Though it owes much to Richard Wright’s earlier Native Son, Ellison’s complex and subtle work supersedes the genre of protest novel and is one of the earliest examples of postmodern tropes in American literature. The repeated use of spectacle in the novel, the trickster-like cycle of stories, the flatness of characters who are overstated types and come and go, and the cryptically unnamed narrator and his bizarre underground life all point ahead to the literature that would take firmer hold in the 60s with novels like Pale Fire & The Crying of Lot 49.
More than anything, Ellison’s novel represents a moving away from the binary or double-consciousness (Hegel, DuBois, the Marxist dialectic) and towards a more uncertain multiplicity. Ellison wrote to Wright that he wanted to expose the Communist Party’s abandonment of blacks in the novel, and to depict a man “who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic.” Part of his resistance to becoming a “type” is his constant movement, his search for self-knowledge, and his awareness of his own contradictions – like Langston Hughes’ speaker, this narrator, too, sings America and ‘contains multitudes.’
It’s interesting to consider women in this novel – the narrator champions women’s rights at one point, relates to a white stripper, has an affair with a white woman (its ‘rape play’ rehearses Birth of a Nation and Bigger and Mary, but also looks ahead to blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback). Unlike the “invisible man,” itself a rewriting of the “native son,” women do not have the luxury of remaining invisible in the novel; they are made into spectacle, as the stripper and raped daughter of Trueblood attest.
– The Introduction: The unnamed narrator squats in a basement at the edge of Harlem, “a border area,” sucking power off the grid to light it up brightly with filament bulbs, which are more expensive to run: “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this sense, he siphons and ‘wastes’ the provisions of capital in a repurposed way. He listens to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” because Armstrong “made poetry out of being invisible” 8.
– The Battle Royal: The story begins 20 years earlier, when the narrator is a boy. He does not understand his grandfather’s advice to treat life as a war, to “overcome ’em with yeses…let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” He is invited to give a speech to a group of white men in the town. There is a stripper there who “saw only me with her impersonal eyes” – as in McKay’s “Harlem Dancer,” the woman’s eyes are vacant as she performs, moving outside her body (the kewpie doll is comparable to the Sambo doll here). The white men make the black boys fight for coins on an electrified rug, dehumanizing them before the boy’s speech. He wonders if this is not a time for “humility and nonresistance,” but is forced into battling the others. It is no surprise that his speech is largely a recitation of Booker T. Washington’s “Cast Down Your Bucket” speech. He is given a scholarship in a briefcase, and in a dream, he sees the paper as “To Whom It May Concern: Keep this Nigger Boy Running” 33.
– The university: The narrator drives the rich, white Mr. Norton around, who is obsessed with his own pure, dead daughter. He is fascinated by Trueblood, a local black sharecropper who rapes and impregnates his own daughter, supposedly in his sleep. Trueblood says he is in “the tunnel” in his dream (MattyLou’s vagina), and once a man gets himself in “a tight spot” like that, he “wants some more” 68. Norton gives him cash and makes the narrator take him to a black brothel, where he gets drunk and a fight breaks out. Homer Barbee lectures the narrator on how great the founder is and says he should have shown Norton an idealized picture of black life. He is dismissed from the college with 7 letters of recommendation.
– Harlem: The narrator learns from the trustee Emerson that he can’t get a job because the recommendation letters condemn his character. He gets a job at Liberty Paints making Optic White with Lucius Brockway. They quarrel because Lucius fears he is in the union. One of the paint tanks explodes and the narrator wakes up in a hospital. The doctors experiment with electric shock treatments on him, feminizing him as hysterical and bringing an element of madness in that also reminds me of the Beats. He recovers his memory, is released, collapses outside, and is taken in by Mary.
– The brotherhood: Brother Jack offers him a job as a spokesman for the Party after his impassioned speech at the eviction. He takes it to earn some money to help Mary. He associates with Tod Clifton and Ras the Exhorter (and sleeps with a white woman after a rally). The white Brother Hambro trains him in rhetoric, and he gives speeches.
– Clifton: Clifton sells Sambo dolls on the street and is shot for not having a permit to sell them. After the narrator holds a funeral, the Brotherhood is angry and lectures him. He turns against the brotherhood, as Ras has, but Ras also turns against him, since he blames him for the Brotherhood’s failure to use the momentum of the funeral for action. He is mistaken in a disguise for “Rinehart” – a pimp, bookie, and reverend. He confronts Brother Hambro, who has decided the Party is not interested in racial issues (here is where Ellison plays out his disillusionment with the Party, which he shared with Richard Wright). He sleeps with Sybil to try to play along with the Party, but she is clueless and only plays out her rape fantasy with him.
– The riot: Ras has started a full-blown riot in Harlem. The narrator participates, setting fire to a tenement house. As the police chase him, he falls down a manhole and has stayed there ever since, mulling over his own individual complexity and preparing to emerge again, which he says he is now ready to do. His conflict explores the complexity of self-articulation vs social struggle. (You could also read this against the simplifying films he discusses in “The Shadow and the Act.”)
Importantly, the narrator insists at the end, “I’m invisible, not blind” and that “white is not a color but the lack of one” (a reversal of the Freudian sex dynamic that feminizes white men?) 576. He observes the “spectacle” of whites becoming blacker and blacks becoming whiter without understanding each other. The stench in the air is “either of death or spring” 580. “I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole… even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play… Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” 581.