Throughout history there have been many attempts, wide scale and at the individual level, to abolish the confines of social class. These attempts are usually made by the lower class to either become apart of the upper class or to simply have no stratification whatsoever. One could say that an individual with the cliché rags-to-riches story is and individual who has successfully transcended their class and has balanced out these class inequalities. Herbert Marcuse would disagree with those who believe this (and I would concur with him.) When one attempts to rise up out of their class by emulating or assimilating with the upper class they are not ridding the world of class distinctions but really preserve them. This claim by Marcuse is also echoed in Ralph Ellison’s work Invisible Man but first we will start with an analysis of Marcuse.
Here, the so-called equalization of class distinctions reveals its ideological function. If the worker and his boss enjoy the same television program and visit the same resort places, if the typist is as attractively made up as the daughter of her employer, if the Negro owns a Cadillac, if they all read the same newspaper, then this assimilation indicates not the disappearance of classes, but the extent to which the needs and satisfactions that serve the preservations of the Establishment are shared by the underlying population. (Marcuse 8)
What Marcuse claims here is that when we try to assimilate with the upper class by living their lifestyle we are simply maintaining the status quo. Instead of equalizing or abolishing class stratification we are actually perpetuating it and showing how important it’s preservation is to the Establishment. By buying the same luxuries that those we admire have we are not showing that there is no need for class or that we are becoming a part of the higher class but rather that class is so important that one must buy these things in order to display their class to the masses. These actions, in effect, perpetuate class farther and therefore are counter productive to their goal. The preservation of class roles through their attempted abolishment is a theme that is echoed early on in Ellison’s work. Ellison uses the narrator to illustrate this same idea that the attempt to transcend ones class by emulating the upper class usually has negative results.
In the 1st chapter the narrator recounts a speech he gave at his graduation. The speech was so compelling that it was met with vigorous praise and the narrator was even asked to give the speech at a gathering of the towns most prestigious, white, members. The narrator terms this invitation as a “triumph for [his] whole community” (Ellison 17) which one would assume it is without reading Marcuse. Initially the reader does consider this a triumph; in the time of the novel, if a young black, high school graduate was given the opportunity to speak in front the white elite it was considered not only a success but and extreme rarity. We assume that the narrator is transcending his social class. His superior intellect has impressed the prestigious members of society and because of this they accept him into their community, and in the beginning we imagine that this is a good thing. However we see shortly after that the narrator was not brought there to transcend his social class, but to highlight it and reaffirm it. Instead of showing how his presence shatters social constructs it proves how important they are to the community.
When the narrator arrived he was not considered the main event, or the guess of honor as he had hoped. He was not given the opportunity to prove why he deserved to be there or why he was meant to be a part of this upper class at all. Instead the narrator was proposed with something completely different: “I was told that since I was to be there anyways I might as well take part in the battle royal to be fought by some of my schoolmates as part of the entertainment.” (Ellison 17) This is completely antithetical to the reason why the narrator thought he was invited to the event and exactly what Marcuse was talking about. Rather than getting the opportunity to rise above his class the narrator was told to maintain it and instead of being the triumphant representative for his community his was force to physically fight against them. Here we see the masses using the attempt to balance out class distinction as a way to affirm them. The narrator’s attempt to be come apart of the elite caused him to be placed in a position where he is considered as more of an animal that even a human being.
The narrators attempt to become apart of the elite social class was thwarted by the very same group that he was attempting to emulate. Through out the night he was received with racial slurs, he was berated and harassed and barely given the chance to give his speech. When the narrator did get a chance to talk, he was given no respect and ironically enough, generated quite a few laughs when he misspoke and preached social equality instead of social responsibility. Here and in other parts in the novel we see Marcuse’s argument accurately portrayed. By trying emulate the upper class in an attempt to strip society of class distinctions only helps to maintain those distinctions and show how important they are to our society.