Invisible Man Symbolism Essay

Invisible Man Essay

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Morgan Reynolds AP Literature A Nameless Stereotype “Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity. ” (Stephen King, On Writing). In Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” symbolism plays an excessively important role. More specifically, the symbolism of a particular coin bank and Sambo doll not only add greatly to the themes of the story, but accurately depicts the black man’s Harlem in the 1920’s.

The protagonist of the story, a nameless young black man, struggles with finding his identity among a society of warring stereotypes. Throughout the novel, the narrator is continuously reminded of the black stereotype thrust upon him. The coin bank serves as a realization of the image many white men still hold regarding African Americans in the 1920’s. The Invisible Man, otherwise known as the narrator, awakens to find a coin bank in a guest room of the home owned by the only woman whom he trusts, Mary. Then near the door I saw something which I had never seen before: the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth. ” (Ellison 319).

The coin bank embodies the idea of the well-behaved slave, who fawns over white men for trivial rewards such as petty change. The narrator smashes the coin bank due to a sharp hatred for the stereotype that his brethren, and himself, are subjected to. However, he also resents the black men whom embody this stereotype, and make breaking out of it difficult for the rest. The restricting idea of the coin bank appears earlier in the novel during the “battle royal” as well. “I crawled rapidly around the floor, picking up the coins, trying to avoid the coppers and to get greenbacks and the gold.

Ignoring the shock by laughing, as I brushed the coins off quickly, I realized that I could contain the electricity- a contradiction, but it works. ” (Ellison 27). The battle royal dehumanizes the poor young black man for the sake of entertainment, and reinforces the lowly manner in which they are viewed. The narrator’s stereotype follows him throughout life, leaving no chance of proving his reality to the outside world. The Sambo doll, a small paper doll with puppet-like strings, depicts a harsh and undeniably racist stereotype of black entertainers. A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming it’s head and feet and which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face. It’s no jumping-jack, but what, I thought, seeing the doll throwing itself about with the fierce defiance of someone performing a degrading act in public, dancing as though it received a perverse pleasure from its motion. ” (Ellison 431).

The dolls are introduced to the narrator through a former member of the “Brotherhood,” Todd Clifton. The Brotherhood embodies an unhealthy, communist-like group of black and white men whom seek change through the use of a token spokesperson, typically a young black man with charm and a knack for public speaking. The Brotherhood as a whole subconsciously, or perhaps even consciously, uses this stereotype to their advantage by exploiting charming young black men as poster children for the cause. “Shake it up! Shake it up! He’s Sambo, the dancing doll, ladies and gentlemen.

Shake him, stretch him by the neck and set him down, -He’ll do the rest. Yes! He’ll make you laugh; he’ll make you sigh, si-igh. He’ll make you want to dance, and dance- Here you are, ladies and gentlemen, Sambo, The dancing doll. Buy one for your baby. Take him to your girlfriend and she’ll love you, loove you! He’ll keep you entertained. He’ll make you weep sweet-Tears from laughing. Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him for he’s Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing, Sambo, the entertaining, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll. ” (Ellison 431-432).

As Clifton sings this song to the onlookers, he not only stereotypes the black man as a mere entertainer for the White, but himself as well. The dancing doll pleases the onlookers through absurd motions. Even though it appears to be moving through sheer willpower, the doll attaches to a string, giving the illusion of a puppeteer bending his puppet to his will. The puppeteer represents the white man’s control from behind the scenes, such as the case in the Brotherhood. The Sambo doll represents the power and control a stereotype has over a person’s actions.

Stereotype and prejudice, like the invisible strings of the paper Sambo doll, often manipulate the extent one may or may not achieve in life. The author, Ralph Ellison, provides many political themes throughout the novel. “Ralph Ellison declared his intention to shape public opinion when he received the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man. In his acceptance speech, he comment that his own attempt to write a major novel derived from a feeling that, ‘except for the work of William Faulkner, something vital had gone out of American prose since Mark twain. He added that American writers once assumed ‘a much greater responsibility for the condition of democracy, and, indeed, their works were imaginative projections of the conflicts within the human heart which arose when the sacred principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights clashed with the practical exigencies of human greed and fear, hate and love. ’” (Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man 1). Ellison uses the political and social experiences of the time period in which “Invisible Man” takes place to enhance the reality of the book.

He blends the themes of emotion, personal struggle, oppression, and politics in a way that feels most realistic. He uses these to develop the theme of the novel. In the analytical novel, “Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man,” Ellison is depicted as a man who “hoped to follow in the footsteps of great American writers not only by developing and honing is craft as they did theirs, but also writing Invisible Man as a deliberate attempt ‘to return the mood of personal moral responsibility for Democracy. ” (1). Through Ellison’s determination and seven year struggle to complete “Invisible Man,” he brought the story of a nameless man to the masses, and not only developed a format of technical literary genius, but stirred up 1950’s America in his thought provoking novel. “Invisible Man” tells the story of prejudice and stereotype of both black and white men in the early 20th century.

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The novel is not merely about racism, but more accurately the struggles of finding one’s identity through a state of stereotypes against stereotypes. Works Cited: Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House Inc. 1947. Print. Ralph Ellison and The Raft Of Hope. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Print.

Author: Dave Villacorta

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Invisible Man Essay

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Through the symbol of the Liberty Paints Plant, Ralph Ellison, conveys how racism can cover up and destroy one's identity. The Liberty Paints plant serves as a complex model of American society with regard to races. Like American society it is based on the ideals of liberty and purity, yet racism is prominent within it. When entering the plant one sees a huge electric sign with the words "Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints" (196). However, "Optic White" is seemingly the only paint produced there. This reflects on the white man's dominance in American Society. In addition, Lucius Brockway, the man in charge of the underground section of the plant where the paint base is made, informs the narrator that the main quality of the paint is its' ability to cover up any tint or stain. He emphasizes this quality when he notes that "Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you'd have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn't white clear through" (217).

Here Ellison refers to the white man's intentions of covering up black identity and how Negroes are treated as stains in the white purity of American society. Symbolism is also seen through the way the paint is made, by mixing drops of a dead black substance in with the white paint. The paint, however, emerges even whiter and purer then before, with no trace of its black components. Again, Ellison refers to how white culture tends to overshadow and oppress the Negro identity. The portrayal of the Liberty Paints Plant is one of the many symbols Ellison uses to show the propensity of American Society to outcast Negroes, and make them invisible.


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