“Who the hell am I” (Ellison 386)? This question puzzled the invisibleman, the unidentified, anonymous narrator of Ralph Ellison’s acclaimed novel,Invisible Man. Throughout the story, the narrator embarks on a mental andphysical journey to seek what the narrator believes is “trueidentity,” a belief quite mistaken, for he, although unaware of it, hadalready been inhabited by true identities all along. Ellison, in Invisible Man,uses the main characters invisibility and conflict with the outside world toillustrate the confusion of identity that many people experience. The narrator’slife is filled with constant eruptions of mental traumas. The biggestpsychological burden he has is his identity, or rather his misidentity.
He feelsa “wearing on the nerves” (Ellison 3) for people to see him as whatthey like to believe he is and not see him as what he really is. Throughout hislife, he takes on several different identities and none, he thinks, adequatelyrepresents his true self, until his final one, as an invisible man. The narratorthinks the many identities he possesses do not reflect him, but he fails torecognize that identity is simply a mirror that reflects the surroundings andthe person who looks into it.
It is only in this reflection of the immediatesurrounding that the viewers can relate to the narrator’s identity. The viewerssee only the part of the narrator that is apparently connected to the viewer’sown world. The part obscured is unknown and, therefore, insignificant. LuciusBrockway, an old operator of the paint factory, saw the narrator only as anexistence threatening his job, despite that the narrator is sent there to merelyassist him.
Brockway repeatedly questions the narrator of his purpose there andhis mechanical credentials but never even bother to inquire his name. Because tothe old fellow, who the narrator is as a person is uninterested. What he is asan object and what that object’s relationship is to Brockway’s engine room isimportant. The narrator’s identity is pulled from this relationship, and thisrelationship suggests to Brockway that his identity is a “threat.”However, the viewer decides to see someone as the identity they assign to thatperson. The Closing of The American Mind, by Allan Bloom, explains this identityphenomenon by comparing two “ships of states” (Bloom 113).
If one ship”is to be forever at sea, and another is to reach port and the passengersgo their separate ways, they think about one another and their relationships onthe ship very differently in the two cases” (Bloom 113). In the firststate, friends will be acquainted and enemies will be formed, while in thesecond state, the passengers will most likely not bother to know anyone new, andeveryone will get off the ship and remain strangers to one another. A person’sidentity is unique to every different viewer at every different location andsituation. This point the narrator senses but does not fully understand. Duringhis first Brotherhood meeting, he exclaims, “I am a new citizen of thecountry of your vision, a native of your fraternal land” (Ellison 328) ! Hepreaches to others the fact that identity is transitional, yet he does notaccept it himself. Maybe he thought it distressing being liked not for being histrue self but because of the identity he puts on, or being hated not for beinghimself but because of his identity. To Dr.
Bledsoe, the principal of the blacksouthern university where the narrator attended, the narrator is a petty”black educated fool” (Ellison 141). To Mr. Norton, a rich whitetrustee of the black university, the narrator is a simple object intertwinedwith his fate, a mere somebody, he explained to the narrator, that “wassomehow connected with Mr. Norton’s destiny” (Ellison 41). To theorganizers of the Brotherhood, Jack, Tobitt, and the others, the narrator iswhat they designed him to be. They designed for him an identity of a socialspeaker and leader, and to his listeners and followers, he is just that.
Thesewere his multiple identities, and none were less authentic than the others were,because to his onlookers, he is what his identities say he is, even if he thinksdifferently. The narrator always had a desire for people “who could givehim a proper reflection of his importance” (Ellison 160). But there isno such thing as a proper reflection because his importance varies amongdifferent people. Subconsciously, he craves attention. He wants recognition andstatus and wants to be honored as someone special. He must feel that he”can have no dignity if his status is not special, if he is not essentiallydifferent”(Bloom 193); therefore he joins Brotherhood in order todistinguish himself, and to give himself an identity. He gets what he wants,recognition and fame, but it is not right he thought, for he is recognized onlyfor his false identity.
His identity positions him in the center of attention ofthousands of people, yet he feels he is unseen. In the brotherhood of thousandsof brothers, yet he feels no one knows him. This is his feeling of having amisidentity, but it is his conception of identity, which is mistaken. Tocomprehend identity, it would be necessary to understand that, in a solitarystate, there is no need for identity, because identity is like a name, a label aperson wears for those around him to see. If a person is stranded on an island,what use will it be to have a name? The narrator thought he “was becomingsomeone else”(Ellison 328) when he acquired his new Brotherhood name, but aname change is simply a prescription for an identity change in the same humanbeing. A name, or rather call it an identity, is dynamic and interchangeable; abeing is static.
Rinehart, in the story, is an identity, which to differentpeople implied a gambler, a briber, a lover, and a Reverend, and even happenedto be an identity the narrator incidentally acquires temporarily. The narratordoes not understand the fact that “Man is ambiguous” (Bloom 113), thatman is viewed differently from different perspectives, but how a man is seenwill not alter the person he is. The same person in different states ofidentities will experience quite a deviation in the way he or she is treated.The different treatments can lead to how one feels about one’s own being, which,in some cases, might illusion oneself as being a different person.
