The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, opens with the narrator, stating, “I am an invisible man” (Ellison, 1). The narrator is “invisible” because society cannot see him for who he is; people only see the color of his skin. The narrator goes on to elaborate, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (Ellison, 1). Its people’s inability to see past their prejudices that has forced him into invisibility. The narrator is not actually invisible; people simply cannot see him. His black skin defines him, no matter how hard he tries to battle against it. These introductory declarations form the crux of Ellison’s argument.
Time and time again, the narrator is confronted with his invisibility and the blindness of others. From his involvement in the Battle Royal, which pitted young black teenagers against each other in a boxing match, to his treatment in the Brotherhood, the narrator’s invisibility to society is constant. The Invisible Man perfectly captures the grim reality of racial discrimination. Everywhere the narrator goes in the novel, he is pushed down by the stereotypical believes of both the white majority and his fellow African Americans. But, invisibility is not just confined within racial lines. It is an unescapable truth. Society refuses to see what doesn’t fit into its basic, narrow definitions for individuals. Most individuals do not even know that they are blind as they have been conditioned to accept society’s norms and forget what does not fit.
The chilling and controversial revelation that comes from the novel is that we, as a society, have created a system that breeds the invisibility of others. Societal prejudices shape individuals’ everyday thinking. Seeing a black man in an alley at night paints the individual in a definite and sinister light. People think certain things about a Latino man with a mustache. A white girl ordering a pumpkin spice latte carries a certain stigma. We all know, and willingly follow, the stereotypes that force people into invisibility.
The novel resonates today, just as much as it did when it first came out in the 50s. The reason lies in the way it serves as an eye-opener for readers who have become “blind” themselves. We’ve all heard about the Dakota Access Pipeline protest, but I cannot think of one of the leaders’ names. Women are still paid less than their male counterparts in many careers. High-achieving students from low income areas are effectively barred from college by socioeconomic factors outside of their control. The majority of black men in major urban areas are in prison on drug charges or are burdened with criminal records, losing some of their basic and civil rights in the process. The novel may be arduous and slow at times, but the awareness it teaches readers is vital in this day and age of social media. Smart phones allow us to become blind to others as we are immune to the impacts of our comments and commentaries in cyberspace. They have a tendency to isolate individuals in bubbles of like thinking, creating social norms that marginalize others. The form and subjects have changed, but the fact remains: invisibility is everywhere. Ellison’s portrayal of the narrator’s struggles and ultimate acceptance of his invisibility highlights the struggle for visibility that people go through on a daily basis. His message is universal and I would highly recommend The Invisible Man to everyone and anyone. Ellison reminds us to look outside of the bubbles we are presented by technology and see the people living beside us.
Bella Melena is an honors student and a biochemistry major.