Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”

1952

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.

 

 

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Richard Wright, “Native Son”

1940

In Native Son, Richard Wright suggests an inevitable fate for Bigger Thomas. He works for the Daltons, driving Mary and her communist boyfriend Jan around. Mary gets drunk and as Bigger puts her to bed, he suffocates her for fear that she will betray him when Mrs. Dalton enters the room. She goes away, but Mary is dead. He cuts her up and burns her in the furnace. Bigger discovers during the ensuing chaos that Dalton owns the filthy flat where his family lives. Bigger is asked to clean the furnace. Mary’s bones and earring are discovered in the ashes as Bigger stirs them into a cloud. He writes a false kidnap note for money and he and Bessie try to run away. The kidnap note is most interesting in its invisibility to the whites – “do what this letter say,” it reads, and is signed “red.” It is a color deterrent whose own diction, in the form of a missing letter, should give itself away, but somehow does not. No one in the house sees him as clever enough to write it – or to write anything, to be a man of letters, as it were. Bessie is paralyzed with fear, so Bigger beats her to death with a brick. The only money he has is from her pocket. He is captured by the police. Jan hires him a communist lawyer, Max.

Biblical allusions to Job abound in the novel, but are delivered with an ironic tone, since Bigger must answer to himself in the end, not God. Max is just “the man who had lured him on a quest toward a dim hope” 352. His moment of “I-I” in the final pages of the novel is both self-articulation and split consciousness. He has been abandoned by language itself, and has no recourse to art to comfort him: “Distractedly, he gazed about the cell, trying to remember where he had heard words that would help him. He could recall none. He had lived outside of the lives of men. Their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him” 353. It is almost as though Wright suggests that if he did have aesthetics, he could have been saved. What he realizes is that “Max is not a friend” either, and that “anger was useless” 353. What is left with Max is the memory of the night of questioning: “You asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a man” 354. Max ends up spewing some Communist stuff about how belief and fear hold up the material world of men: “Die free… Every time you try to find a way to live, your own mind stands in the way… because others have said you were bad and they made you live in bad conditions” 357.

Bigger’s self-realization is not exactly what Max was hoping for: “They wouldn’t let me live and I killed… what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill!… What I killed for must’ve been good!… I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em” 359. Max is horrified, but Bigger ends with a wry smile.

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

1937

Ellison, Wright, and Alain Locke disliked this novel, but it has become a classic at least in part because of its unique deployment of free indirect discourse in the story Janie tells Pheoby of her life in three parts. Janie famously moves “from object to subject” in the process, and the last line of the novel is “She called her sould to come and see” 193. Barbara Johnson claims it solves some narrative issues of Jakobson’s conflict between metaphor (universalizing totality) and metonymy (the repetition and renaming of the particular). I don’t have any recent notes on this novel, so I’m going to publish some information from Wikipedia…

Wikipedia summary:

The main character, an African-American woman in her early forties named Janie Crawford, tells the story of her life and journey via an extended flashback to her best friend, Pheoby, so that Pheoby can tell Janie’s story to the nosy community on her behalf. Her life has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men.

Nanny, Janie’s grandmother, was a slave who became pregnant by her owner and gave birth to a daughter, Leafy. Though Nanny tries to create a good life for her daughter, Leafy is raped by her school teacher and becomes pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie’s birth, Leafy begins to drink and stay out at night. Eventually she runs away, leaving Janie with Nanny. Nanny transfers all the hopes she had for Leafy to Janie. When Janie is sixteen, Nanny sees her kissing a neighborhood boy, Johnny Taylor, and fears that Janie will become a “mule” to some man. Nanny arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older man and farmer who is looking for a wife to keep his home and help on the farm. Although Janie is not interested in marriage at that time, her grandmother wants her to have the kinds of things she never had the chance to have, and by marrying Logan Killicks Janie’s grandmother thinks it will give her the opportunity to make this possible. Janie has the idea that marriage must involve love, forged in a pivotal early scene where she sees bees pollinating a pear tree, and believes that marriage is the human equivalent to this natural process [think Beloved and the turtles!]. Logan Killicks, however, wants a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner and feels Janie does not do enough around the farm and she is ungrateful. Janie runs off with the glib Jody (Joe) Starks, who takes her to Eatonville.

Starks arrives in Eatonville to find the residents devoid of ambition, so he arranges to buy more land from the neighboring landowner, hires some local residents to build a general store for him to own and run, and the people of the town appoint him mayor. Janie soon realizes that Joe wants her as a trophy wife. He wants the image of his perfect wife to reinforce his powerful position in town, as he asks her to run the store but forbids her from participating in the substantial social life that occurs on the store’s front porch.

