Striking Through the Mask: Part Two (Invisible Man)

by Ezekiel Fry

From our first introduction to Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man we are given only the slimmest window by which to view the speaker. The entire drama that shall unfold will be viewed as the unnamed teller desires it to be. He will be the controlling force of the narrative. It is through this technique of control that the voice of the unseen, unheard, and unwanted may assert itself, and form (or destroy) an identity within a carefully constructed frame of words and ideas. The deference that may be necessary in the actual events of the novel themselves will never intrude upon the fierce independence that is afforded for this underground voice through this technique of narrative control. Although the speaker may remain invisible, his voice carries and resounds. Nothing makes its way outward to the reader that the narrator—Ellison’s subordinate in this sense—does not first inspect and certify. While the authoritative figures of the novel continue to keep the narrator running, it is only through the narrator’s own story, his realm of creation, that we see these seemingly powerful figures. They are as much his creation as he is theirs. This relationship leads to an epilogue that, as the narrator states, ends with the beginning (Ellison 571), and this too is an assertion of control. Invisible Man lies in a tradition of narrative control and creation that functions most extraordinarily when applied to the figure of shadow—unseen, unheard, and unwanted.
By examining two of Ellison’s forebears the role of his own narrator, the power of the technique itself, and perhaps even a window into the identity of the invisible man himself may become clearer. These two literary precedents are Herman Melville’s Ishmael, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Underground Man.” Firstly, I would like to compare the first sentence of each figure’s narrative disclosure. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s first utterance is, “Call me Ishmael” (Melville 18); in Notes From the Underground, the “Underground Man’s” is, “I am a sick man” (Dostoevsky 1); The narrator of Invisible Man begins with, “I am an invisible man” (Ellison 3). All three of these marginalized figures, who give us our only glimpses into the worlds which they inhabit, begin by tersely identifying themselves. This is not to say that they begin by telling us who they are, but instead what they are. Ishmael instructs the reader to call him an outcast, the “Underground Man” states bluntly that he is deficient in some way, and Ellison’s narrator, just as bluntly and matter-of-factly, tells us that he is invisible. These descriptions do not definitively tell us anything about the man himself, but, through the application of a negative, they may bring us closer to understanding the what, if not the who of the question. Ishmael does not have a home, the “Underground Man” is not healthy, and Ellison’s narrator cannot be seen. These distinctions, between the positive and negative viewing of the statement, may appear arbitrary, but they form the foundation upon which each narrator will divulge his tale. They are the parameters which are set from the very first word.
Each narrator tells us flatly how not to view them, but Ellison’s narrator takes this method one step further, he tells us that we cannot view him. Period. By stating this as the opening thought of the novel, all subsequent events must refer backwards to this moment of definition through negation. Ishmael will always be the outcast who stands outside of events as they unfold upon the Pequod, the “Underground Man’s” actions will always be predicated by an intrinsic lack of balance (be it physical or spiritual), and Ellison’s narrator’s story will always portray an outward figure—an invisible shell—which houses a very visible, tangible soul. Within his cloak of invisibility, the narrator holds the keys to what is, but from his first line he will endeavor to display this knowledge through the examination of what is not. Looking back, he knows how each event will end, but it is as if, in the course of the novel, he experiences them again for the first time. This is not so. Like Ishmael before him, Ellison’s narrator recreates his story in the telling, but his preternatural knowledge of the outcome is always present, forcing the reader to look through the mask of innocence and see the inner-workings of the tale long before they appear in the text explicitly. With this referential thought in mind, the repetition of the narrator’s line, in the prologue, “the end is in the beginning” (Ellison 6), and at the end of chapter 25, “the end was in the beginning” (Ellison 571), become book-ends for the story, which is told during the ending, and finished where it began. Everything that lies between these two invocations references the knowledge that the narrator possesses in the end, which he possesses from the very beginning. In this complicated way, as with Ishmael, the narrator is free to create the past, to, as Clifton states, “plunge outside history” (Ellison 377). The backward glance is alive and well within the character of Ellison’s narrator, much as it is in those numerous tell-tale lines of foreshadowing from Melville’s Ishmael.
This narrative structuring allows for a calculated build-up to the ultimate moment. While Ishmael places the “grand hooded phantom” (Melville 22) at the end of his first statement (chapter one), we will not see Moby Dick himself until the final scene of the book. In the same way Ellison’s narrator places the description of his grandfather, and the subsequent dream, as the capstone of his first tale (chapter one as well), but it will not be until the final moment, or the beginning found in the ending, that this vision of his grandfather, and the turmoil surrounding his final words, will be exposed. The narrator has the knowledge of this conclusion from the very outset, for he has lived the events of the novel, but he may not expose this truth until he has made that which is invisible visible. Where Ishmael cannot drop Moby Dick into the path of Ahab until the whale has been given shape and vigor through the telling, Ellison’s narrator cannot show the pertinence of his hard-fought conclusion until he has given breath and blood to a life that cannot be seen. The invisible man must make himself visible, in order to shift back into the underground. It is telling that the chamber in the beginning of the novel is filled with light, while the pit in which the narrator finds himself at the end of chapter 25 is filled with coal and darkness. The light must be present to illuminate that which cannot otherwise be seen. Once the tale has been told darkness may return, much as Ishmael states in the final line of chapter 135, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago” (Melville 427). The “shroud”, the darkness, settles back upon the scene only when the narrator commands it. Every aspect of the tale, be it whaling expedition or communist disillusionment, is carefully controlled by the narrator, leading (but not at the exclusion of the events which create the bulk of the work) to one final moment, a purging of sorts. This is certainly the case for Ellison’s narrator, who waits until the scene has dimmed back to darkness before releasing the secret of his grandfather’s Truth.
Placing the seemingly new found knowledge of a hidden truth within his grandfather’s dying words atop his initial fears concerning the old man’s apparently traitorous secret, and the failed attempt to integrate this traitorous element into his own life, Ellison’s narrator draws on both these momentary beliefs, these misinterpretations of a troubling statement. The struggle with his grandfather’s words changes and shifts throughout the many episodes of the novel, but lurking behind all these is that final epiphany that within the statement lives a beautiful affirmation. Experience has shown the reader the truth of this theory. It has not shown the narrator, for, as mentioned above, he has known the outcome all the while. He has turned all the lights on, has grappled with the controls and taken charge for a brief moment in order to elegantly lead the reader out of the light of the personal, into the shadowy realm of the universal. The personal narrative, the creation of identity (or loss of identity as the case may very well be), has been spoken of in the glaringly bold light of the subterranean prologue, but the wisdom of his grandfather’s words are uttered in the darkness of the epilogue. Within a country—within a world—in which we all, whether knowingly or unknowingly, live beneath a shroud of darkness a voice may rise out of this shadow and, through the mechanism of narrative control and foreknowledge, create a speck of light in the gloom. As the scene dims once again the narrator draws attention, ever so subtly, to the possibilities that lie within this universal shroud. The connection that has been established through the “disembodied voice” (which is the true voice of all Americans) may be drawn ever closer. Norton’s destiny becomes inescapable, and the final words of the novel echo for us all, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (Ellison 581). The identity of the invisible man becomes strangely clear. Until we accept Grandfather’s truth, until we acknowledge that reality and ideal are separate entities, we are all invisible, all lost beneath the shroud.

*Pagination: Moby-Dick (Norton Critical Edition); Invisible Man (Vintage Edition); Notes From Underdground (Dover Thrift Edition).