The article is mainly in the field of American literature, and it analyses psychological effects of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and classifies its characters according to the modes of presentation and the roles in the work. Here the word “invisible” neither refers to any magic ability nor the result of chemical activities unlike “Invisible Man” by Herbert O.Wells, but it refers to public rejection to see the black people. While categorizing characters, the author of the article supports arguments with the excerpts from the novel.
Key words: psychology, character, conflict, tragic, brutal, exist, society, Negro, narrator, protagonist, antagonist, invisible, classification.
Differing from any novel, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is a deeply tragic and profoundly soul-searching story of one young Negro’s brutal experiences on the road to self-discovery. It clearly reveals insight into every “invisible” man’s struggle to find himself. In the novel we can see “Man versus Society” conflict since the protagonist takes on society itself, and not a single person. He struggles with the white folk to be seen, for his identity, even beats, sometimes kills them for the fact that they refuse to see him. “And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful.” Even sometimes he does not understand what is his and other Negro’s guilt to be unseen by white people. “Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underworld of sound to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking,
What did I do
To be so black
The worst thing of all, he could not act as he wished, once his grandfather advised him how to live, how to behave in the society here the white people live as well. He says, “When I was praised for my conduct I felt a guilt that in some way I was doing something that was really against the wishes of the white folks, that if they had understood they would have desired me to act just the opposite, that I should have been sulky and mean, and that that really would have been what they wanted, even though they were fooled and thought they wanted me to act as I did. It made me afraid that some day they would look upon me as a traitor and I would be lost. Still I was more afraid to act any other way because they didn't like that at all.”
As it is mentioned above, the protagonist struggles the society’s attitude toward him and other black people. Society denies the fact that black people are also human beings, they also exist in this world. No matter how hard he tries to be visible in society, he ends up with suicide, because white people want it.
As for character classification, there are 4 main characters: a protagonist and 3 antagonists. Each one is described either direct or indirect modes of narration. The main character does not have a name, the author describes all events and characters through his voice, so he narrates the whole novel.
The narrator is a protagonist, all events happen around him, and all other characters help him develop by influencing throughout the novel. He is described both direct (“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”) and indirect (“I kicked him repeatedly, in a frenzy because he still uttered insults though his lips were frothy with blood — when it occurred to me that the man had not seen me, actually; that he, as far as he knew, was in the midst of a walking nightmare!”) modes of presentation. In direct presentation he himself tells the reader about himself, why he is so blue, why he is invisible in society and why society mistreat him. In indirect mode of presentation, he speaks about his action to a white passer-by who refused to see him. Through his action we can judge his personality and position in the novel. The narrator is a Byronic type of character, being always sad and miserable, and not only because of his destiny, but also the destiny of his nation, of all coloured Afro-American people. (And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful.) Moreover, he is considered a round character since he is naïve, but brutal at same time. At the beginning of the novel he innocently believes what he is told to be true. Later, having seen a lot of mistreatment and humiliation he changes and becomes extremely brutal even. It is his feature of being a dynamic character. (“Before that I lived in the darkness into which I was chased, but now I see. I've illuminated the blackness of my invisibility -- and vice versa.”)
Dr. Bledsoe is an antagonist in the novel and described in indirect way of presentation. (“You're nobody, son. You don't exist — can't you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think — except men like me. I tell them; that's my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about…”) It is his letter to the narrator. The reader may know Dr. Bledsoe does not support the narrator to believe his existence. While the narrator looks for his identity all his life, Dr. Bledsoe tells him not to do that, to act as white people want him to act. It’s indirect mode of presentation, because the author does not describe him, with the help of his letter the reader can guess he is antagonist who is trying to stop the protagonist on his way to goal. Furthermore, he is a flat and static character since his only one dimension is shown and he does not change through the novel.
Mr. Norton is one the antagonists in the novel and described in indirect way. (“She was a being more rare, more beautiful, purer, more perfect and more delicate than the wildest dream of a poet. I could never believe her to be my own flesh and blood.”) Here is given Mr. Norton’s words about his daughter. With the help of his thoughts to another person we can judge what kind of person he is. While ignoring the black people over and over, he is very obsessed by his daughter, he is a very kind and loving father. That’s why Mr. Norton can be considered as a round character showing his mercy to another person, and showing his brutal attitude to Negros. (Norton can walk away feeling morally superior to this inferior man and, by paying him for his story, absolve himself of his guilty social conscience.) Being two-faced, he is a big racist inside, because he always considers black people inferior. However, he tries not to show it. He feels he should enlighten black people who can’t help themselves lacking enough skills and intelligence, needing “a great white man” to show them light in their primitive world.
Brother Jack is also an antagonist, but a two-faced character, so he later reveals his real personality and does not support the narrator to be independent. (“Brother, this is advice from a friend who has been watching you closely. Do not go too fast. Keep working for the people but remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down.”) At the beginning Jack supports the narrative, however, he does not let him (invisible man) to act freely, to look for himself, to be feel his significance. He reminds him that they are living in a white people’s society and should act accordingly. As for mode of presentation, his image is indirect one, because through his letter and words to the narrator, the reader can judge the character.
All in all, “Invisible Man” is a great example of Harlem Renaissance period in the US and still popular over the world since it shows severe truth about Afro-American people at that period, it deals with American history and portrays different characters who survive brutal experiences of life.
- Ellison R., Invisible Man, New York: Random House,  ©1952
- Micheal D. Hill, Lena M. Hill. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Reference Guide/ Greenwood Press, 2008
- Williams Y., Icons of African American Literature: The Black Literary World/ Greenwood Press, 2011
- Vaughan C. E., English literary criticism / Chelsea House, 1999