Invisible Man - Identity
"Who the hell am I?" (Ellison 386) This question puzzled the invisible man, the unidentified, anonymous narrator of Ralph Ellison's acclaimed novel Invisible Man. Throughout the story, the narrator embarks on a mental and physical journey to seek what the narrator believes is "true identity," a belief quite mistaken, for he, although unaware of it, had already been inhabiting true identities all along.
The narrator's life is filled with constant eruptions of mental traumas. The biggest psychological burden he has is his identity, or rather his misidentity. He feels "wearing on the nerves" (Ellison 3) for people to see him as what they like to believe he is and not see him as what he really is. Throughout his life, he takes on several different identities and none, he thinks, adequately represents his true self, until his final one, as an invisible man.
The narrator thinks the many identities he possesses does not reflect himself, but he fails to recognize that identity is simply a mirror that reflects the surrounding and the person who looks into it. It is only in this reflection of the immediate surrounding can the viewers relate the narrator's identity to. The viewers see only the part of the narrator that is apparently connected to the viewer's own world. The part obscured is unknown and therefore insignificant. Lucius Brockway, an old operator of the paint factory, saw the narrator only as an existence threatening his job, despite that the narrator is sent there to merely assist him. Brockway repeatedly question the narrator of his purpose there and his mechanical credentials but never even bother to inquire his name. Because to the old fellow, who the narrator is as a person is uninterested. What he is as an object, and what that object's relationship is to Lucius Brockway's engine room is important. The narrator's identity is derived from this relationship, and this relationship suggests to Brockway that his identity is a "threat". However the viewer decides to see someone is the identity they assign to that person. The Closing of The American Mind, by Allan Bloom, explains this identity phenomenon by comparing two "ships of states" (Bloom 113). If one ship "is to be forever at sea, [and] ?K another is to reach port and the passengers go their separate ways, they think about one another and their relationships on the ship very differently in the two cases" (Bloom 113). In the first state, friends will be acquainted and enemies will be formed, while in the second state, the passengers will most likely not bother to know anyone new, and everyone will get off the ship and remain strangers to one another.
A person's identity is unalike to every different viewer at every different location and situation. This point the narrator senses but does not fully understand. During his first Brotherhood meeting, he exclaimed, "I am a new citizen of the country of your vision, a native of your fraternal land!" (Ellison 328) He preaches to others the fact that identity is transitional yet he does not accept it himself. Maybe he thought it distressing being liked not for being his true self but because of the identity he puts on or being hated not for being himself but because of his identity. To Dr. Bledsoe, the principal of the black southern university where the narrator attended, the narrator is a petty "black educated fool" (Ellison 141). To Mr. Norton, a rich white trustee of the black university, the narrator is a simple object intertwined with his fate, a mere somebody, he explained to the narrator, that "were somehow connected with [his (Mr. Norton's)] destiny" (Ellison 41). To the organizers of the Brotherhood, Jack, Tobitt, and the others, the narrator is what they designed him to be. They designed for him an identity of a social speaker and leader, and to his listeners and followers, he is just that. Those were his multiple identities and none were less authentic than the others because to his onlookers, he is what his identities say he is, even if he thinks differently.
The narrator always had a desire for people "who could give [him] a proper reflection of [his] importance"