Invisible Man Essay: Self-Identity in Invisible Man

In the novel, Invisible Man, the main character carries around a briefcase throughout the entire story. All of the possessions that he carries in that briefcase are mementos from learning experiences. Throughout the novel, the Invisible Man is searching for his identity and later discovers that his identity is in those items. 

As the narrator is leaving Mary's house for the Brotherhood, he sees a Negro-doll bank in his room. He is angry that the doll is holding a sign that read, "Feed me." 

"For a second I stopped, feeling hate charging up within me, then dashed over and grabbed it, suddenly as enraged by the tolerance of lack of discrimination, or whatever, that allowed Mary to keep such a self-mocking image around" (Ellison 319). 

The shattering of the bank by the narrator symbolizes that he is rejecting the views of the "old Negro" and taking his own views on the subject. Part of his views is the conviction that colored people do not need to rely on whites for their survival. Often times one does not know his own viewpoint on a subject until he can reject one view. Another item that is stored in his briefcase is the broken chain link that Brother Tarp gave to him. 

"I neither wanted it nor knew what to do with it; although there was no question of keeping it if no other reason than that I felt that Brother Tarp's gesture in offering it was of some deeply felt significance which I was compelled to respect" (Ellison 389). 

Although the narrator does not want to keep the link, he feels compelled to do so because the chain gang is part of his heritage. One often feels that he can not ignore to his past, as does the Invisible Man. Even at the end of the novel when he is burning the contents of his briefcase, the only things that remain are the reminders of his people's tradition. One can not escape his culture. By placing the shattered bank pieces and chain link in his briefcase, the Invisible Man is adding to his own identity, his integrating heritage, and reforming his self-understanding. 

The Sambo doll is another significant item in the narrator's briefcase, the kind that Clifton sold. 

"Then I saw a fine black thread and pulled it from the frilled paper. There was a loop tied in the end. I slipped it over my finger and stood stretching it taut. And this time it danced. Clifton has been making it dance all the time and the black thread had been invisible" (Ellison 446). 

The Sambo doll is a symbol of the Invisible Man's manipulation by society and the Brotherhood. With Clifton's death, the Invisible Man begins to realize that the Brotherhood will sacrifice any member to obtain their goal of unity. Discovering this truth about the Brotherhood, the narrator "wakes up" and begins to realize his role in the Brotherhood. The Invisible Man does not wish to be a puppet being told what to do and being used by the Brotherhood. Often one will not be able to see the situation he is in, until a significant event occurs to reveal the reality of it. Having the doll in his briefcase allowed the Invisible Man symbolizes that he can now see how he has been manipulated and used by others. 

The Invisible Man tries on several different identities throughout the novel, but never finds the one that suits him. He allows others to tell him who he should be. "Inside I found a new name written on a slip of paper" (Ellison 309). "I am what they think I am" (Ellison 379). Finding one's identity when he has no clue as to where to begin, so he goes to his peers. The Invisible Man kept his Brotherhood name and Brotherhood papers in his briefcase because for a period they were a part of his identity. Another false identity that the Invisible Man took on was that of Rineheart, to hide from Ras. The Invisible Man soon realizes that Rineheart's identity only lies in the clothing that he wears, and that is no identity. 

By the end of the novel, having adopted and rejected several identities, the Invisible Man has a revolution as to what his identity really is. 

"It was as though I'd learned suddenly to look around corner; images of past humiliations flickered though my head and I saw that they were more than separate experiences. They were me; they defined me. I was my experiences and my experiences were me, and no bland mew, no matter how powerful they became, even it they conquered the world, could take that, or change one single itch, taunt, laugh, cry, scar, ache, rage or pain of it" (Ellison 508). 

"All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, thought they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer" (Ellison 15). 

He burned the objects in his briefcase because each represented a past identity that others gave to him, not ones developed by him. His diploma represented his "southern black" identity, the slip of paper with his name on it represented his Brotherhood identity, the letter from Brother Jack his Brotherhood leadership identity, Clifton's paper dolls that represented Tod's disillusion with the Brotherhood's ideals. The only things that he did not burn were the two objects that were truly a part of his true identity. 

Works Cited  

Bone, Robert.  "Ralph Ellison and the Uses of Imagination."  Modern Black Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays.  Ed. M. G. Cooke.  

Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971.  45-63. 

Brennan, Timothy.  "Ellison and Ellison: The Solipsism of Invisible Man."  CLA Journal XXV (Dec 1981): 162-81. 

Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: The Modern Library, 1994. 

Holland, Laurence B.  "Ellison in Black and White: Confession, Violence and 

Klein, Marcus.  "Ralph Ellison."  After Alienation: American Novels in Mid-Century.  Cleveland: World Pub., 1964.  71-146. 

Langman, F.H.  "Reconsidering Invisible Man."  The Critical Review.  18 (1976) 114-27. 

Lieber, Todd M.  "Ralph Ellison and the Metaphor of Invisibility in Black Literary Tradition."  American Quarterly.  Mar. 1972: 86-100. 

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