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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man (original 1952; edition 1995)

by Ralph Ellison

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9,756110296 (3.98)450
Title:Invisible Man
Authors:Ralph Ellison
Info:Vintage (1995), Edition: 2, Paperback, 608 pages
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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)


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English (108)  Dutch (1)  All languages (109)
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Quotable quotes:
- "I didn't want to be trouble to anyone." I said. "Everybody has to be trouble to somebody."
- "And I knew that it was better to live out one's own absurdity than die for that of others..."
- "It's 'winner take nothing' that is the great truth of our country or any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat."
- “And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone's way but my own.”
- “And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals.”
- “It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.”

As you can see from above, I found this book to be really damn quotable. Except for a few moments (some of his very long descriptions), this book was rather amazing. Ellison had an impressive ability to mask the rise and fall of the unnamed protagonist in a way that didn't make the stories trajectory incredibly obvious.

My mind is kind of out of it, so it seems I can't come up with a good review. To make it short, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who had anyone interest in reading it (provided they are willing to read some fairly dark stuff). ( )
  michplunkett | Jul 14, 2014 |
A wonderful book about an educated gifted speaker in a white world of prejudice. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
This is an extraordinary novel that reads like a jazz rendition of an old New Orleans standard tune; it has themes a plenty, highs and lows, caricatures, exaggerations, is riotously funny and strains at the seams to hold it's central motif. The hero, whose name is kept secret is the invisible man of the title and his story is told in the first person. He is not literally invisible, but it is the "real me" his true self that other people cannot see and Ellison is suggesting that this is the issue for many people. It was particularly applicable to black people in 1952 when the novel was published and was seen as a novel of protest for black people who were striving to achieve equality and who were fighting a white majority.

The book can be read as a bildungsroman as we follow the hero through a number of set piece events; the battle royal, his expulsion from college, his job in the paint factory, his work for the Brotherhood, the death of Clifton his colleague and finally; the riot in Harlem. At the end of these events our hero has learnt much about himself and the world around him; "None of us know who he is and where he is going" he says in an epilogue, but it is evident that some people need to have control over others and these others are the invisible people. Everything our hero attempts to achieve turns to dust and other people suffer; his repeated question is "Did I do something wrong" it is only when he realises that he is not to blame that he can attain some sort of peace with himself.

The set piece events are exaggerated for effect and they can be very funny, but the humour is sometimes black. The first of these is the battle royal where a number of young negroes are rounded up to fight until the last man is left standing at a smokers club. Many of the pillars of the community are present to watch and the atmosphere becomes something akin to an event that could have been staged in the Coliseum at Rome as first the young boys are made to watch a nude blonde woman before starting in on the fighting. The survivors are then encouraged to fight for coins, scraps of metal that have been placed on an electrified metal meshing before their ordeal is over. Our hero has been roped into the event even though he is ostensibly there to make a speech as a reward for his oratorical skills at school. He finally gets to make his speech and impresses enough to win a scholarship to a black college. Other set pieces involving our hero are equally dramatic and equally funny. He chauffeurs a white trustee of his college and takes him to the old slave quarters of the town ending up at a bordello, where he quickly loses control of events. When he moves up to New York he gets a job in a paint factory and succeeds in being unwittingly instrumental in blowing up the plant. Everything seems to happen to him and at times it reads like a particularly rumbustious comedy as he lurches from one disaster to another. Ellison manages to move the story along at a cracking pace during these passages, but sometimes loses a little control as the humour can be in a sort of unnatural tension with our hero's attempts to find a meaning to everything that is cracking off around him. There is no doubting that it is fun to read and elements of illusion and even fantasy add to the mix and the novel borders on being a Rabelaisian nightmare at times; I am thinking here of our hero in the paint factory infirmary, undergoing a kind of lobotomy as a cure for his sickness. Is he mad one wonders? Is it all a dream? these questions contrast with some gritty realism forcing the reader to continually take stock of what is happening.

Illusion and fantasy elements are given extra credence by some unforgettable caricatures of leading characters. Lucius Brockway, the janitor in the basement of the paint factory, who may or may not be have delusions of grandeur, Ras the destroyer; the black activist who charges into the riot in Harlem, spear in hand on an old nag. Brother Jack the red haired one eyed leader of the Brotherhood who imposes a Kafka like discipline and secrecy over much of the Brotherhoods tactics. These larger than life men and women just stray far enough outside of true characterisation to turn them into symbols of a deeper malaise and there is much symbolism in this novel. Darkness and light are the most obvious, but there is also chaos, control, blindness, invisibility, music and illusion.