John HowardGriffon, the author and narrator of the true-life novel, Black Like Me,demonstrated the interchangeability of identities and its effects. For himself,a white man, to understand what it is like to be black, he decides to”become a Negro” (Griffon 8). By simply darkening his skin with amedication, he gives up his life as a privileged white southerner, and”walks into a life that appears suddenly mysterious and frightening”(Griffon 9). Similarly, the narrator steps into a life of northern privileges hecould only dream of when he was in the South.
Probably “it was the clothesand the new name and the circumstances” (Ellison 328) which is sounfamiliar to the narrator that causes him to feel so different, and so strange,leading him into believing that he is becoming someone else. Perhaps he isstartled that people likes him so much, which makes him think he “hadbecome less of what he was, less a Negro” (Ellison 347); much like howGriffon is shocked when he glares into a mirror that reflects a “stranger,a fierce, bald, very dark Negro” (Griffon 191). But unlike the narrator,who rejects reality by assuming invisibility, Griffon stands face to face withthe people who see his new identity.
Although Griffon initially felt dividedinto “two men, the observing one and the one that panicked” (Griffon48), he eventually learns how people are seen through multiple perspectives. Thenarrator sees the meaning of identity as the universal perspective of a being.He acquires fame and recognition through the influential role he plays as aleading activist of the Brotherhood, and thinks everyone will regard him thatway. Feeling full of confidence and dignity, he greeted two black fellows in abar, thinking they would be astounded to see him. But, to his surprise, they”only look at him oddly”(Ellison 416).
To those two, his fame is hisnotoriety because they do not like his race philosophy. The narrator works foran ideology that promotes equality among all humans, whether black or white,male or female. While the two black fellows hold an opposing ideology, a popularconventional belief in blacks at the time that “insisted on respect forblacks as blacks, not as human beings simply” (Bloom 33). Instead of beingseen as a social leader, he is seen by those two as a social disgrace in theeyes of the black community. The narrator sees himself as a walking stereotype.He is right because anyone who is perceived through an identity is a stereotypebecause no identity reveals exactly who a person is. Like a stereotype, identityexists externally from the person it identifies because it exists within the eyeof the viewer.
The narrator, during his fight with a white man on the street,suddenly realized that he is fighting a person that “had not seenhim” (Ellison 4). However, that white man does see him, just that he isseen through an identity without any respect. The narrator is disgusted withpeople stereotyping him; therefore, he wants to believe himself as invisible.
Hedoes not want to speak at Clifton’s funeral, yet the people will not leave untilhe performs what is expected of him to give a speech. He comes to view his fameas a stereotype no different than that of those “black brothers whoentertained them white people with stories so often that they white peoplelaughed even before these fellows opened their mouths” (Ellison 413). Thenarrator can believe himself to be whatever he wants, but what he sees ofhimself is not what others see of him. He cannot decide for others how to seehim, although he can influence the way people see him just as easy as how J. H.
Griffon adopted his new identities when he “wakes up in a black man’sskin” (Griffon 161). According to The Closing of the American Mind, allidentities “depend on the free consent of individuals” (Bloom 110).For example a president holds his identity only because people elect to see himthat way, otherwise he is like any ordinary Joe. Even if he thinks of himself asreally nothing more than of common flesh and bones, he is no less a presidentbecause his identity is for the public to perceive and not for himself. Even ifthere is a single person who considers him a president, he is a president onlyto that person, just like how the narrator is perceived as a “fink”when he stumbles into a Union meeting. This is his identity in a particularsetting, to those particular people, despite which, he truthfully denies it.Identity is “something over which one has no control” (Griffon 7).
The narrator believes he finally found his true identity when he realizes he isinvisible to his surroundings; therefore, he assumes invisibility. However,invisibility is only his way to avoid reality. He is not invisible but simplynot seen as what he thinks he should be seen as. He feels invisible only becauseno one really understands him, but, in reality, can any person be fullyunderstood? A person can only be understood to an extent. Not even brother orsister, a best friend, a spouse, or a person’s parents who created him or hercan totally understand.
As John Corry says “…he is a black nationalist.
..and the here ..
.he can enjoy his invisibility” (Corry 1). Nobodyis seen exactly as who they want to be seen, but that does not mean they areinvisible, just that the identity they are presenting might not be what theworld expects. Despite the narrator’s belief that, after his long journey, hehas finally found the true understanding of identity and discovered his realidentity, he is mistaken, for all the identities he experienced were real. He isthe “same human individual,” seen differently “only inappearance” (Griffon 161) and that shows invisibility is a falserevelation. Every different person who sees him holds a unique perception ofhim, even if he does not like how he is perceived; it is still a unique identityof his very being, and that identity is real on a simple basis that it exist.
Because identity is a tool for the beholder to assess the identified, it belongsonly to the beholder and not the identified. Without other people around, aperson will not have an identity and there will be no need for one. That is thewhole reasoning behind identity. The reflection of the world upon the maincharacter builds a false identity with in, while he does not realize his trueidentity until his invisibility refuses to allow him to reflect the world.