Abstract: According to A Handbook to Literature, motif refers to a "recurrent repetition of some word, phrase, situation, or idea, such as tends to unify a work through its power to recall earlier occurrences" (264). One such type of motif which has seemed to receive less critical attention is Ellison's treatment of birds. Hence, my aim in this essay is to examine the references to birds in Invisible Man, attempting to show how Ellison uses the image of the bird to symbolize various forms of entrapment.
In a 1965 interview, when asked his view on the role of the novelist, Ralph Ellison stated the following:
I think that the good novelist tries to provide his reader with vivid depictions of certain crucial and abiding patterns of human existence. This he attempts to do by reducing the chaos of human experience to artistic form. And when successful he provides the reader with a fresh vision of reality. For then through the symbolic action of his characters and plot he enables the reader to share forms of experience not immediately his own. And thus the reader is able to recognize the meaning and value of the presented experience as a whole. (Kostelanetz 10)
Given Ellison's comment, one can readily see the importance he placed on using imagery that symbolizes significant life experiences. That Ellison speaks here of "meaning" and "value" as his desired effect seems most critical to his overall purpose as a writer. Ellison's novel, Invisible Man focuses on the black individual's search for racial and social identity, and symbolism is often employed to underline his character's sense of entrapment.
Most readers of Invisible Man read...
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...se brush as from the extreme treetops of the harmonic landscape, and there was, without a doubt, as irrepressible a mockery in his personal conduct as in his music. (Ellison, On Bird 223)
When one considers the musical parallels, what Ellison says about Charlie Parker could well be applied to the structure of Invisible Man. Through its ornithological leitmotif, Ellison successfully composes what could be thought of as a variation on his essential theme of racial entrapment.
Byam, M. S. "Ellison, Ralph" in Book Review Digest 1952, 284.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 1990.
----. "On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz." Shadow and Act. Ralph Ellison. New York: Vintage Books, 1972, 221-232.
Kostelanetz, Richard. "An Interview with Ralph Ellison." Iowa Review 9 (1989): 1-10.
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