16 November 2005
The Themes and Styles of Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison has proven himself through his novel The Invisible Man to be the leading black author of the twentieth century. Although he had written many short stories and essays collected in the book Shadow and Act, The Invisible Man is his only novel. With this one novel, Ellison earned himself the 1953 National Book Award and acclaim by the African American community for so accurately portraying the struggles a black American had to face in the 1930s. The writing style of Ellison is not typical of the writing style of other black authors of his time period like Baldwin or Wright. His Americanized writing style can be better compared to Melville, West and Faulkner. The Invisible Man contains excellently placed underlying themes and symbolism to accurately describe the narrator's struggles to find himself in both American society and black society.
Ellison loves the American language. Following the progress of the American language, Ellison admires Twain's southern speech, the Mississippi dialect of Faulkner and Jones' vernacular locations. He is sensitive to black speech especially by calling it "our own version of English." American language shows directness, flexibility and imagery to the Negro presence (Tuttleton 296). Overall, Ellison's perspective shown in his works is very personal. He concerns himself with more personal matters than social. He has tried hard to protect and prove his distinctness, his difference from various predefined ideas of his identity. He refuses to be defined by race in his works. He states his race proudly but will not allow assumptions to become his identity. Ellison proves he is not like "them" but a unique individual who has escaped "their' limitations (Gibson 315).
Everything an author could want from a novel can be found in The Invisible Man. Humor, suspense, black and American history (where Ellison's imagination brings forth truth from the narrator's setbacks), prose, meditations on the nature of perception and a rogue galley of characters are all flawlessly employed in the novel. The characters are so realistic that we can still see our own contemporaries in them, even though so many years have passed since it was written (Johnson 114:174).
The main theme of The Invisible Man is the search for a black man's identity in a very racist America during the 1930s. The narrator tries to find identity, not as an individual, but as a black man in a white society. He fights against the problem Ellison once identified in an interview saying, "Our lives since slavery have been described in terms of our political, economic and social conditions, seldom in terms of our own sense of life and values gained from our own unique American Experience" (121). The narrator searches for himself, for his unique identity, in the life and values he gains from the unique black American experience. His search for cultural identity, however, ends in the realization that the black experience is not so unique from the experience of any other American citizen of other backgrounds (Blake 121).
Writers over the last half century have debated whether the novel is strictly in a "black box," dealing with the struggles of the narrator as a black man, or if it is not merely about the "black experience," and can be applied to all races. According to some critics, this novel is not merely about the "black experience." This misconception has seemingly obscured the novel's multiracial message, structure and origins. The novel takes place on racial frontiers, and much of the book is a quest for a multiracial community. The Invisible Man is written in "picaresque tradition" and goes far beyond strictly racial themes. It is actually an American journey which captures the whole of the American experience and reflects the best American literary traditions. The narrator is more than only a black man. He is a complex American searching for the...
Cited: Blake, Susan. "Ritual & Rationalization: Black Folklore in the Works of Ralph Ellison." PMLA. (1979):121-36.
Gibson, Donald B. 20th Century Novelists: Ralph Ellison. Maryland: Maryland UP, 1971.
Jackson, Lawrence. Emergence of Genius. New York: Wiley, 2002.
O 'Meally, Robert G. The Craft of Ralph Ellison. Boston: Harvard UP, 1980.
Russel, Dick. Black Genius. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998.
Stephens, Gregory. On Racial Frontiers. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Tuttleton, James. The Primate 's Dream. Chicago: Dee, 1999.
Williams, Sherley Anne. Give Birth to Brightness: A study of Neo-Black Literature. Phoenix: Dial, 1972.
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