Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

‘I am an invisible man.’

First published in 1952, this is a novel about a black man in America.  A man who feels invisible because of his colour.  What does he look like?  What is his name?  We do not know, and for the purpose of this story, it does not matter.  Invisibility is anonymous.

‘It goes a long way back, some twenty years.  All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was.’

Our narrator takes us on a trip through his life, through a life littered with unfair treatment, misunderstandings, physical abuse, stereotyping, and manipulation.  Some examples include when he was a student in the South, he was tricked into a boxing match, robbed of the pay promised.  Then he was a college student, kicked out because he did what he was asked to do by someone in a position of power.  And when he moved north, still trying to play by the rules, he is manipulated again.

Many different people manipulate him (although one or two are kind and try to help).  There are racial and political divides (not mutually exclusive).  For a little while things look hopeful, but the reader knows (if the narrator does not) that this will not end well.

‘Look at me! Look at me’ I said.  ‘Everywhere I’ve turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my own good —only they were the ones who benefitted.’

An American friend recommended this novel to me a few years ago, and I have only just got around to reading it.  In a way the timing was perfect.  Once again invisibility seems to be growing across the world and while some of the specific details in the story are dated, the underlying message is not.

Is this novel worth reading?  Absolutely.

‘The end was in the beginning.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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