A Union of Modernism and Naturalism
The novel Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, is one of the most significant representations of African American achievement in the arts to date. The story follows an unnamed young African American man’s journey through political and racial self-discovery as he tries to find an answer to his life defining question. The question is symbolically posed by the title of the Luis Armstrong song “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue”. Although most people would argue that Invisible Man is simply modernist, that is not the case. Invisible man is a piece of literature that embodies the themes and styles of many literary schools of thought woven together, the most dominant of them being Naturalism, and Modernism. Naturalism, like Modernism, was spawned from the idea of figuring things out for one’s self. In the naturalist works there is an emphasis on socio-economic brackets; a person’s height on the proverbial food chain of society. “Naturalists are committed to documenting the surfaces of American life and to probing its concealed depths...usually [focusing] on the desperate existence of characters” (Encyclopedia of American Literature) living in an urban slum trapped by: violence, the forces of heredity as they affect--and afflict--individual lives, and an indifferent deterministic universe. “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison reflects naturalistic tendencies by placing the main protagonist in violent scenarios to better reveal to the reader the socio-economic standing of the unnamed main character. In the beginning of the novel the main character describes a time when he was walking the solemn streets of his Harlem slum when he was insulted by a White man after mistakenly bumping into him. He immediately seized the man and asked for an apology and the blond face blue eyed man looked at him “insolently and cursed at [him]” (Ellison 4). So the narrator took that as an invitation for violent behavior, which it was, and pummeled the man within an inch of his life. In the book Ralph Ellison says that when the narrator saw the news report about the “mugging” he laughed and called the man a poor blind fool (Ellison 5), for he knew that neither he nor the men were ever going to escape the violence and that only he unlike the “sleepy ones”(Ellison 5) was aware of it. Another example of the narrator’s imprisonment under the lock of key of violence was after giving a beautifully written valedictorian speech he was invited to speak in front of a few distinguished white faced gentle to show his support of “Negro humility.” But the mob of Caucasian aristocrats had other things planned—they were going to, by all means, let him give his speech; just after they were finished parading him around and forcing him to fight a group of other African American young men. An Additional example of the narrator being trapped in an existence plagued by violent episodes is when he brings his charge, Dr. Norton, to a veteran’s brothel to get some whiskey, instead of glasses of whiskey and neighborly salutations they are met with violence. Dr. Norton is mistaken for “John D. Rockefeller” (Ellison 81) and beaten unconscious by the insane bar patrons. Throughout the novel the narrator gives his life history by way of stories from his past, each ending in, as Harold Bloom said in his Bloom notes, betrayal and explosive violence .The main protagonist cannot escape the violence of his environment as it is with many naturalistic texts he is trapped by the violence. In naturalistic texts free will is not an option for the characters because they live in a deterministic society that says, in the case of the main protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, you are invisible; you can never be visible because visibility is only achieved through having some social significance. The determinists in a society will do whatever they deem necessary to keep you where they feel you belong. This sad truth is symbolized...
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