Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Students find common thread in common text

Each year since 1986, the English Department has asked all freshmen to read and discuss the same work. The Common Text Program selects works based on literary merit and portrayal of racial, cultural, economic and ethnic diversity. Previous selections have ranged from Homer’s The Odyssey to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood to Toni Morrison’s Beloved

The common text for 2003-2004 is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award. Published in 1952, Ellison’s “nightmare journey across the racial divide tells unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators,” according to its publisher, Vantage Books.

The novel ranges from the American South to the streets of Harlem, from a horrifying “battle royal” where black men are reduced to fighting animals to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, states Vantage. “Ellison’s nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.”

Ellison, who attended Tuskegee Institute and trained as a musician, taught at many universities – including the University of Chicago, Rutgers, the University of California and New York University.

How did freshmen respond?

What did freshmen think? A sampling of journals of St. Thomas students – some of whom were assigned to also read and compare Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground with Invisible Man – indicates they found common elements in their lives.

“For me, the novel was an eye-opener. On the outside, I saw issues dealing with racism and economic oppression. This book is set in the past, but those issues are still very present today. However, as I looked deeper, I began to connect with the narrator on his journey for an identity. I am at a time in my life in which reflection is a daily occurrence. I am trying to figure out who I am now, and how that will help me be who I want to be in the future. Just like the narrator, I am looking for Truth; I am looking for answers.

“Not only was this novel an excellent example based on content, it is also an all-around awesome writing sample. The language, tone, style, and use of symbolism and metaphor are outstanding. Because writing is such a crucial aspect of college, it is essential to be exposed to above- average examples.”

– Bre Duffey’07

Invisible Man allows students at UST not only to glimpse into a seldom-seen life of an oppressed black person, but also relates to our upper-middle class lives. Invisible Man’s struggles, on the surface, relate only to the black experience and are so unlucky they could only happen to him, but his struggles are the same we all face. Finding his identity, his interaction with people of all walks of life, and his desperate soul search while keeping the rest of his life fairly stable are themes students can learn much from.”

– Seth Thomas’07

Invisible Man was a very thought-provoking common text to read. After my first read, I was overwhelmed with what I had just read, but after discussing the book, I feel it is a book that should be valued.

“I believe that most of us are going through, or have gone through, some process of self-discovery. This made it very easy for me to relate to the invisible man in the book. We are all minorities in our society in the same way, so the themes in the book compare to our lives as well. Being a minority does not only mean to be a black man; it could also mean to be a woman in our male-dominated society, a Hindu in our society consisting largely of Christians, or a poverty-ridden family in our society driven by money and materials.

“Although social change has occurred since this book was written, the issues addressed in Invisible Man are largely relevant today. Progress has occurred, but the problem regarding civil rights has not been solved entirely. Oppression and prejudice will always be problems, so this book was an interesting choice that should benefit all of us who have read it.”

– Caitlin Schwartz ’07

“Following the narrator’s struggle to define himself allowed me to learn vicariously through him. As he eventually began to understand the importance of embracing certain unchangeable qualities of himself, I too was able to reach many of the same conclusions. I realized that my identity is influenced by my past and surroundings, but that it also has the ability to shape my future. Following the existentialist theme of the novel, I am what I choose to become.”

– Rachel Lindor’07

“Invisible Man proved to be an excellent choice for the common text program. Initially, I had my doubts; people told me it was boring and long. The letters from the college noted how difficult and challenging the book could be. I dreaded reading the novel all summer and ended up waiting until the last week of August to sit down with the book.

“I enjoyed the book. I spent a few days of concentrated reading. The ideas and themes intrigued me. I found myself relating in various ways to the experiences and psychological states of the invisible man. Even more so, Ellison’s book helped me feel less alone, both as a human being and a minority.

“I think Invisible Man is an important piece of literature for all people to read regardless of generation, heritage, culture, or race. Remaining invisible and refusing to accept it risks our own humanity and existence. The book encourages people to define and assert their individuality and identity through an acceptance of personal histories, traditions and stories. In doing so, we all can achieve a greater sense of self and allow ourselves to truly value the time we have.”

– Lindsey Vaerst ’07

The novel is an instruction

Dr. Andrew Schreiber, English Department, relates the book to the message of blues music. “The blues respond to the question of how one is to live in a world of pain and oppression when there is no end in sight – a world in which loss, suffering, and injustice are not anomalies but simply facts of life which must be confronted rather than repressed or avoided,” he said.

“I like to think of Ellison’s novel as instruction in what one might call ‘the power of negative thinking’ – the recognition that (in the words of the old song lyric) we come into the world ‘with the blues all around our beds,’ and that we leave it in the same condition. The in-between is what matters: the grace, style, and passion with which we play a game we cannot win (at least not in this life, mortality being an inescapable fact).

“This is what the Invisible Man learns over the course of his experience – that all the narratives of ‘success’ and ‘progress’ upon which he has constructed his expectations are but myths hiding the real facts of existence. It is not until the last third of the novel that he begins to grasp the truth: that history is not an arc of progress pointing to the future, and that one’s individual life is not a rising graph of achievement and personal happiness but a game played against stacked odds.

“Armed with this new understanding, he finally achieves some control of his own destiny. He ‘changes the joke and slips the yoke,’ as Ellison once put it, slipping through the cracks and knot-holes of the rabbit-maze in which others have set him running.”