Existentialism in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: Analytical Essay

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Existentialism is a frequent motif throughout Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The author characterizes this motif and its characteristics through the unnamed protagonist life experiences and his relationships with society and thus its consequences.

In the collection of essays “Shadow and Act” (1964), Ellison was already centered on most of the important questions he used in his writings: identity and self-creation. Ellison already showed his interest in finding and determines the nature of individualism, the past and the present and the interaction of individuals with society. This is something that might be central in Ellison’s works, not only in his most famous work Invisible Man, but also in his collected essays. We can clearly see these characteristics in the protagonist who is in constant search for his own ‘identity and self-definition’ (Invisible Man xiv) in Ellison’s words.

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According to this view we can connect the existential theme to other authors and French philosophers such as Albert Camus or Paul Sartre who also showed interest about the self-definition theme during Ellison’s time, reinforced by the idea that Ellison’s conviction about self-definition is an important and fundamental part of achieving individualism.

Studies about this connection stays in a secondary line considering that some of the major themes when it comes to study Ellison are cultural story, jazz and blues, communism or psychology among others which leads us to a less studied connection between existentialism and Ellison. That might seem interesting if we consider that existentialism was one of the most important literary movements while Ellison was writing his novel Invisible Man.

That could be the reason why Ellison does not fit into the literary canon. There were critics that did not consider Ellison an elementary part of the canon and on the other hand, we have those critics that were delighted about including him on this collection. Among these critics we find George Cotkin or Lewis Gordon, the author of Existential America (2003) and the founder of the Black Existential movement respectively. Even though, neither of them wrote a lot about the relationship between Ellison’s works and existentialism.

The main idea of this essay is to show the existential approach presented in the novel. Its main aim will be to find a relationship between Ellison’s novel and the movement that predominated cultural and literally the post-World War II American society, French existentialism. Invisible Man was written during the post war stage, so Ellison was aware of French existentialism through its authors and works. Ellison used some of the most important themes of the existential movement to introduce the concepts of self-definition and individualism, themes that are present in the novel and that are essentially necessary to understand the meaning of the central message of Invisible Man; the dream for a better American democracy after being one of the most segregated ones over the time.

The idea is to demonstrate that Ellison and consequently his novel are able to appreciate the traditional ideas of French existentialism and thus diverge from his own conclusions about individualism. What Ellison wanted was to raise awareness towards the idea that in order to achieve things in life, communities must be responsible not only individually but also ethically speaking. Based on cultural and historical context, the images that Ellison presents in the novel and the different existential references have a clear connection with American history.

Literature review.

Existentialism arose in the United States after World War II. It was a philosophical movement that emphasized individual existence, freedom and choice based on the idea that humans define their own meaning in life.

Published in some of the most important publications of New York, authors such as Albert Camus and Paul Sartre were a source of inspiration for those who tried to understand the Western philosophy. Camus and Sartre’s writings were based on the concepts of meaning and recognition, or the lack of both of them when it comes to self-creation instigated by the awareness of responsibility. In order to understand and assimilate the narrative of the western philosophy, these ideas were well-known among intellectuals.

As previously said before, existentialism is present throughout the whole novel, the unnamed protagonist is in constant conflict finding his place in society until the moment he realizes and accepts that his ‘freedom’ and identity rely on the absurd of existence. In the moment in which the protagonist realizes and choses to live as an invisible man is when he leaves the existential form of living and thinking. This stage or moment in Ellison’s protagonist is a reaction towards the existential ideas of French philosophers. The idea that rationalism is present throughout the novel too, although is not until the end that the concept of the absurd is explicitly presented. The protagonist journey is nothing but a constant change from one senseless and ridiculous situation to another. From the Battle Royal scene at the beginning of the novel, going through the unexpected visit to Trueblood’s cabin to the surrealistic situation at the Golden Day with the veterans. We can appreciate how in each situation, the invisible man, our protagonist is not able to understand what happened or how it would affect him in the future, considering that the only that he sees is how traumatizing and degrading these situations are. It is not actually until the end that the protagonist recognizes the absurd of all these experiences and therefore he began to feel free. The acceptance and reaction to the absurd are characteristics of existentialism. As explained by Camus “society cannot be tragic or epic today because we are so concerned about one part of man that the fact that our efforts are meaningless. We don’t know the meaning of epic or tragic, and thus, we are absurd”(Barnes 38). This idea that Camus defended is the belief that when mankind realizes that lack of motivation he would succeed. The existential answer to the absurd is to recognize the presence of absurdity and accept it. And this is the course that Invisible Man follows until the end when he realizes the absurd and confronts life from this view.

At some point in the novel where the protagonist recognize the social limitations that guided him to the personal and internal struggle and the acceptance that creation is much better that ignorance. By the end of the novel, once the protagonist is in the hole these thoughts are made explicit “all life seen from the hole of invisibility is absurd” (Ellison 579).

The constant use of the term absurd at this final part of the novel is what makes possible to support the idea that Ellison used French existentialism as a source in writing this passage that defended the absurdity of existence in order to reach freedom. Existentialists believed that human beings only have one form to overcome the absurd of life and it was by reaching freedom and choice, this movement was a complete rejection of determinism.

During the 1940s, Existentialism became one of the major literary trends and thus the term ‘absurd’ was commonly used. Later in the 1950s emerged the theatre of the absurd which helped change the audience’s attitude towards the term itself.

