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Ralph Ellison has earned his reputation as one of the most prolific black novelist of the Harlem renaissance. Much more significantly he is celebrated for his magnificent literary novel 'The invisible man' which was published in 1952 and apparently which will form the topic of discussion in this paper. The novel explores the life of a black individual in his search for self identity and his place in a racist and white dominated society through the eyes of an unnamed male character in New York City during the 1930s and who claims to be an 'invisible man'. To be much more precise this paper will explore blindness as a recurring motif through out the whole novel focusing on how it has been developed from the begging to the end and how the writer uses it to harmonize the whole piece of work.
To begin with, blindness forms one of the major significant motifs in the whole novel as it recurs all through the novel. Blindness as a motif generally depicts how characters in the novel willingly avoid or prevent themselves from seeing and at the same time confronting some truths about their lives. At the initial stages of the novel which is also reverberated through out the entire novel the narrator does not fall short of noticing that the 'inability of people to see what they do not want (blindness)-the incapacity to see what their own built prejudices have blinded them from seeing- has pushed him into leading an effective lie of invisibility. Surprisingly enough, it is not only the prejudices that these people have built against others that amount to blindness but also the refusal of many characters to acknowledge some facts or truths about their lives, their communities or even themselves. The latter, the refusal, is consistently emergent through out the whole imagery of blindness in the entire novel. Therefore, one point to note about this paper is that it will be inevitable not to tie blindness to invisibility as both are a reflection of each other.
As the novel opens the narrator, starts the reader off with a commentary on his invisibility. He claims that his invisibility is not apparently a 'physical condition' meaning that it is not in the literal form. Rather his invisibility results from others refusing to him or blinding themselves against him. Because of people blindness which makes him invisible to them he has managed to hide underground while exploiting the 'Manipulated Power and Lighting Co. by stealing their electricity (Ellison pp 2).' Through the same way, as depicted throughout the novel, the black community has been presented as blinding it self from the white man's exploitative treatment by viewing their exploitative and dehumanizing mannerisms to be a positive thing. The narrator experiences his fist form of blinding at the 'battle royal' where he gets blinded by lights while presenting a speech in the presence of white men. Presenting the speech with the lights directed directly towards his eyes is meant to blind him from seeing the humiliation that the white men are causing him and the white men's lack of respect for him. After winning a briefcase containing a scholarship for impressing a group of white men by his speech, the narrator is forced to fight at the 'battle royal' where he is pitied against his fellow black men. At the 'battle royal,' the black boys fight in blindfolds which are set as a condition by the white men. The blind folds are meant to make the fights entertaining and in return the boys get money and are teased with a female dance of the white decent just but this is only meant o blind them against the cruel treatment. Through such kind of deals the white men manage to retain their power over the black men. The blindfolds therefore can be looked at as a symbol of these men's powerlessness which prevents them from recognizing that the white men are really exploiting them.
In regard to the scholarship that the narrator gets join a whites for his wonderful speech at the 'battle royal' (Ellison pp 5) one is almost led to think that it will help the narrator in his academic advancement elevating him to their level but this is not what apparently happens. Sooner or later we come to realize that the college is only controlled by white men and a few black men who follow the orders of these white men in the north who issue the scholarship. The white men will therefore have retained their power by maintaining him in one of their institutions in the south. This way they will be able to control and manipulate his fate hence he will only be able to rise to the position which they will define. The scholarship is therefore only meant to blind the narrator from recognizing that even if he goes to the south they will still be exercising power over him.
As highlighted earlier blindness does not only manifest its self in the form of prejudices against other but also through others refusing to acknowledge some truths about who they are. For instance in the words of Mr. Norton, he says that every person in that school falls as part of his own fate. To quote his words he tells the narrator that he is important because if he fails Mr. Norton will have failed 'by one individual, one defective co.... (Ellison pp 45). This means that since every black student is linked to his own fate, all the white trustees in that school including Mr. Norton control these student lives since they do not want the failures of these black students to reflect a negative image of themselves to their white superiors. The black trustees are blinding themselves from the fact that they are black and want to control the lives of the black students just to impress their white superiors. They are blinding themselves against their blackness for trying to live like their white counter parts and also coercing the black students to act in the same manner.
