A close reading of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”

The first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s work, The Invisible Man, concludes with a night terror. The narrator envisions attending a circus with his late grandfather, a man whose last words seem to haunt and entangle the larger moments in his young life. “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. 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” (Ellison 1211).

It is not long after, when we find the narrator, penned in the lion’s mouth, fighting to keep balance on the beast’s turbulent tongue. He scrambles to stay clear from the throat, while assuring the passage of the opposing combatants to the belly. He fights the good fight, and the clowns roar with applause. The clowns here are the wealthy white men, who dizzily clamor about the Battle Royal with wide wet grins, stretched across their faces. The narrator is conducted as an act in the circus, as are his fellow black schoolmates and the blonde.  The roles of these characters as circus spectacles are dually recognized by the narrator.  He describes one of the combatants as, “glistening with sweat like a black circus seal” (1220), and the hair of the dancing blonde as, “yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll” (1213).

The theme of circus is one that stirs visuals of rings and movement; Of Circus wagons, hopping from town-to-town to captivate demanding audiences with performances of only slight variation. A circus route is one that the narrator is on. He Naïvely looks from a pit at a crowd of clowns, performing as told, blindly anticipating only calculated rewards. This circuital element is best illustrated in the closing nightmare scene, which reads,

That night I dreamed I was at a circus with him and that he refused to laugh at the clowns no matter what they did. Then later he told me to open my brief case and read what was inside and I did, finding an official envelope stamped with the state seal; and inside the envelope I found another and another, endlessly, and I thought I would fall of weariness. “Them’s years,” he said. “Now open that one.” And I did and in it I found an engraved document containing a short message in letters of gold. “Read it,” my grandfather said. “Out loud!”

“To Whom It May Concern,” I intoned. “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” (Ellison 1221)

The excerpt eerily describes the narrator’s endless procurement of envelopes from the briefcase he was rewarded for his speech at the battle royal. Just like scarves from the sleeve of a clown, the stream of envelopes is endless and distracting. Upon the presentation of the calf-skinned briefcase, The School Superintendent orates the following,  “He makes a good speech and someday he’ll lead his people in the proper paths. And I don’t have to tell you that that is important in these days and times. This is a good, smart boy, and so to encourage him in the right direction, in the name of the Board of Education I wish to present him a prize in the form of this…” (1220). The prize briefcase represents the limiting path of social responsibility. Its contents, remains a series of envelopes and permissions designed to distract and occupy the recipient until their exhaustion.

Additionally, the circuital element becomes relevant when the narrator takes a service elevator with his classmates to the battle royal.  As the elevator descends, the narrator notices how, “warmly lighted floors flashed past the elevator” (1212). These warm and inviting glimpses of the floors highlight the narrator’s anticipation of arrival at the event floor. Just as the envelopes pour from the briefcase like scarves, the floors flicker past him. Instead of stepping off the elevator shaft or refusing the briefcase case he continues on to the Battle Royal. Ellison represents social responsibility as something insidious. The more powerful party will act as a parasite. Slowly, the demands of that party will lick the life from the host overtime.

Part way into the battle, the narrator begins to question his path.

“A lucky blow to his chin and I had him going too –– until I heard a loud voice yell, “I got my money on the big boy.” Hearing this, I almost dropped my guard. I was confused: Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance? A blow to my head as I danced about sent my right eye popping like a jack-in-the-box and settled my dilemma” (Ellison 1216).

Here the narrator comes to realize that in the realm of social responsibility, his role would be to take the hit from “the big boy”. He is then blindsided, both by the blow of a fist to his crown and his new found will for resistance.  From this turning point Elliot begins to unravel the narrators ground. In proceeding scenes the narrator reacts with surprise to his own actions. For instance, his attempt to pull one of the wealthy clowns to the electric rug, “I feared the rug more than I did the drunk, so I held on, surprising myself for a moment by trying to topple him upon the rug. It was such an enormous idea that I found myself actually carrying it out” (1218).   This slip of the narrator’s practiced “humility” can similarly be observed when he delivers his long awaited speech. In his committed preparation for the event, he could not have foreseen the occasion as it came to be. Barely conscious and choking on blood, he took the stage. The narrator reflects, “I closed my ears and swallowed my blood until I was nauseated. The speech seemed a hundred times as long as before, but I could not leave out a single word. All had to be said, each memorized nuance considered and rendered. Nor was that all” (1219).  And it certainly wasn’t all, because then amongst the shouts and pain the narrator found himself to be choking down something besides the blood from his fresh wounds.  As he tripped over the so practiced phrase of “Social Responsibility,” the word “Equality” slipped right out. Oozing out of his subconscious with the blood that drooled from his lips.

The concluding nightmare scene confirms that the narrator’s view of social responsibility has been jolted. In this conflict he gains sight of the circular path where he’s expected to remain.  Around and around he’ll go, his grandfather’s laugh trailing him all the way.




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