The Symbolic Briefcase in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

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The Symbolic Briefcase in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

The narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the victim of his own naiveté. Throughout the novel he trusts that various people and groups are helping him when in reality they are using him for their own benefit. They give him the illusion that he is useful and important, all the while running him in circles. Ellison uses much symbolism in his book, some blatant and some hard to perceive, but nothing embodies the oppression and deception of the white hierarchy surrounding him better than his treasured briefcase, one of the most important symbols in the book.

The briefcase is introduced in the very first chapter. The narrator receives it after giving a speech endorsing Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of black subservience in front of his hometown’s leading white citizens (and after being forced to fight like an animal for their entertainment in the “battle royal”). Wrapped in white tissue paper symbolizing the skin color and mistrustful nature of the gift’s givers, the calfskin brief case is awarded to him by his school’s superintendent. Inside is a scholarship to an all-black college. The superintendent, who moments before watched him attempt to pluck coins from an electrified rug, says to him, “Boy, take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office” (32). The irony is that the only “badge of office” it signifies is that of good slave. He also says, “Someday it will be filled with important papers” (32). This is especially ironic considering what happens to those “important papers” at the end of the novel.

The night after his speech the narrator has a dream in which his grandfather tells him to look inside his briefcase. Inside he finds a note ...

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...othing more than faceless “Sambos” to be used to serve the organization’s needs.

These are not the only objects of importance the narrator stores in his beloved briefcase, but they are the most encompassing of his story. In the novel’s final chapter, when the narrator is trapped in the dark sewer and must burn the papers from his briefcase to see his way, everything goes. First his high school diploma, then the Sambo doll, followed by a threatening anonymous note. Everything he burns from the briefcase—the “important papers” the superintendent spoke of in Chapter one—is a symbol of the narrator’s plight as the forces pulling his strings run him around.

Not until this cleansing of his prized briefcase, can he be free from the people who wanted to “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”


Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

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