The Founders statue is also another element that reflects blindness not only of the black people but also of the founder himself. The statues empty eyes which throw it into blindness signify the fact that his ideology stubbornly neglects racist realities. At the one point the narrator says that he is in a dilemma in deciding whether the founder's ideology is really lifting 'the veil or lowering it more firmly in place. He continues that he does not understand whether he is witnessing a revelation 'or a more efficient blinding (Ellison pp 36).' By this, the narrator demonstrates his suspicion that the founder's ideology only trains the black man to be a 'yes man' to the whites. The empty eyes portrays that the founder is incapacitated in realizing that his ideology only blinds its followers from recognizing the prejudices that the white society has laid upon them.
The founders industrial education, southern conciliation as wells as silence and submission in regard to political and civil rights would only blind them from realizing that they are only doing what the white man wants (Ellison pp 38). The ideology advocates for black men to remain silent about their political and civil rights so that the white man can help them advance and after this they can now go back to worrying about their own rights. However, even though the black men do not believe in this ideology remaining silence becomes the only best measure for them to employ. This way they allow the white men to continue exercising power over them. This too also comes as a form blindness in that they are really blinded to the idea that helps the founder to survive.
In the light of the above discussion, Reverend Homer Barbee's blindness is revealed in sense that he gives a long speech praising the founder in regard to his teachings and honors him for it (Ellison pp 133). While the reverend's blindness is real and can be compared to Homer the blind poet, it also comes out as figurative in the sense that he is incapacitated in seeing the powerlessness of his race in the white man's hands. He romanticizes the founder elevating him to the level of a hero who has paid a lot of endurance to see the opening the school. In an ironic twist his name corresponds to the Epic writer Homer who used to write poems about tragic heroes. Through exalting the founder he almost turns him into such kind of a hero through presenting him as so wonderful. In this way he is blinding himself and the rest of the black community listening to the founder's ideologies by making the incapable of seeing the white mans oppression over them hence they become a lesser race.
Blindness is also portrayed in the character of Brother Jack a white who is presented as a blindly royal brotherhood leader professing to fight in defense of the right of all those who get socially oppressed through this political organization (Ellison pp 123). Although he is at first presented as a compassionate, kind, and intelligent leader claiming to uphold the social rights of the oppressed he still possesses some racist view points. His blindness makes him unable to see other people as nothing else other than mere tools. His red hair and glass eyes are a symbol of blindness and so is his communism since he pretentiously overlooks the racial tensions and realities between the two races.
In conclusion just as the narrator says in the beginning that the world is 'filled with sleepwalkers and blind men (Ellison pp 1)' who are incapable of seeing him for what he is most of the character that Ellison present are also molded to reverberate this kind of notion. Blindness which results which makes invisibility possible hence forms an integral part in Ellison's development of the narrator as well as other characters in this novel. Like wise invisibility becomes another motif that cannot be disengaged with the blindness motif as both are meant to go hand in hand and they are what makes the title of this novel derive a lot of relevance. The invisibility motif pervades the entire novel and evidently manifests it self in the form of blindness and hence this is why Ellison preferred the using the invisible man as a title rather that than the blind man. In real sense the narrator is becoming invisible because others are blind towards him hence the interplay between the two terms by Ellison as he meant them to reinforce each other in helping the reader derive meaning. Though the blindness and invisibility are presented in such a way that they result to disempowerment especially on the part of the blacks it can also be manipulated to gain mobility and freedom. It is indeed through the other blindness that makes the narrator invisible that enables him to tell this story. Through out the entire novel characters are blind for willingly failing to see things as they are and also for seeing themselves and others for who they are hence refusing to acknowledge truths and fact that are laid in the open for them to see.