The narrator in Invisible Man is mistaken for a reverend, a pimp, a gambler, a fink, a unionist, a Southern Negro, a New York Negro, a rapist, a lover, a doctor, and a good singer. All are mistaken identities imposed upon him by the people he meets, but Ellison gives the reader all necessary information about IM’s identity through watching IM’s reactions and interactions with other characters in the book; he helps add to this by giving each character a symbolic name.
THESIS-In Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man, his ironic and symbolic use of names reveals and hides true character and identity of the individuals in the novel, and IM’s interactions with these characters build his own identity; irony strings along throughout the book while the narrator’s identity is developed but his name never revealed. The author uses names to present a character’s true disposition, the symbolic names given to the characters, especially Trueblood and Bledsoe, carry a satire the covertly presents itself throughout the novel.
One of the first characters that has a clear impact on IM is Trueblood, he brings out a sense of shame in the narrator. Trueblood talks openly to Mr. Norton about what happened in his recent past, he completely reveals himself truthfully despite the possible judgement and disgust that would come from it, “But once a man gits hisself in a tight spot like that there ain’t much to do… it aint up to him no longer. There I was tryin’ to git away with all my might, yet having to move without moving” (2. 59).
HE expresses that sometimes, things arent “up to him no longer,” his acceptance of his mistake is symbolic. Ellison forces the reader to look deeply and think about the names he has chosen for his characters, Trueblood’s symbolic name holds true to the irony in the book as one of the most disgusting characters is also one of the only truthful and honest ones; but also that his family does not have “true blood,” as he corrupted the purity of the blood in his family when he raped his daughter and had a child with her; the name stands as a reminder of the crime and the type person he is.
Ellison uses Trueblood to show the reader IM’s shame when it comes to his own race, this resistance and disgrace is revealed and starts as the foundation for future color identity references in the following chapters. After the meetup with Trueblood, the unnamed narrator has to face Mr. Bledsoe back at his college. Mr. Bledsoe slowly reveals himself as a cruel and greedy character in the novel; and only after his true identity reveals itself does the reader see the meaning and satirical signification behind his name.
IM confronts Bledsoe only to be struck down by the weight of Bledsoe’s true character and motives, “This is a power set-up, son, I’m at the controls. You think about that” (6. 142). Bledsoe allows his own race to suffer and steps upon them on his way to find success in the white man’s world that he idolizes so much. The words he uses, “set up,” “controls,” and “son” all reflect the seriousness Bledsoe has and the way he looks down to IM but has no pity for him. This sparks an ironic conflict, one of the only black men who has a successful and respectable life refuses to show a sense of love toward his own struggling and oppressed race.
The irony of his name falls in the way it is pronounced, people who he saw as a threat to his position and success bled so he can keep his title and success. Ellison uses this to reveal the hypocrisy and corruption within IM’s own race, this is one of the first lessons IM learns and also marks the start of his development out of being ignorant to the way things stand racially. Both of these characters have an ironic twist when comparing their symbolic name and their true character.
Tod Clifton’s name has great significance, but differing from the other names in the story, the significance held in his name is a result of his past identity and actions, but still has great importance and supports the role of names in the novel. Clifton is introduced as a bright, good-looking man in the Brotherhood working for the good of the cause, but soon after he is shown on the streets, selling Sambo dolls that represent white supremacy. IM describes the moment when he sees the new Clifton selling the dolls, “his eyes looked past me deliberately unseeing. I was paralyzed, looking at him” (22. 433).
The narrator is extremely rattled at this change in character, so much so he is “paralyzed,” but the true importance lies in what Clifton does. Clifton “looked past [him] deliberately unseeing,” a clear reference to the fact that the narrator is an “invisible man,” but also that IM recognizes this, he sees how others look at him and recognizes it. This is a point in the novel where the reader sees a small part of the narrator’s identity and progress shown while another character’s identity is being expanded; Ellison shows the start of IM understanding himself and his identity as Clifton is losing his sense of himself.
This instance causes IM to think and understand about what the Brotherhood means to him and his identity, more steps toward a full understanding and finding himself. The escalation continues after Clifton’s change of identity and morals, on the streets he is chased and harmed by a white policeman after selling the dolls, presenting an ironic twist as Clifton was selling dolls supporting white supremacy but is killed by a white policeman.
Pondering on Clifton’s betrayal of the Brotherhood, sudden change in identity, and death, IM reflects, “Clifton had chosen to plunge out of history and, except for the picture it made in my mind’s eye, only the plunge was recorded, and that was the only important thing” (23. 456). The irony of this lays in the meaning of Clifton’s name; Tod, meaning “death” in German, presents the plunge, “the only important thing of his downfall,” and Clifton, emphasis on the word “cliff,” he is a man on a cliff surrounded by devastation with no other option than “plunging” off the cliff.
