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.