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Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic Edward Said claims that “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience…” In Ralph Elison’s The Invisible Man, the narrator experiences this feeling of exile due to the racism found in American society. Throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to form his own identity, which ultimately culminates in his conclusion that he is invisible. Initially, the narrator accepts and follows the preconceived views and limitations placed upon him as a result of racial prejudice. As the novel progresses, however, the narrator begins to question his tactic of living a life of passiveness and invisibility. Like Edward Said, who believed that exile could be horrific but also could become “a potent, even enriching” experience, the narrator’s alienation spurs him to become more proactive in society. He becomes more involved in society and acts on his own behalf, forcing others to acknowledge him and accept his actions outside of their prejudiced expectations.
Over the course of the entire novel, the narrator struggles in accepting the various viewpoints and racial expectations he encounters. From his experience at the Battle Royale — where he is degraded as entertainment for the white men—to his involvement in the Brotherhood—where he discovers he is being used as a token to gain more supporters — the narrator discovers the effects his skin color has on people’s perception of him. The narrator explains, “Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well; and to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years, did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility” (Ellison 6). Rather than having the ability to define himself, the narrator discovers that his blackness seems to encompass his entire identity and how the world sees him. As a result of this, the narrator proclaims himself as an “invisible man;” he has effectively decided that the entire world is full of blind people who refuse to give him a chance and see him for what he truly is. It is in this way that the narrator effectively exiles himself from being himself, as he no longer views himself as a valuable human being.
Not only does the narrator feel entirely disconnected from himself, but he also ends up completely disconnected from society. After escaping his situation with Ras, the narrator is confronted by two police officers who are concerned with the contents of his briefcase. When the narrator tries to run from them, he falls down a manhole. Once underground, the narrator is forced to burn the contents of his briefcase as a source of light and heat; these include items such as the Sambo doll and the paper with his Brotherhood title on it, amongst other things. Each of the items in the briefcase, as well as the briefcase itself, symbolize times when others tried to define the narrator’s identity. When the narrator finally burns these items, he metaphorically and figuratively breaks from his past; he no longer has to physically carry the briefcase, and he no longer metaphorically has to carry the guilt and baggage of his past. Once he finally burns the bridges that keep him linked to his past, the narrator explains, “I could only move ahead or stay here, underground. So I would stay here until I was chased out… I would take up residence underground” (Ellison 443).While the narrator is finally able to move on from the past, he decides to start a new life in the secluded underground. Ultimately, the narrator accepts his exile to the underground, as he refuses to live in a racist world where he is unable to define himself outside of his race.
After telling his story of exile and recounting all of the events that forced him into living a life underground, the narrator finally grows to accept his past. As the narrator tells his story to readers, he begins to recognize that he allowed others to define the importance of his experiences. The narrator then decides that he can define his identity and experiences without the views of others, and that he can finally become a complex and independent individual within a society filled with conformity. The narrator then goes on to explain, “I’m coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless…Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (Ellison 451). The narrator’s sudden interest in returning above ground to society is that he believes he can finally contribute to society as an individual, and add aspects of diversity to a society run rampant with racism and conformist beliefs. Although clearly still intimidated by coming out from his “hibernation,” it is evident that through living in exile the narrator has discovered that by living in solitude he has fulfilled the desires of those living underground. He finally recognizes that his approach of defying society by distancing himself from it is too passive, and he must make changes to it himself. The narrator comes up from underground as a man who is willing to question the ideals of society in order to make changes, and is a man who is ready to learn from his experiences.
Throughout the novel, the narrator experiences both the hardships and triumphs of exile, ultimately becoming a more independent and self-aware human being. Through his experiences at the Liberty Paints plant and involvement in the Brotherhood, the narrator discovers the prescribed limits of being an African American man in American society. Initially, the narrator accepts these roles and lives a life of “invisibility.” Although he lives a life of solitude and is unable to live to his truest self whilst exiled underground, he is also unable to abide to the expectations of white men. After finally coming to terms with what has forced him into exile underground, the narrator recognizes the detrimental affects living a life of solitude has had on his character and motivations. The narrator finally decides to come up from the underground, having discovered that while living life invisibly prevents others’ attempts to define him, it also stops him from being able to define himself through discovering his own identity.