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Invisible Man | Study Guide

Ralph Ellison

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Invisible Man | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What is the importance of Crenshaw's character in Chapter 7 of Invisible Man?

Crenshaw is the new attendant assigned to the veteran doctor when he is moved to Washington, DC. The doctor suggests that Crenshaw is leaving behind a life of crime in the South and starting afresh in the North, a claim Crenshaw only halfheartedly denies. The North provides a "new world" for Southerners—both black and white—who want to create new lives for themselves. For the narrator, and many other black Southerners, the North seemingly provides an opportunity to be seen as individuals and racial equals. In the course of the novel, the North will turn out to be a place of both opportunity and danger to the narrator. It is certainly, however, an important proving ground for his journey of self-discovery.

What does the veteran doctor mean when he says "Be your own father" in Invisible Man, Chapter 7?

Heavily disillusioned by society's racism, the veteran doctor attempts to give the narrator advice for success away from campus. His advice to "be your own father" urges the narrator not to be led astray by mentors such as Dr. Bledsoe or Mr. Norton, who wish only to perpetuate their own self-serving agendas. The veteran doctor has seen the reality—every man serves himself—and he hopes the narrator will do the same. The narrator, unfortunately, is still too naive to understand the deep meaning of the man's advice, just as he was unable to see the wisdom of the doctor's words at Golden Day.

What is significant about the decor in Emerson's home in Invisible Man?

Emerson's home is decorated with artwork and artifacts from around the world, specifically Asia and Africa. This suggests that the Emersons are a colonial family—making their fortune from exploiting other countries. Throughout the novel there are many references to the United States benefiting from black culture but never giving proper credit. The decor reminds the narrator of a museum showing relics from slave times at the college. It is significant, therefore, that to the narrator the most interesting decoration is a cage filled with exotic birds. The birds, symbolic of the black race, are in captivity for the amusement of rich, white men.

What parallel is drawn between the narrator, young Emerson, and white women in Invisible Man?

Each of these characters—the narrator, young Emerson, and the unnamed white woman from Chapter 19—is disenfranchised from his or her community or viewed as a "second-class citizen": the narrator for race, young Emerson for sexuality, and the white woman for gender. All three characters struggle to create honest identities for themselves in a world that doesn't want to see them for who they really are. In this way, all three are invisible. However, invisibility affects each of them differently. The narrator is exploited by his own community and the white characters. The white woman is undervalued and ignored. Young Emerson, though disenfranchised, still enjoys a comfortable, wealthy life.

What role does religion play in Invisible Man?

There are many different types of religion presented in the novel, with sermonizing characters preaching that following their ideals is the only way to happiness. The reader sees this in the "sermons" of Reverend Barbee, Dr. Bledsoe, Brother Jack, and Ras. The novel warns that blindly following a set of principles without question will create either automatons or religious Sambos, who obey without understanding the full consequences of their actions. The novel also presents religious allegory through the many "deaths" and "rebirths" of the narrator, best exemplified in his "death" after the Liberty Paints explosion. Although the narrator isn't necessarily a religious figure, he journeys, Buddha-like, through suffering toward enlightenment.

In Invisible Man how is the narrator an "invisible man" while working at Liberty Paints?

The narrator is hired as a "scab," or nonunion worker, to fill in for white workers who have gone on strike. He belongs neither to the union nor to the company: he is a placeholder, easy to forget and replace, rendering him invisible to those inside and outside the company. Immediately, bosses tell him to simply work, not to think or ask questions about the busywork he is assigned. In this way, he is viewed as a machine, not a man. Inevitably, he makes a mistake and as punishment is sent even further from view: to work in the basement with another black troublemaker, Lucius Brockway.

Compare Lucius Brockway to the paint he produces in Invisible Man.

Lucius Brockway is the most indispensable worker at Liberty Paints. He invented the base for the popular Optic White paint color, knows the layout of the entire factory, and is the only employee who can manage the boilers. Despite his contributions, however, Brockway is relegated to working long hours in the basement boiler room. He is content to do his job, make his money, and keep his head down, but it's clear to the narrator that the old man is being exploited because he is black. Lucius Brockway's silent contributions to the company are symbolized in the paint he produces. Drops of oil are added to black paint to turn it "optic white," covering up the "blackness" so effectively that there isn't a hint of the black color's history in the paint.

How did Ellison both draw on and depart from the Harlem race riots of 1935 and 1943 in Invisible Man?

In the novel the characters are not sure of the cause of the riots. This was true of the 1935 Harlem race riot, where a misunderstanding about police mistreatment of a young suspect led to the outburst of violence. The riots of 1935 and 1943 targeted white-owned businesses. In Invisible Man the looters are indiscriminate, and the violence includes the burning of a tenement building mostly inhabited by black residents. The most significant difference, however, is that the real riots were unplanned. In the novel the riots are carefully orchestrated by the Brotherhood to ensure that the citizens would be destroyed and then blamed for their own destruction.

How do folktales inform the themes of Invisible Man?

Throughout the novel the narrator references traditional Southern folktales: Brer Rabbit, Buckeye the Rabbit, and Jack the Bear. Often, these stories are references to the narrator's Southern slave heritage, which he is too eager to discard. The stories bring him comfort, however, suggesting the value of his heritage as an African American. In particular, the character of Buckeye (Brer) rabbit is known for his ability to escape tricky situations unscathed. The character's experiences parallel the narrator's repeated escapes from dangerous situations—such as the bar brawl, the hospital, and the riots—and people, such as Bledsoe, Norton, and Brockway. During the hospital questioning, the narrator feels "giddy" to realize he now associates with the older Brer rabbit rather than the young, naive Buckeye.

What does castration symbolize in Invisible Man?

The subject of castration comes up twice in the novel—first when the narrator is in the hospital and later in the dream that concludes the novel. In both cases, white men, first the doctors and then Brother Jack, seek to castrate the black narrator. These scenes suggest the desire to remove power from the black race. Castration also literally removes a man's power to recreate, which would slow the growth of black populations, an interest of powerful white men. In the second dream, Brother Jack asks the narrator how it feels to be free of illusions. The narrator points out that the whites have not only wasted his future generations, but they have wasted their "sun and moon"—the chance to continue oppressing people like him.

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