Themes And Styles Of Ralph Ellison
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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 narrators 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 Twains 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, Ellisons 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 Ellisons imagination brings forth truth from the narrators 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 mans 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 novels 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 reality of existence in a high tech society characterized by swift change. He is the best example of the versatile, complex, americanized black character. He repeatedly pushes against the walls of his environment. Although he doesnt prevail, this doesnt lessen his quest of the search of identity past the labels the world would give him. Although he is clearly loyal to the African American community, he cannot be thought of as simply black. Instead, he carries messages back and forth throughout the novel between white and black worlds. The narrator, a southern Negro, is very much like us. He can be seen as a “trickster” who lessens the assumptions and stereotypes of both these racial groups. Ellison pride shown in his Negro heritage and his claim to having roots in a transracial culture both coexist (Stephens 115; Baker 114:101; Weinberg 42).
Ellison includes black American folklore in The Invisible Man and all of his short stories to bridge the gap between how unique and deep the black experience can be. It has been called the “cornerstone of Invisible Man.” It gives the stories a “dimension beyond realism.” Folklore adds power to his fiction, letting his characters “fly to the moon” if they wished. It gives the fiction a realistic taste of black culture. The folklore is very metaphorical, as it always has a meaning prevalent to an idea it is trying to convey. In The Invisible Man the narrator frees himself from his isolation and blindness by unlocking the past which is accomplished through folklore. African American folktale incorporated in his works includes sermons, tales, games, jokes, boasts, toasts, jazz (blues), and spirituals. The values of black American life are reflected in this spirited language. It demonstrates the past as the single real source of genuine black self-definition. Ellison was quoted once stating his belief in strong use of folklore by saying “Great Literature is erected upon the humble base of folk forms” (qtd in Blake 134). Through folklore characters can take a step away from the chaos they see through experience and demonstrate the humor or horror of their living. It shows a Negros willingness to trust his own experience, rather than let his masters define these crucial matters for him. Ellison adapts the folklore in his novel to the myths of the larger American and Western cultures so that it appeals to readers of any race, but yet at the same time they can acquire the taste of true black culture (Blake 134; OMeally 79).
The narrator of The Invisible Man is both victimized as a hero stuck in a world full of unnecessary prejudice and a hero who rises above that prejudice