again later on in this series of scenes.
The invisible man then falls victim to a bad set of circumstances. He runs out of formula, and since Kimbro is not around, he tries to get himself some more. However, there are two containers with what appear to be the same kind of formulas, just with different markings. Naturally, the narrator uses his intuition and discovers that the two liquids in the tanks smell differently, and one smells like the formula he was using. He gets more of that solution, and continues his work, only to be scolded later by Kimbro that he chose the wrong one. Once again, Kimbro states that he does not want any thinkers working for him. He wants a submissive black that will just follow the "rules" established in his "society". After fixing his...