One mustn't lose sight that the novel is about a 'them and us' situation, blacks and whites. The whites are in control of much that is important and our hero sees his role as raising the consciousness of black people and in doing so Ellison raises the consciousness of the reader to the racial issues affecting America in the 1950's. The book can be seen as a historical document of race relations at the time written by a black man writing with passion and zeal about real issues in America. There are very few shades of grey, but I think it would be a mistake to limit the books message to this idea, as what was true for black people in America is equally true for many minorities today. It is a book that highlights the plight of invisible people everywhere who are subject to unjust control of their lives in an effort to keep them invisible. Our hero comes to a sort of realisation at the end and Ellison starts the novel with a powerhouse of a prologue where he sets up many of the symbols that are key to his text.

The shock value of the novel has dissipated over the intervening years, but the energy and quality of much of the writing is still there to be admired. It is not evenly paced and sometimes gets a little lost in its own energy, but Ellison stops it running away with itself. Some brilliant set pieces and there is much to discuss especially the symbolism, although it can feel a little uneven. An important book and one that I greatly enjoyed. A four star read (probably would have been five stars in 1952) ( )
9 vote baswood | Feb 24, 2014 |
very violent. I didn't want these images in my head. Well written which is what made the images so disturbing. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
The first chapter is an amazing piece of writing--it's self-contained, but also foreshadows everything to come. ( )
  wrk1 | Jan 15, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 108 (next | show all)
added by Shortride | editCommentary, Saul Bellow (Jul 15, 2009)
this is the kind of multi-layered literary and philosophical performance that we, as citizens concerned about the health of our republic, are obliged to re-read every ten or twenty years in order to check its insights and monitions against our cultural (and personal) progress and failures.
"Invisible Man" is tough, brutal and sensational. It is uneven in quality. But it blazes with authentic talent.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ellison, Ralphprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ellison, RalphIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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"You are saved," cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; "you are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?"

--Herman Melville, Benito Cereno
HARRY: I tell you, it is not me you are looking at,

Not me you arre grinning at, not me your confidential looks

Incriminate, but that other person, if person,

You thought I was: let your necrophily

Feed upon that carcase. . . .

--T. S. Eliot, Family Reunion
To Ida
First words
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679732764, Paperback)

We rely, in this world, on the visual aspects of humanity as a means of learning who we are. This, Ralph Ellison argues convincingly, is a dangerous habit. A classic from the moment it first appeared in 1952, Invisible Man chronicles the travels of its narrator, a young, nameless black man, as he moves through the hellish levels of American intolerance and cultural blindness. Searching for a context in which to know himself, he exists in a very peculiar state. "I am an invisible man," he says in his prologue. "When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me." But this is hard-won self-knowledge, earned over the course of many years.

As the book gets started, the narrator is expelled from his Southern Negro college for inadvertently showing a white trustee the reality of black life in the south, including an incestuous farmer and a rural whorehouse. The college director chastises him: "Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of an education are you getting around here?" Mystified, the narrator moves north to New York City, where the truth, at least as he perceives it, is dealt another blow when he learns that his former headmaster's recommendation letters are, in fact, letters of condemnation.

What ensues is a search for what truth actually is, which proves to be supremely elusive. The narrator becomes a spokesman for a mixed-race band of social activists called "The Brotherhood" and believes he is fighting for equality. Once again, he realizes he's been duped into believing what he thought was the truth, when in fact it is only another variation. Of the Brothers, he eventually discerns: "They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves.... Here I thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men."

Invisible Man is certainly a book about race in America, and sadly enough, few of the problems it chronicles have disappeared even now. But Ellison's first novel transcends such a narrow definition. It's also a book about the human race stumbling down the path to identity, challenged and successful to varying degrees. None of us can ever be sure of the truth beyond ourselves, and possibly not even there. The world is a tricky place, and no one knows this better than the invisible man, who leaves us with these chilling, provocative words: "And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" --Melanie Rehak

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:00 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

In the course of his wanderings from a Southern Negro college to New York's Harlem, an American black man becomes involved in a series of adventures. Introduction explains circumstances under which the book was written. Ellison won the National Book Award for this searing record of a black man's journey through contemporary America. Unquestionably, Ellison's book is a work of extraordinary intensity--powerfully imagined and written with a savage, wryly humorous gusto.… (more)

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