The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Eccentric's Pilgrimage

R. W.B. Lewis

. . . Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is the most impressive work of fiction in a number of years. It is occasionally melodramatic and self-indulgent, and it is a trifle too long. But the book is a great solid chunk of fictional reality; it has a tremendous sheer existence; its core is inviolable and can stand any amount of scrutiny. The chunk is made up of all kinds and conditions of things, all of them held together by a fierce power of imagination. Melville is Mr. Ellison's major ally; and like Moby-Dick, Invisible Man contains sermons and songs and mediations and prayers, dreams and jokes and reminiscent anecdotes; it has fights and funerals and political meetings; it enters colleges, offices, bars, brothels, factories, private homes and star-chambers. The artistic ambition, like Melville's, is to suggest by a circus-vision of the world that reality is to be sought for everywhere and only everywhere, by multiplication rather than by reduction. (It is such a notion, I take it, that led Mr. Ellison back to the widely-ranging novel of the nineteenth century, for comfort and guidance, as against the sparse reductiveness of the Hemingway school.)

The circus-vision is appropriate to the story Mr. Ellison has to tell, for it is a contemporary, Negro version of the clown's grail. His hero is a Negro Charlie Chaplin, skidding around corners and dashing down alleys, endlessly harried by the cops and the crooks of the world, endlessly hurrying in search of whatever it ii that can sanctify human existence. On the run, Mr. Ellison's nameless hero is defrauded, betrayed and beaten, as all innocents and fools are born to be; yet, in the great tradition, he acquires a tough, private conscience as a result. Invisible Man is not ultimately a "Negro novel"; for just as the odyssey of the eccentric is an account of the condition of human life seen in American perspective, so Invisible Man simply passes that condition through yet another perspective, that of the Negro. Its young seeker is the modern hero as American Negro.

His adventures are too numerous for summary, but they share the common element of a droll reversal whereby he invariably achieves the opposite of what he aims at. Hoping to impress a trustee of his college, for example, he exposes the fellow instead to a Negro farmer about to have children simultaneously by wife and daughter. He is swept into service by the communistic "Brotherhood"' after starting a riot with a speech intended to prevent one. His best efforts to gain honor with the Brotherhood get him promptly and severely punished; his lectures to women on the improvement of their estate win him instant invitations to their beds. His grand mission to rise in the political and social world concludes with a dive down a manhole: where he decides to hibernate for a while, assessing the value of his clownish quest.

The world Mr. Ellison has contrived for his hero is pictured as a vast, disorderly and utterly spurious ritual, something designed not to bring the seeker into the center of

-39-

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