After Starks passes away, Janie finds herself financially independent and beset with suitors, some of whom are men of some means or have prestigious occupations, all of whom she turns down. She meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods who goes by the name of Tea Cake. She falls in love with Tea Cake after he plays the guitar for her. She sells the store and the two head to Jacksonville and get married, only to move to the Everglades egion (“the muck”) where they find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship has its ups and downs, including mutual bouts of jealousy, Janie realizes she now has the marriage with love that she had wanted.

The area is hit by the great hurricane. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. He contracts the disease himself. He ultimately tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, but she shoots him with a rifle in self-defense. She is charged with murder. At the trial, Tea Cake’s black, male friends show up to oppose her, while a group of local white women arrive to support her [think bell hooks!]. The all-white jury acquits Janie, and she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake’s friends forgive her, and they want her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville. As she expected, the residents are gossiping about her.

  • In Maria J. Johnson’s article “‘The World in a Jug and the Stopper in [Her] Hand’: Their Eyes Were Watching God as Blues Performance”, she states that Hurston’s novel takes a similar structure and aesthetic to blues culture [if jazz is masculine?]. Johnson also shows how the contrast of Hurston’s images, such as the pleasure and pain dynamic of the bee, can be seen in songs by singers like Bessie Smith.
  • The article, “The Cognitive Construction of the Self in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Patrick S. Bernard highlights the connection between the construction of self and cognition in Hurston’s novel. According to Bernard, cognition is the inner essence of an individual that embodies the idea of “thinking, seeing, speaking, and knowing,” but is often determined by one’s exterior environment. Janie, the protagonist, uses her cognitive skills in order to find her identity and throughout the novel develops her cognition further. While Janie is living in a sexist society she continues to rise above her opposition specifically that of her three husbands. Bernard demonstrates this,

In a conversation with Jody, Janie defends ‘womenfolk,’ disagreeing with the sexist claim that God made men “different” because they turn “out so smart” (70). When she states that men “don’t know half as much as you think you do,” Jody interrupts her saying, ‘you getting too moufy Janie … Go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers’ (70-71) so that he and the other men could play (Bernard 9).

The comment from Jody, Janie’s second husband, attempts to suppress her voice and manipulate her thoughts. Rather than acting submissive to Jody, Janie for a brief moment contends with Jody by telling him how men misunderstand women. Jody fears that Janie’s thinking will lead to her gaining more knowledge and naturally to speaking her mind, eventually leading to Janie achieving the power of knowledge to recognize and change the mistreatment and unfairness she has been receiving. Bernard proposes the idea that Jody’s relationship with Janie represents society’s assumption that women are of limited cognition. This assumption positions women in subservient roles that limit their ways of thinking, speaking, and seeing.
In addition to bringing up Janie’s relationship with Jody, Bernard emphasizes how her relationships with her other husbands influenced her cognition. He points out the fact that Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, mistreated her by severing any beginning form of self construction by treating her as an infant [think Friedan and de Beauvoir!]. Bernard also brings forth the idea that Janie’s construction of selfhood blossoms when Tea Cake, her third husband, allows her to participate in experiences unimaginable to her. While Logan Killicks gives her no opportunity of expressing herself, Jody overpowers her expressive voice; Tea Cake allows her construction of self to mature.link between self construction and cognition. Bernard’s main point therefore is that self-construction is influenced by cognition, that is, knowing, thinking, seeing and speaking are important to the construction of self in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel.
  • In “The Hierarchy Itself: Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority”, Ryan Simmons argues that Hurston made a statement against models of authority that supplant an oppressive system with other oppressive systems and offered an alternative. By models of authority, Simmons means the narrative voice of the author and Janie’s narrative voice. Hurston represented the different ideologies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois through the characters of Logan Killicks and Joe (“Jody”) Starks. Like Washington, Logan models the path of “gradual progress” that wouldn’t threaten the white-dominated sphere of power and Hurston presents his practices as a tradeoff between liberty and modest prosperity. Joe models the path advocated by Du Bois, which is one of assertion of dignity and less compromise. But the issue shown by Joe’s eventual isolation from the community dialogue he helped establish and Janie’s overpowering of him through a usurpation of authority, Hurston shows that the weakness with Joe’s approach is that it mirrors that of white suppression. Instead, Hurston introduces a third way of achieving self-autonomy through Tea Cake. He represents an independence from reliance on communal validation, and instead serves as a mirror for Janie to discover her narrative power. In relation to the author’s narrative power, Tea Cake is the epitome of a good reader, one that is receptive to the transformative message of the text. Language is the understanding and sharpening of one’s identity while communication comes second. In Hurston’s innovative narrative, she is attempting to fulfill the “ideal narrative”, which is one that nurtures and changes both the reader and the author. [think of Banjo, dialectic, Adorno]