The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

A Novel Is a Novel

Richard Chase

At one point in Mr. Paul Bowles's new novel, the hero basks comfortably in the sun and reflects that "life is not a movement to or away from anything; not even from the past to the future, or from youth to old age, or from birth to death. The whole of life does not equal the sum of its parts. It equals any one of its parts; there is no sum. The full-grown man is no more deeply involved in life than the new-born child; his only advantage is that it can occasionally be given to him to become conscious of the substance of that life, and unless he is a fool he will not look for reasons or explanations. Life needs no clarifying, no justification. From whatever direction the approach is made, the result is the same: life for life's sake, the transcending fact of the living individual. In the meantime you eat." These perilous words invite a variety of meditations. If, for example, the novelist has come to believe that this idea of the human situation is an adequate basis for fiction, then surely that tiresomely heralded catastrophe, the death of the novel, must be at hand. For look at it how you will, a major theme of the novel has always been innocence; usually it has been the theme. And innocence, of course, has meant to the novelist a lack of involvement in life and has implied the possibility of a deeper involvement. The novel has shown a marvelous variety, but its central plot has been the passage, or the failure of passage, from innocence to experience. Its assumption has always been that life is in need of "clarifying"--that is, of being clearly seen in its reality and its complication--and of "justification"--that is, of being grasped in its inner meaning and fashioned into a controlling image by the imagination. Are these opinions too "rationalistic," too deficient in the theological éclat, too little cognizant of the horror and the glory, too poor to merit the splendid language of modern criticism, too little conversant with the rhetoric of motive and the dialectic of incarnation? My defense for a "rationalistic" interpretation of the novel must on this occasion be, first, history, and, second, Mr. Ellison.

One hás no trouble at least in discerning that Mr. Ellison Invisible Man shows far more knowledge of mystery, suffering, transcendent reality, and the ultimate contradictions of life than most of the modern novels which, like that of Mr. Bowles, declare themselves for a vitalist philosophy shading off at the edges into a theology. Yet Ellison's theme is the classic novelistic theme: the search of the innocent hero for knowledge of reality, self, and society. The story begins in the South and traces the career of a promising Negro youth, with his illusions about becoming a new Booker T. Washington, as he passes from a Negro college to Harlem, as he finds his way into and out of the Communist Party, and then to his final condition as an "underground" but incipiently emergent man.

-35-

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