A twisted coming-of-age story, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man follows a tormented, nameless protagonist as he struggles to discover himself in the context of the racially charged 1950s. Ellison uses the question of existence “outside” history as a vehicle to show that identity cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be shaped in response to others. To live outside history is to be invisible, ignored by the writers of history: “For history records the patterns of men’s lives…who fought and who won and who lived to lie about it afterwards” (439). Invisibility is the central trait of the protagonist’s identity, embodied by the idea of living outside history. Ellison uses the idea of living outside the scope of history as way to illustrate the main character’s process of self-awakening, to show that identity is contradictory and to mimic the structural movement of the novel.
Ellison’s protagonist asks on the day of Tod Clifton’s death, “Where were the historians today? And how would they put it down?” (439). With these inquiries he begins to question his own identity and position relative to history. Once the Invisible Man accepts that he too exists outside of history, he steps outside the novel into the prologue and epilogue, a point from which he recognizes, internalizes and verbalizes his invisibility.
The Invisible Man never considers that he might live outside of history because he typically identifies with white people who both live inside of history and are the recorders of history. While chauffeuring Mr. Norton, he proclaims, “I identified myself with the rich man reminiscing on the rear seat…” (39). In contrast to the “inevitable collection of white men and women in smiles, clear of feature...
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...hereas in the main text he blames Clifton for “plunging outside history.” The framing of the novel reveals the contradictory nature of identity because Ellison uses the prologue and epilogue to show that the main text could not exist on its own. The protagonist’s story must be narrated by a wiser version of himself, showing that each identity is dependent on the other. Finally, despite the Invisible Man’s initial claim to a solid identity, the epilogue does not portray a character who has completely solidified his identity. When the Invisible Man advises that “the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived” (580), he warns that it is foolish to attempt to define such fluid concepts as identity in strict and unyielding terms, thus allowing for the contradictions identity presents in the novel.
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