Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Melville's Influence on the Nature of Blackness and Whiteness in Invisible Man

In the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we see the narrator stealing light from Monopolated Light & Power in “an act of sabotage” (7). In this instance the ceiling of light bulbs represent the power and authority that comes with being a white man in 20th century America, a sense of control that is denied to African Americans, and the narrator specifically. In addition to that level of symbolism, there is an even deeper layer of metaphoric rhetoric attached to the notion of light: it is colloquially associated with the concept of truth and goodness. “Nothing, storm or flood, must get in the way of our need for light” the narrator explains, “and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and the light is the truth” (Ellison 7). 

However, the narrator is not stealing sunlight; he is stealing electricity. Consequently, this plot device has yet another association to it because, in a physical sense, the protagonist is filling his basement with something artificial. Therefore, because electricity is a facsimile of sunlight it can be argued that Ellison is making the statement that the transcendental sense of freedom and control that the narrator is chasing which belongs to Caucasians in society is, in actually, artificial.

In addition, by using the interpretation of the text where the light from the power company is not perpetuating a metaphor of truth, but rather one of falseness on both a symbolic and physical level, then the opposite of that notion must also be true: the negativity associated with the invisible man’s blackness is also contingent on perception and not the nature of reality.

This theme of the perception of connotations associated with light and dark, white and black, is also relevant when analyzing Ellison’s novel through the influence Melville’s work had on it. The connection between Moby-Dick and Invisible Man is introduced within the first few pages of the novel, with the Invisible Man’s main character having a reefer-induced dream that makes allusions towards the moment in Moby-Dick where Ishmael briefly comes across a Black church in Nantucket. This connection is further strengthened when Brother Jack says to the narrator, “History has been born in your brain” (Ellison 291). This moment exemplifies the link between Ellison and Moby-Dick because Invisible Man’s narrator is decidedly similar to Ishmael: just like Ishmael is manufacturing the retelling of the story of the great whale, Ellison’s nameless narrator is creating his own “History” in his head.

Furthermore, a reading of Ellison through the influence of Melville is equally as prominent when examining the concept of white and blackness, as this theme is significant in both books. Within the chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale” Ishmael undulates between various interpretations of the symbolism of whiteness. He states that “whiteness refiningly enhances beauty” and it is “the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power” (Melville 204-204). However, Ishmael contradicts this interpretations, also pointing out that white is also associated with “the white bear of the poles, and the white sharks of the tropics” (Melville 205). Ishmael acknowledges white as a race, saying that whiteness “applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe” (Meville 205.) However, the back-and-forth between what white means (beautiful and terrible, pure and evil) is an intentional choice by Melville as it encapsulates a major theme within Moby-Dick: the associations of lightness and darkness, goodness and evil, are ultimately perception, not concrete reality. As Ishmael himself asks “Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors?” (Melville 212).

The nameless narrator in Invisible Man also emphasizes Ishmael’s point. Throughout the novel thus far, the protagonist undergoes different incarnations of blackness as the narrative unfolds, shifting between white and black and the stereotypes associated with each. With Melville’s influence in mind, this aspect of the novel is a choice by Ellison to portray the point that the true nature of whiteness and blackness is so complicated and varied that the association of truth and goodness for whiteness and white men and negativity and darkness for blackness and black men is an oversimplification used to justify the racism of America in the 1930s. Therefore, by reading Ellison through the impact of Melville, Invisible Man becomes not only a novel that deals with issues of sociology, bigotry, and the capacity of human ignorance, it also serves as commentary on the human psyche beyond race.


  1. Allison –

    This is very well written, and these are strong parallels you are drawing out between Moby-Dick and Invisible Man. However, you seems to have two arguments that are being conflated here and I think you could benefit from parsing them out – or losing one of the two altogether.

    The first is the difference between the symbolism of white and black – and how that difference is often more complicated than the dichotomy we sometimes ascribe it. There are strong portions of both novels that support this; Ellison illustrates the complexity and multi-faceted nature of racial relations in the 1940s – how economic factors among others occlude easy racial categories – and Melville follows the concept of whiteness through beauty to terror.

    I would be wary of the paragraph in which you initially introduce Moby-Dick and begin to make your comparison. I think the comparison between Ishmael’s story telling and the Invisible Man’s having history in his own head is on shaky ground – of *course* both are related in this way – they are both narrators in novels and you could make the same connection between either and Viktor Frankenstein, Kinbote, or any other first person narrator. That isn’t to say that this isn’t an interesting area to pursue, but just that you need to dig deeper to be effective.

    Your second argument seems to be concerned with the difference between authenticity and artificiality. There exist parallels between your two arguments, however, I don’t see many being made. You should strive in your revision, to either combine these arguments, separate them more effectively (or at least recognize their difference), or drop one.

    Hope this helps,

  2. In the second paragraph, the thoughtful claim that we need to think of the light as artificial has lots of further potential. What does this have to do with race? With religion? With technology? Can we read it through Marcuse? It's a rich claim, interesting in itself, with plenty of room for further development.

    The third paragraph on negativity is also good - and also fertile ground for incorporating Marcuse, whose whole book is about negativity and the need for negativity.

    The following paragraphs are fine, but stick a little closely to class discussion. I wasn't unhabppy with them, but they would have done for me if they had more clearly continued your discussion of negativity and artificiality (or, alternatively, if you had begun with Melville and developed these thoughts further, instead of discussion artificiality/negativity). I feel almost as if the essay has two identities at this point - both of them good, but both of them in need of further focusing.

    The closing paragraph is fine, but a little generic - emphasizing the point that there's a degree of indecision here.

    I only read Dean's comments after completing all the above - the fact that we are so close in our views on the essay, I think, underscore the points we are both making about the duality of this draft.