So I must admit that I’ve been having some sort of strange quarter-life crisis or something recently, and this book exactly hit the spot. It really resonated with lots of the things that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. That being said, I should try to give an actual review now. As usual, I will not reveal any late plot points, so don’t worry, it will not be spoiled if you want to read it.
First, we really need to clear up the fact that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is different from The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. A quick historic note is that this was the only novel Ellison published in his lifetime. My first complaint is that even though I usually like my novels to be long, this clocked in at close to 600 pages and I felt that it could have been adequately done in 300.
Overall, the book is generally a fictional account of an African-American student that is kicked out of his university for a rather silly reason. He then moves to New York and becomes a leader of some sort of civil rights group.
Here is why I think the novel is too long. I think of it in three sections. The beginning and end are very personal introspective accounts by the narrator. He questions what it means to be stereotyped (in fact, this is what the title is referring to. He is not actually invisible. He just feels that way due to the society’s expectations). These two sections really show the emotional and subconscious effects that bigotry have on people. They were some of the most powerful, chilling works of prose I’ve read. These two sections also have some truly disturbing scenes about what was culturally acceptable behavior at some point (and, well, depending on what type of minority you are, possibly still today).
The middle third, although in some senses necessary, just seemed unimportant to me. You could cut it and be left with an utterly fantastic novel. This section was much more macroscopic in scale. It was the political activist section. It wasn’t as personal, and so it was hard for me to connect with. It was also filled with probably a good hundred pages of random political speeches. For the time period of the novel (1952), it was probably much more effective, but for me it was a major distraction and drag to what I considered to be the main point.
Overall, if you’re willing to put in the effort of a fairly long-winded novel, I’d say it is very much worth it (especially if you are going through a period of questioning your identity and how you fit into society and how to deal with stereotypes and being true to yourself). So I’ll leave you with some quotes that I found particularly profound.
“When one is invisible he finds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other, depending upon who happens to be looking through him at the time. Well, now I’ve been trying to look through myself, and there’s a risk in it. I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I’ve tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth.”
“I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine. . . . And I knew that it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others.”