The Paper Motif in Invisible Man

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Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man depicts a realistic society where white people act as if black people are less than human. Ellison uses papers and letters to show the narrator’s poor position in this society.

Many papers seem to show good fortune for the narrator, but only provide false dreams. The narrator’s prize of a brief case containing his scholarship first illustrates this falsehood: “take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office. Prize it. Keep developing as you are and some day it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people” (32). The narrator is filled with joy from receiving his scholarship and brief case but subconsciously knows of the shallowness of the superintendent’s heart felt speech. Ellison shows this subconscious knowledge through the narrator’s dream of receiving a letter of deep and truthful meaning: “And I did and in it I found an engraved document containing a short message in letters of gold…” “To Whom It May Concern,” I intoned. “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running” (33). Even though it is just a dream, the white people actually do want to keep the narrator and his race running after false dreams.

Another example of the bad associated with papers is when the brotherhood gives the narrator an envelope containing a new name on a piece of paper, replacing his identity:

This is your new identity, Brother Jack said. Open it. Inside I found a name written on a slip of paper.That is your new name, Brother Jack said. Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment. Get it down so that if you are called in the middle of the night you will respond. Very soon you shall be known by it all over the country. You are to answer to no other, understand (302)?

The fact that the narrator has been given a new identity and is not sure which one is himself means that the he has no identity at all: “I would do the work but I would be no one except myself--whoever I was” (303).

The hospital release forms illustrate the white man’s way of making the narrator less than human by depriving him of his work at the company; the doctor will not let him work:

You aren’t ready for the rigors of industry. Now I want you to rest, undertake a period of convalescence.

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