The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison

By Robert J. Butler | Go to book overview

Dante's Inferno and Ellison's Invisible Man: A Study in Literary Continuity

Robert J. Butler

It has often been observed that much of the power and complexity of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is due to its being so deeply rooted in many literary and folk traditions. Drawing skillfully upon black, American, and Western cultures, the novel embodies the particular society from which it springs and also achieves a universality enabling it to "splice into the deeper currents of life." 1 There has been much investigation into the special ways Ellison employed black folk materials, and many critical studies have also explored his sophisticated uses of literary masterworks such as The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, "Benito Cereno," and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But surprisingly little attention has been given to the remarkable affinities which exist between Dante Inferno and Invisible Man even though the two works echo each other significantly. 2

In the Prologue to Invisible Man Ellison's hero mentions that in listening to jazz he "not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths."3 The entire novel can be seen as this kind of complicated interplay of cultures, at once a Dantean journey into a nether world and also a jazz symphony. It is my purpose here to analyze how the Inferno functions for Ellison as a literary model in order to reveal some previously unnoticed aspects of Invisible Man's structure and vision. For although Ellison is not an essentially religious writer, he was profoundly influenced by Dante both as an artist and as a thinker.

As I have argued elsewhere, the overall narrative structure of Ellison's novel consists of a series of episodes which are intricately circular in nature.4 In fact, the novel is made up of an overture, the Battle Royal, which telescopes all of the book's important motifs, and nine major episodes which then serve as variations. This narrative design, therefore, is strikingly similar to that found in the Inferno. Each work takes the form of massive inverted cones, ten concentric circles arranged in an exact progression to dramatize its central themes.

This narrative structure is reinforced by important images of circularity which are used in nearly every major scene to dramatize the hero's psychological disorientation. As he boxes during the Battle Royal, the room seems to spin around in "a swirl of lights" (p. 19). After his conference with Bledsoe, his thoughts are "a mad surreal swirl" (p. 112) and the meeting with Emerson concludes with his mind flying "in circles" (p. 147). As he smarts from Kimbro's criticism at the Liberty Paint Factory, his emotions are described as "whirling" (p. 155). Arguing bitterly with Jack about his function in the Brotherhood, he feels his head spinning as though he were on "a supersonic merry-go-round" (p. 357). The final result of his liaison with Sybil is to cut him loose from any center of gravity and to

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