Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Essay on Chapter 23 of Ellison's "The Invisible Man"

I wrote this about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Chapter Twenty-Three: Rinehart and the Recognition of Possibility

In chapter twenty-three of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man the narrator takes a major step in understanding the nature of identity and how it can be manipulated to further one’s own needs. Up to this point he has always defined himself narrowly, and by someone else’s standards. As either the dedicated student and later prodigal son figure under Bledsoe, the alienated paint mixer under Emerson, or the figurehead of the Brotherhood’s Harlem franchise under Brother Jack he sought to live up to the identity imposed on him. However, when suddenly forced to disguise himself in order to escape Ras’s thugs, he learns how flexible and subjective a thing identity can be. The events of the chapter combined with the introduction of Rinehart cause the Invisible Man to re-evaluate himself and his relationships with those around him. Instead of defining his identity according to necessity, he begins to define it according to possibility.

It starts out simply enough. The narrator dons a pair of dark sunglasses in pursuit of anonymity. Not only does no one recognize him, but to his surprise he is recognized as someone else, a man named Rinehart. He finds that Rinehart was many things to many people, seemingly all at the same time. “He was a broad man. A man with parts who got around” (498). The realization of Rinehart’s ability to play many roles simultaneously leads the narrator to consider for the first time the idea of the possibilities of life. “His world was possibility and he knew it. . . . The world in which we lived was without boundaries” (498). For the first time he realizes that it is possible to live in more than one reality at a time. He now sees the possibility of saying one thing, and doing another.

This change in the narrator’s attitude is directly related to his “coming-to-know” of Rinehart. By not only witnessing someone who lives in many worlds at once, but by actually being repeatedly mistaken for him, the narrator begins to see the possibilities that exist in his own world. He begins to understand the fluidity of identity. “If dark glasses and a white hat could blot out my identity so quickly, who actually was who?” he asks (493). He realizes that he has been acting foolishly by limiting himself to a narrow self-definition. This new understanding affects not only the way he sees himself, but how he sees himself in relation to other people. When he goes to speak to Hambro he thinks, “I could feel some deep change. It was as though my discovery of Rinehart had opened a gulf between us . . . so great that neither could grasp the emotional tone of the other” (501). Then Brother Hambro tells the narrator that the Harlem district is to be sacrificed in the interest of the greater good of the Brotherhood.

It is at this time that the narrator decides to use Rinehartism to get even. Armed with this new knowledge concerning the possibilities of identity, and faced with the abandonment of his people and himself by the Brotherhood, he sets out to construct himself anew. While pretending to be working for the Brotherhood, he can actually be working to undermine them. “For now I saw that I could agree with Jack without agreeing. . . . I would have to move them [Harlem] without myself being moved . . . I’d have to do a Rinehart” (507). He decides to follow his grandfather’s advice and “ . . . overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, . . . agree them to death and destruction” (508). This duplicity is new to the narrator. Though he might not always have been certain of his own motives, he never sought to mislead anyone. Now he plans not only to give false information to the Brotherhood, he plans to spy on them by entering into the confidence of one of the big shots’ wives.

Invisible Man is a novel that is very concerned with the idea of identity. Up to chapter twenty-three the narrator has formed his sense of self around that which was necessary for him to fit in. His single minded desire to succeed, first at college, then in the work force, and finally in the Brotherhood, is reflected by the narrowness of how he defines himself. Though he often questions the roles he is forced to play, play them he does. Until he discovers Rinehart, he does not entertain the idea that he could maintain multiple identities, living in one while projecting another to those around him. When he does learn of “Rinehart the rounder” and his split personalities, he realizes that he has been defining himself in terms of how society, particularly white society, wants to see him (or not see him). He sees that “ . . . Jack and Norton and Emerson . . . were very much the same, each attempting to force his picture of reality upon [him] and neither giving a hoot in hell for how things looked to [him]” (508). What he has learned from Rinehart is that “freedom was not only the recognition of necessity, it was the recognition of possibility” (499). Suddenly he feels a new and frightening sense of this freedom. He realizes that he no longer has to hide his past, nor hide from it, for it is that past which defines him. He begins to see that it is the inability of society to see him as other than a “ . . . material, a natural resource to be used” (508) that has caused his identity crisis. Now that he is aware of how he is “unseen” by society, he embraces his invisibility with the intent of using it against the very forces that made him invisible to begin with.

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