Symbol Of The Briefcase In
“The Invisible Man” Essay, Research Paper
While the civil war ended one form of slavery in America, another system of oppression was ready to take its place. In Ralph Ellison?s acclaimed novel Invisible Man, a young black, nameless narrator struggles through a series of hard-won lessons as he makes his journey from the Deep South to Harlem, New York, from naivet? to disenchantment, from illusion to insight. Like most of us, he stumbles down the path of identity, adopting several along the way in an attempt to solve his relationship with a hostile, prejudiced American society. Testament to the narrator?s various identities is the symbol of his briefcase, which he receives as a prize after the disturbing ?Battle Royal? and proceeds to carry until the end when he is in the coal bin, and truly an invisible man. Its contents -his high school diploma, representing his southern black identity, the recommendation letters representing his college identity, the anonymous letter and the slip of paper with his brotherhood name representing his brotherhood leadership identity, Clifton?s paper doll symbolizing his disillusionment with the brotherhoods ideals and finally, the shattered pieces of Mary?s bank, perhaps signifying his identity in the context of white America -each an identity others dictated by others, not developed by himself. While in the cellar, he creates torches out of these objects as though lighting his past on fire, using his history to guide him out of the hole and out of illusion.
The beginning is a nightmare. A young, eager Negro boy, valedictorian of his high school class believes he is to deliver a speech to a group of white benefactors. Instead, he finds himself together with several other Negroes in a ?Battle Royal?, a disgusting free-for all in which, blindfolded and barebacked like savages, the boys are instructed to beat each other. After the battle, the narrator is called upon to make his speech, his mouth full of blood and his head spinning from the blows. In his speech, the narrator makes allusions to Booker T. Washington, the great black accommodationist, reflecting that he too believes in playing by the white people?s rules, meaning never ask for more than they are willing to give. At the end of this traumatic scene, he receives a ?prize? briefcase containing a scholarship to a Negro college.
In this society, we often rely on others as a means of learning about ourselves- a dangerous habit, especially when surrounded by those who are blind to the individual person. The narrator adores college and is under the illusion that it is a place of perfection, an institution at which he aspires to acquire a position as the assistant of his idol, Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college and great leader of his race. But while the college is supposed to be a fountain of knowledge, of wisdom, it is rather like the broken fountain out front- dry with nothing to sustain real life. In his third year at the school, he is expelled for innocently showing a white trustee, Mr. Norton, the reality of black life in the south by inadvertently taking him to the home of an incestuous farmer and then to a whorehouse appropriately called ?the Golden Day?. The headmaster, who admits he?ll see all Negroes hang before he gives up his power , offers the shattered young boy false hope in the form of seven letters of recommendation. Grateful, the narrator carries these letters in his prize briefcase to New York where his truth, his identity are dealt additional blows when he discovers that they are in fact letters of condemnation and meant only to keep him running, to keep him hoping for that golden day. Disillusioned, with growing sense of personal rejection and social invisibility, it is at this point that the narrator begins metamorphosing into the invisible man.
Recruited by the ?Brotherhood?, a mixed-race group of social activists, he now becomes a spokesman for the organization. Brother Jack, one of the white leaders hands the narrator a slip of paper on which is written his new brotherhood name. His truth, his new identity is shaped by this organization, and his sense of purpose, importance is temporarily restored as he slips it into his briefcase. He admits, ?I am what they think I am?. However, the brotherhood, like Mr. Norton and Dr. Bledsoe, does not believe that the individual is important. Of the brothers, the narrator eventually discerns ?they were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves?Here I thought they accepted me because they felt color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn?t see either color or men.? He realizes further that his relationship with the brothers has been schematic when he connects the anonymous letter warning him about the organization to Brother Jack ?again to ?set him running with one and the same stroke of the pen??
Brother Tod Clifton?s obscene, paper doll is another object the narrator stores in his briefcase, representing his eventual disillusionment with the brotherhood?s ideals. Like Tod, the narrator believed he had a kind of moderate power in Harlem when in reality he was merely being manipulated. Selling these racist caricatures were Tod?s way of expressing the truth that he was only a puppet and the brotherhood was pulling all the strings. ?You were not hired to think?, admits brother Jack to the narrator as if saying; ?know your place boy?.
The final Item in the narrator?s briefcase is the only object that doesn?t light on fire. The shattered pieces of a cast iron bank was once shaped as a grotesque statue of a black man with an outstretched hand in which, if a coin placed and a lever pressed, will flip the money into its grinning mouth. This implication of this self-mocking image insults the narrator who breaks it into pieces that he later tries to get rid of, yet cannot. This bank, this ?early piece of Americana? symbolizes how he is stereotyped in the context of American society. He cannot throw it out, nor can he burn its pieces ?he is therefore branded with this identity that he is unable to elude.
?I am an invisible man?I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me?When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me.? These are the first words of the prologue, yet it is only in the end, when he has fallen into the coal bin, that he explains how he arrived at such a peculiar state of consciousness. As he lights the contents of his briefcase of fire, he understands that he has never had his own identity, thus he is invisible to the outside world. His prior identities did not represent himself, but that which others thought him to be. And, like Booker T. Washington, he accommodated them. He falls asleep and dreams that he is confronted with all his antagonists, all those that befriended him and then betrayed him, and he is able to tell them that he is through running. They castrate him and he is free of all illusion, ready for a new life.
Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible man, New York: Doubleday. 1967