By Sophia Grabiec ’20, an English major and Secondary Education Studies minor.
The following was created for ENG 345: The African American Novel.
Brief description: This essay examines the artistic landscape of identity in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man by close reading the novel as a comic book with orange as the focus.
Riddled with contrast and contradictions, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man takes the standard novel format and reworks it into an art form that heavily relies on contrast and visuality as modes by which it represents the narrator’s journey. In fact, as Jean-Christophe Cloutier has evidenced, “Comic books are how Ellison makes even the most radical and unreal elements of American culture fit within the contours of the novel form,” (Cloutier 316). Much secondary literature taking notice to Invisible Man’s artform addresses Ellison’s influences, which, as Cloutier establishes, “range from Ellison’s affinities with modernism, surrealism, or expressionism to his chosen literary ancestors such as Malraux, Hemingway, or Faulkner, and his relatives, such as Richard Wright” (294). There has been much research on the importance of photography in both Invisible Man and Ellison’s life work. Joseph Millichap writes an extensive and nearly exhaustive analysis of the use pf photographs as a “cultural construction of racial identity” (Millichap 129). Additionally, Yonka Krasteva recognizes the chaotic balance that shapes the narrator’s experiences as it relates to “this mosaic self” as an art form (Krasteva 58). Cloutier takes the most useful approach, establishing Invisible Man as being grounded in and valuing comic book conventions. While Cloutier focuses on the comic format and its importance in Tod Clifton’s eulogy, Cloutier and other commenters on Ellison’s adherence to photographic art forms neglect to mention the intensity to which Ellison values colors as purposeful signifiers of emotion and theme. In order to characterize the narrator’s self-image and journey to self discovery, Ellison includes loud colors—orange, specifically—in the environment to separate these scenes and alert the reader of the protagonist’s inward shifts.
The narrator’s extreme black and white world in which he exists shapes his surroundings as intensely binary. These oppositions include North and South, black and white, light and dark, warmth and coolness, recognition of identity and lack thereof, etc. In such light/dark, black/white, warm/cool backdrops, colors certainly stand out against this stark foundation. With four mentions of purple, eleven mentions of pink, eleven oranges, twenty-five yellows, seventy-eight blues, and fifty-two greens, the 322 mentions of black and 387 mentions of white seem defining of the space—limited features of color peek out from behind the black and white construction. With narrow exposure to color, each color functions as representative imagery in some way. The use of color in scenes must be viewed as symbolic of either the scene’s importance or as illustrative of a character’s emotions. Warmth as it is represented by oranges and yellows works as a particularly coded color, allowing the reader to understand certain connotations surrounding the ambiance of the scene.
Most of the narrator’s bildungsroman journey to self-discovery is comprised of contrasting thoughts: “[T]he world is just as concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful as before, only now I better understand my relation to it and it to me” (Ellison 576). The narrator “has learned to thrive on these contradictions: ‘I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes and say no’ (579); ‘I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love’ (580). He confesses, at the very end, that even though ‘there’s still a conflict within me,’ he is ‘coming out nevertheless’ because ‘even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play’ (581)” (Cloutier 296). In a universe of contradictory thoughts and motivations, clear depictions of thought stands out. For example, the invisible man wrenches the reader from their state of watching and demands their attention to the action when he exclaims truths or proclamations that seemingly provide a sense of clarity. “I am what I am!” (Ellison 266), “I was becoming someone else” (335), and “It was though I myself was being dispossessed of some painful yet precious thing which I could not bear to lose” (273). These moments describe just a few instances wherein the narrator comes to a personal conclusion or epiphany about either himself or his surrounding scenario. What these moments do for the reader is separate the moments of clarity from the rest of the novel’s surrealist ambiguity and newspaper-like black-and-whiteness of a backdrop.
