The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Luminosity from the Lower Frequencies

Leon Forrest

I should like to discuss certain intellectual, cultural, and historical influences upon Ralph Ellison's sense of the hero's character-in-process and the structure of the major chapters throughout his monumental novel, Invisible Man. Several influences come to mind: Kenneth Burke, Lord Raglan, Dostoevsky and Faulkner, as well as the artistic and jazz- like rendering of folkloric sources.

From the literary critic Burke, Ellison came to see the possibility of using a formula to structure a chapter. Burke held that a pattern could be employed to achieve character- in-process progression through the formula of purpose, passion and perception: each chapter begins with a purpose for the hero, but then much of the action of the middle section involves a struggle or passion, over this purpose, or quest. Out of this mix or confrontation with others and the self, the hero comes away with a heightened perception a keener awareness about his life, so that a metamorphosis, or rebirth is implied. But these moments are stages of his processing into life, and the cycle once completed, unleashes new problems and struggles.

Another literary influence on Invisible Man came from Lord Raglan, whose seminal book The Hero, argues that a constant pattern of biographical data defines the lives of the heroes of tradition. The heroes Raglan calls forth run a gamut from Oedipus Rex to Elijah, Zeus, Orpheus and Robin Hood. The pattern traces some twenty-two steps from birth to death. But the central constant in Raglan's pattern of heroic dimension is this: that the hero dies, goes through a life underground and is reborn. Raglan's concept meshes neatly with Burke's formula of purpose, passion and perception. For instance, the passion or conflict is quite similar to the turmoil in the mental Underground and all of the attendant agonies. The idea of a heightened perception can be linked to Raglan's concept of rebirth, or even redemption in the Christian sense, and to discovery and serf-recognition in the Aristotelian sense.

In the major chapters of his novel, Ellison--a jazz trumpeter who studied musical composition--orchestrates and improvises upon an introductory theme raised through a character at the beginning of a chapter. And he ends the chapter on an up-beat thematic moment (sometimes with an enriching, elusive literary statement, that speaks for the chapter and the intelligence of the novel as a whole "at the lower frequencies") which stands in opposition to the opening thematic idea. Our sense of luminosity is heightened with the hero's, because of the sweeping poles or polar distances traversed from the beginning to the end. These are mini-odysseys of purpose, passion and perception, we might say.

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