Clifton is the only character that dies in the novel, as soon as he dies, the reader sees the narrator question himself, the Brotherhood, and the meaning of many things. The loss of a character was a loss in a small part of identity; but expands IM’s identity and opens his eyes to the way people change, the racism clearly present in his society, and what can result from it. Later in the novel, Ellison presents Mary Rambo, the role she plays and the name she has presents the ironic play between the religious reference and the racial issues.
Mary Rambo is a nurturing woman who does not recognize or let herself be affected by the severity of the racial issues in society but simply accepts IM and loves him after hard times, such as Mary Magdalene from the Bible. She is one of the first characters to show immense love toward the narrator, reflecting the love and support of Mary Magdalene, “Mary reminded me constantly that something was expected of me, some act of leadership, some newsworthy achievement; and I was torn between resenting her for it and loving her for the nebulous hope she kept alive” (12. 56). Mary is the first character introduced that sees IM as a innocent and good man, and hopes the best for him. Her parallels to Mary from the Bible present her as a loving and merciful figure, the narrator, finally shown love is torn, her perception of him is very different than the rest of the characters, possibly having an effect on his view of his own identity. Ellison uses Mary to help build up IM, with her he is loved and pushed to be his best, contrary to the rest of the characters who batter him down.
This gives IM a new viewpoint of the world and of himself that is more based in love and acceptance. Contrasting from Mary Rambo’s loving manner, Ras the Exhorter is annexample of a character who holds qualities of violence and hate, and whose name is a direct correlation to the racism and power issues in the novel. Ras the Exhorter is a Harlem community leader that stirs up the community and advocates rebelling against the whites society, he is on the other end of the spectrum than Mary who is all for love.
Ras’s name is pronounced “Race. This shows how Ellison uses Ras as a representation of those people who were for breaking away from white society entirely; and exhorter, a play on word for extorter, one who obtains something by intimidation, his name is a play on word representation of what he stands for and what he does. Ras presents his worldview “Brothers are the same color; how the hell you call these white men brother? Shit, mahn. That’s shit! Brothers the same color. We sons of Mama Africa, you done forgot? You black, BLACK!.. They enslave us – you forget that? (17. 361).
Ras is used by Ellison to present yet another viewpoint to IM, separate from the ideas from previous characters like white supremacy, equality, black hypocrisy, and black shame (the differing ideas and foundation from Trueblood and Bledsoe on their race). This is another worldview that the narrator is forced to address and eventually decide for himself what he believes. Ellison’s use of characters to present new ideas, problems, and situations forces the narrator to open his eyes to many different ways of looking at things in times when he is unsure of himself and his view.
The reader is led to question why the name of IM is never shared, throughout the whole book the narrator is also trying to understand his own identity, and realizations come as he meets new characters and their symbolic names are revealed. Halfway through the novel, and after meeting new characters and much personal development, IM questions himself, “what and how much had | lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?… I had never formed a personal attitude toward so much.
I had accepted the accepted attitudes and it had made life seem simple” (13. 65). At this point in the novel, the reader sees IM questioning paradigms he has accepted about who he is, he asks himself questions and focuses on what he has lost from his own point of view. He realizes that he “had never formed a personal attitude,” and simply “accepted the accepted attitudes. ” This realization make him aware of the black man stereotype that he is carrying out, ignorant and controlled by the society around him.
This is a turning point in the novel as IM starts on his quest to claim his own identity and attitude with direction and purpose, rather han accepting the ones expected of him. In the Prologue, he speaks from hindsight and shares his view with the reader, “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. … I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man! ” (Prologue. 13). Ellison’s use of exclamation is rare, his emphasis shows the excitement and importance on his acceptance of his identity; as well as Ellison’s repetition of “l,” IM, for the first time, is turning to himself for the answers.
Ellison gives the reader IM’s viewpoint as he is the narrator, he shares his thoughts and parts of his identity, while the other characters identities are presented by their symbolic names. The quote portrays this viewpoint change and IM finally taking responsibility and looking to himself to define his identity. The narrator grows from blind ignorance to enlightened awareness as he begins to listen with an open mind, to question, and to draw connections between the experiences of others and his own life.
Relating struggles he sees other characters going through, like Tod Clifton’s internal struggle with the Brotherhood, to himself, the narrator becomes aware of his own internal conflicts. A name defines a person and gives them an identity; the narrator is searching for that self-assurance and because of that search, his real name is never shared. There are three names in the novel that the narrator goes by, his real name (which is never shared), his name he receives from the brotherhood (which is also not shared), and Rinehart, (a mistaken identity).
The fact that the name of the narrator is never shared forces the reader to see the narrator the way he wants to be seen. He is called the Invisible Man because that is the perfect and only way to describe him. Every other character in the novel imposes their own names on him they each try to define him while ignoring his own sense of self. The end of the book is tied with a bow of irony to taper off the weaved satire and ironic names given to the characters in the novel; the fact that we never are allowed to learn the true name of the narrator seals the pattern of irony