Among the American existentialist figures we can find Jack Kerouac and Ralph Ellison. Ellison inspired by his friend and mentor Richard Wright decided to follow the existential influence. But his first contact with existentialism took place before World War II by the hand of another black intellectual and artist, Langston Hughes who sent him Man’s Fate by André Malraux (Lawrence 169), a novel that depicts human experience and the adjustment of political and metaphysical revolution. This determined Ellison’s view of the existential and social dispute. Also Fyodor Dostoyevsky influenced him, the Russians demand for identity and humanity in the middle of a social conflict echoes with Ellison’s view of America. In fact, his position as a black man in North America –entailing the contradiction of freedom and oppression-- fit into the French existentialism attitude. Ellison used these existential echoes in the Harlem riots passage and especially in the prologue.

As Arnold Rampersad wrote in his biography in 2007:

[Ellison] understood existentialism to be the core of modernity in his narrative…[and] to be uniquely authentic to the story of Invisible and the Negro…this Negro existentialism often flourished in the world attended by properties such as lyricism, folkloric grace, exuberance, and sensuality (Ralph Ellison 145).

The protagonist’s disillusionment follows a progression since the beginning at college, where he is expelled for defending the truth until the end that he realizes he will find comfort in the absurd of life and finally desires to live freely.

Following this progression the protagonist adopts the existential ideas shaped by Camus, considering that the main mistake of the protagonist is to do what others ask him without questioning until the moment he realizes the truth and decides to go underground and take advantage of his situation. In Ellison’s words:

[Invisible Man] is a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality….Before [Invisible Man] could have some voice in his own destiny he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn’t come until then. (Chester 14)

According to Ellison, the novel follows the process of the protagonist refusing his own humanity entailing in guilt. By the end, the protagonist discovers what he had not done through the novel; he has to make his own decisions and think for himself, not to follow blindly what others tell. According to Sartre, we have to take our own decisions about who we are and what we are.

Within the novel, the character of Rinehart is the most realistic model for this idea of self-creation. Even the protagonist realizes and recognizes his potential which led him to use in some occasion the expression ‘to do a Rinehart’ (Invisible Man 507) which involves being a fighter, a preacher or a businessman. It is actually this character and his surrounding that makes the invisible man begin to perceive his own possibility for self-creation. Later, once he is underground and has his epiphany, he began exploring the ideas of choice and self-definition which means to become an existential individual. In fact, as we can notice in the prologue the invisible man observes that self-realization only comes when you make choices on your own, which is an individual manifestation of authenticity that Camus or Sartre’s characters tended to have. Additionally, by the time the novel was being written the ideas these French philosophers were mainly the development of the individual. Their early works –1930s and 1940s were more hyperbolic in this affirmation than their later ones whose focus was social responsibility. These early works were more concerned about the individual and self-definition, creation and discovery.

Both authors, Sartre and Camus wrote about sellf- discovery in their first novel, in fact the protagonist in both novels Camus’ The Stranger (1938) and Sartre’s Nausea (1938) hardly shows any interest in anyone but himself even when other characters tried to establish some kind of relationship. Indeed, these attempts to establish a relationship were rejected and the moment of epiphany in both novels were individual and do not mention neither social place nor social responsibility.

Once Invisible Man’s protagonist confronts the absurd and requests self-creation and realization, the hero’s course rejects the classical individual existentialism. After all, through the invisible protagonist’s whole journey he came across powerful black men, such as Dr. Bledsoe or Brockway, who had created themselves due to their circumstances. In fact, these characters explain the young man that the real word does not have nothing to do with his innocent idea of the world, Dr. Bledsoe reproaches him that “you don’t even know the difference between the way things are and the way they’re supposed to be” (142).

Also these characters make clear that they have to protect and establish their roles in society even having powerful positions. they take advantage of the situation for their own benefit, either to keep or increase their power .As previously stated, these reactions as Sartre and Camus characters are extremely individualistic and self-concerned. For his own good, the main protagonist does not follow these examples in his attempt to live authentically and find his place in society. In his case in order to achieve genuineness invisible man needs to make a social effort. By the end of the novel the protagonist himself alleges, “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” an explanation to what he believes is a connection between the society’s capacity to choose direction and the path that individual choose. The protagonist continues by saying “Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out. I must emerge.”(581) once he accepts the absurd of life and therefore his freedom, now his attempt is that society does the same. Actually, he gives an explanation about why he should leave the underground, “Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a society responsible role to play” (581). According to the protagonist, a life apart from society becomes spurious considering that human beings have to decide on how to affront the absurd of life then; society must do it too, but in this case as a collective society.

In the case of the author, this social responsibility the protagonist talks about, can be attributed to the art of fiction. As explained in the Introduction of Invisible Man “a novel could be fashioned as a raft of hope, perception and entertainment that might help keep us afloat as we tried to negotiate the snags and whirlpools that mark our nation’s vacillating course toward and away from the democratic ideal” (xx-xxi).

So, according to Ellison fiction is in charge of answering the questions of who we are and what we are. But this social aspect does not invalidate the responsibility of each individual. Fiction also allows individuals to project themselves into other people life’s to understand them and add importance to our own experiences and the possibility of living in a society like that. The lack of authenticity is therefore the result of author failing in their social responsibility. That is the reason Ellison said “the hero comes up from underground because the act of writing and thinking necessitated it. He could not stay down there” (Chester 16). But this idea of society as an important part of living is not present in the early works of the French philosophers.

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Existentialism in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: Analytical Essay. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/existentialism-in-ralph-ellisons-invisible-man-analytical-essay/
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