This is certainly not to say the black-and-whiteness is demoted as background information or imagery, but if there is so much of it (i.e. 322 mentions of black and 387 mentions of white throughout the novel), the rainbow colors tend to stand out on the page. The questions that ensue, then, are questions of purpose. One particularly interesting facet to Ellison’s use of color stems from James W. Booth’s “The Color of Memory: Reading Race with Ralph Ellison”: “The visibility of color serves as a mnemonic device, keeping the bitter memory of racial injustice alive” (Booth 693). With colors connecting directly to certain memories, individual scenes take on the guise of artistic form where the imagery of the scene defines it. With orange appearing eleven times, each of the instances have a sort of cyclic or shared quality. Orange appears in moments the narrator has re-evaluative identity constructions or renewals and works as a defining color of these episodes. By reading the narrator’s encounters with warm oranges or yellows through the lens of comic book conventions, the episodes of self-discovery become clearly related and signaled by color. Warmth characterizes the narrator’s hole, which he is sure to clarify in the Prologue. In this defining section for both the narrator and the reader, the yellows (lights) of the space “illuminate the blackness of my invisibility” (Ellison 13). In the initial chapters, Ellison recognizes that “if white culture constructs black identity in terms of skin color and facial features, then the individual African American must define his own identity within this black/white continuum in visual as well as verbal terms” (Millichap 132). Thus, the narrator’s description of the “orange and yellow street car” (Ellison 13) that may hit him works in tandem with the light imagery of the Prologue to enhance a reader’s perception of how the narrator experiences his blackness—he has an inherent agency when it pertains to light and warmth, and creates a sense of illumination around himself with purpose.
When the narrator enters the Men’s House for the first time, he notices the “orange bedspread” which leads to his declaration that reading the Bible “made [him] homesick” because after all, “This was New York. I had to get a job and earn money” (162). This initial understanding of his duties as independent in the city defines his motives for the future. In both the Prologue and Chapter 8, the narrator’s identity and course of action must be explicitly stated. Here, despite his naivety, the narrator constructs his own identity in phrases that seem authoritative and powerful.
When the invisible man orders “orange juice, toast, and coffee,” (178) he is angered by the dining worker’s assumption he would order the special of porkchops, grits, one egg, hot biscuits and coffee!” because he wondered if “everyone could see that I was southern?” (178). Here, the narrator defies prescriptive assumptions and stereotypes and is proud to have the “discipline” to decline the food. He has taken another stand in support of his self-constructed identity—though flawed—saying he “would be returning to college a more experienced man”
(178). While this does not happen for him, he has the seemingly autonomous position of determining his fate and being an active contributor to his successes.
After his “surgery” in the Liberty Paint factory hospital, the “bright orange slant of sun” (251) characterizes the narrator’s rebirth after being “sucked under and out into the late afternoon Harlem” (250). This reconstructed version of the narrator is a striking turning point in the novel, perhaps signaling to the reader that a new pathway will consume him. In this new beginning, the narrator’s experiences with Mary are entirely defined by his lack of vision, but he is still able to focus on the warmth of the sun. This may appear to be blinding, but it also signals new knowledge and realizations. The brightness of his new self is defined by his orange surrounding, thus signaling again to the reader that the narrator has established a sense of newness or assertiveness about his identity.
In this newly born self, the invisible man embarks on a hugely impactful walk through Harlem where he has an epiphanic episode wherein he is lured toward the smell of baking yams for sale by a street vendor. The “flash of warmth set[ting] [his] face aglow” and the yellowish orange color of yams are reminiscent of the other uses of orange (263): warmth and a re-centering concept of identity. “I yam what I yam!” he shouts as he ascertains the differences between freedom and shame in your identity, origins, and heritage. While his questions, “Why, you could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us with something we liked…to Hell with being ashamed of what you liked” (265-266) may be self-indulgent, they allow the reader to understand his crises in Harlem. His worries about breakfast at the diner have been abolished—perhaps to an extreme in this scene—as he approaches the apartment evacuation following his nostalgia.
