Saturday, April 9, 2011

Proposal for Final Project: Hermes in the 20th

What role does the narrator play in Invisible Man? Is his story an arrow, a boomerang, or a spiral? What role does he play as an interpreter, and how? These are the questions I am currently asking myself…

The narrator of Invisible Man is a messenger and master of invisibility, as his Melville-esque first words state. During the course of the novel he becomes the personification of hermeneutics: he is “cunning, and [claims] the right to be violent, and [finds] glory in it” as all interpreters are subject to (Kermode 1979). His ability to pass barriers at will, racial and otherwise, is represented by his origins, education, and symbolic rebirth into invisibility. This argument may be countered by the idea that in the narrator’s rebirth, he lost the entirety of his old persona and past, thus becoming something new. This is marked by his lack of regression back to the naivety of his former self.

As the narrator is of the utmost importance in a narrative, it is necessary to critically analyze and determine – even for your own personal reading – the role in which that force plays in the context of the story and its meaning.

Interpreting Invisible is a chore in itself. I will use Kermode at length to discuss this and the irony that while the audience is interpreting the novel, the narrator is interpreting the world and what he needs to say – more importantly, how he needs to say it. I intend to incorporate a lot of Whyte’s ideas because of how deep the idea of the narrator as a trickster runs. “…the longer I remained unseen the longer I’d be effective, which didn’t make much sense either…He only wanted to use me for something. Everybody wanted to use you for some purpose” (Ellison 1947). This passage (among others) illustrates not only the idea that Kermode produces from Party Going that message reserves some sort of mystical bond between those he’s speaking with and those he’s not, but the end of it makes use of Marcuse. The existence of a machine is the reason the narrator must become this trickster and there is a proof of the machine thorough. At one point he actually says “I am a cog in a machine” (1947). The narrator has exchanged his ancestor’s enslavement for enslavement in Bledsoe’s system, and that for the enslavement of the Brotherhood – “Domination is transfigured into administration…exploitation disappears behind the fa├žade of object rationality” (Marcuse 1964).

By all means, this is a loose and unorganized idea in my head. I can see it fitting together, but I’m having a hard time defining my argument – I’m afraid of it having a lot of loose ends. The narrator is a trickster. He is an interpreter for the people and a cog in machine (for now, I’m only in chapter 20). He is forced to act as a “boundary crosser” in order to do his job. I look forward to your input. The bibliographies also help define what I’m thinking.


Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1947. This epic of sorts relays more than a simple transition of real to ethereal, invisibility; something of flesh and bone to something more than that held back by the limitations of the human body; it is the story of a race and movement. The narrator’s progress through barriers of the era in his speech and articulation coupled with his ability to (mentally) shake off the cold world about him present him as an apprentice of the trickster, Hermes.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. 1964. Marcuse uses in depth and thorough philosophic analysis of the contemporary human condition to develop his theory of man’s lose of humanity in exchange for protection and an apparent higher standard of living provided a larger machine. This theory can be applied to the mentality of the blacks in the novel trying to appease the system and their oppressors (within and without) and will prove why the narrator must use trickery to become an effective leader and communicator of his people.

Kermode, Herbert. Genesis of Secrecy. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England. 1979. Kermode discusses in great length the laborious practice of interpretation through various examples, focused mostly on stories in the Bible. Kermode uses Hermes as a mascot of the art of interpretation. Through this idea, I will argue that the invisible man is indeed a messenger/interpreter capable of passing barriers with an eloquence of voice and swift feet.

Whyte, Philippe. Invisible Man as a Trickster Tale. Delta. 18 April 1984. Whyte defines the narrator of Invisible Man as a trickster who must fight with his origins and destinations, most importantly the people and their intentions that he encounters herein. I will use his argument to solidify my own that the narrator is in fact a trickster, but one that can easily transcend the lines of his old self and new self, and then back again in interpretation of the world which is he now coming to truly see.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. 1843. Kierkegaard explores the idea of being one of God’s elect and the faith of such that leads to salvation. As I view the narrator as a kind of chosen one with divine features (Ellison will help me out here), I will reinforce this idea via John the Silent using a selection of quotes.

Martin, Richard. Myths of the Ancient Greeks. New American Library: New York, New York. 2003. Richard Martin has collected stories from around the Mediterranean and compiled a complete genealogy and anthology of the Greek gods of over two thousand years ago. In my discussion of how Herme-like (hermeneutic) the narrator is, I will use myths surrounding the god himself to support and analyze the happenings of book.


  1. It seems like you have a good understanding of what you want to do with your final project. The narrator in Invisible Man is certainly one of the more mysterious characters that we've read about and I'm interested to see what sort of conclusions you draw about him. It looks like you've put a lot of thought into your proposal and that you're not going to have any trouble utilizing Marcuse or any of the other resources that you've chosen. It does seem; however, that you're going to have a lot to write about and hopefully you can prove your argument without exceeding the maximum length of the paper.

  2. I don't know that I consider the idea loose and unorganized, even if you do. I think it shows a great deal of promise, and that your research agenda is very workable. I'm not going to say much at this moment, because I feel that part of our discussion on Tuesday is likely to prove very useful in organizing your thoughts.

    Basically, I'm going to be using a couple pages from Lord Raglan's *The Hero*, a book about the underlying characteristics of all hero myths, to help us think of the mythological dimensions of the novel. While you're interested in the narrator as trickster rather than as hero, the topics are closely enough related that I think it might prove useful to you.

    Other ideas: think not only in terms of Hermes, but of Janus. Also (and now I'm going far afield), many Hermes-like gods (I'm think specifically of the god Agni) not only communicate with the gods, but bear them sacrifices.

    The IM has a strong sacrificial dimension.

    Also, sacrifice can involve transformation (the grand example being Christ's transformation after death) - which we can see both with his entry into the basement at the end and with his entrance into the hospital machine.

    All I'm saying is - sounds good, we'll see if you have any thoughts or questions after Tuesday, and think through the roles and characters of the relevant gods, starting with Hermes.