The final major spot of orange for the invisible man comes when he encounters the Sambo doll in Tod Clifton’s chapter, or, rather, Tod Clifton’s comic book spread. First, the “huge white-and-orange umbrella” catches the narrator’s attention to the crowded area and sends the readers a message that something colorful is about to occur for the invisible man, whether it be inward or external. The narrator catches a glimpse of the dancing doll, “a grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming its head and feet which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion,” (431) and he becomes enraged at its racist representations. “I felt betrayed. I looked at the doll and felt my throat constrict. The raged welled up behind the phlegm as I rocked back on my heels and crouched forward” (433). In the invisible man’s interaction with Tod Clifton’s show, he faces a re-evaluation of himself. The narrator asserts his anger in both his thoughts and body position. When the fiasco of the street riot ensues, the narrator is apt in mentioning the comic books and magazines on the train, which all the more connects vivid color with vivid emotion. The narrator thinks, “for an instant, I saw a vivid scene: The shining rails, the fire hydrant, the fallen policeman, the diving birds and in the mid-ground, Clifton, crumpling. Then I saw the cover of a comic book and thought, Clifton would have known them better than I” (442). The narrator recognizes the impacts of art forms, how they represent life, and in what ways they perpetuate certain themes, emotions, and ideas. Ellison recognizes this, as the events in the invisible man’s life are displayed in a way that separates itself into scene-like instances that represent comic book story board form.
The final images of Chapter 21—the end of Clifton’s chapter—repeat similar sentiments as seen in the beginning with the mentioning of a fruit stand and rich colors. “A watermelon huckster stood in the shade beside his truck, holding up a long slice of orange mealed melon, crying his wares with hoarse appeals to nostalgia, memories of childhood…Oranges, cocoanuts, and alligator pears lay in neat piles” (460), and the narrator has to shield his eyes to the “dazzling reds, yellows, and greens of cheap sport shirts and summer dresses” (460). With rich color working as another version of a blinding aspect in this chapter, the narrator and reader alike experience feelings of being overwhelmed with information, sensation, and environment. In this case, the colors have defined the space against a black and white noisy backdrop of Harlem.
The amount of print culture to which Ellison refers is fascinating, and the novel Invisible Man itself has notions of meta-literature where it recognizes itself as art in its formulation and design. As color serves as a distinguishable characteristic and works as a “visible distinction
between human beings, embedded in and given meaning by a particular American history, [it] is the bearer of a past, and a reminder of it” (Booth 691). Ellison pays attention to the importance of color as it functions in the human mind and implements colors throughout the chapters as definitive of space and environment. With color’s link to memories, this method works as a signal to the reader that the invisible man will experience an influx of emotion or new/re-evaluative characterizations. To reiterate Cloutier, “Invisible Man traces the episodic metamorphosis of the protagonist from naive Southern schoolboy to urban outlaw living in an underground lair” by distinguishing his moments of growth in clear stages with separation following a story board format that highlights certain scenes with their ambiance as depicted by color (loutier 295). Orange works as one color that certainly defines atmospheres and experiences, but other colors that are particularly engaging are green, blue, and red. Further inquiry on these colors as they define spaces may lead to similar conclusions about how Ellison paints scenes as they connect with the protagonists life stages and epiphanic episodes.
Booth, W. James. “The Color of Memory: Reading Race with Ralph Ellison.” Political Theory,
vol. 36, no. 5, 2008, pp. 683–707. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20452661.
Cloutier, Jean-Christophe . “The Comic Book World of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 43, no. 2, 2010, pp. 294–319. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40959707.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Random House, March 1989.
Lamm, Kimberly. “Visuality and Black Masculinity in Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ and
Romare Bearden’s Photomontages.” Callaloo, vol. 26, no. 3, 2003, pp. 813–835. JSTOR,
Krasteva, Yonka. “Chaos and Pattern in Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’” The Southern Literary
Journal, vol. 30, no. 1, 1997, pp. 55–72. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20078196.
Millichap, Joseph. “Fiction, Photography, and the Cultural Construction of Racial Identity in
Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’” South Atlantic Review, vol. 76, no. 4, 2011, pp. 129–142. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43738922.
Sophia Grabiec is currently an English major in the teacher certification program, but is a former varsity field hockey captain, student-teacher, The Elm’s Sports Editor, and a College Relations and Marketing student writer. Also a member of Phi Beta Kappa and other departmental honor societies, she appreciates the community of vibrant scholars that can be found in Washington College’s faculty and students. She hopes to continue to read and write with the same inquisition and interdisciplinary breadth she experienced at WC in her future career, which will begin in Washington, D.C. after graduation. When she isn’t reading for class, she can be found either watching HBO or exploring new places and foods with friends.