1977- A character’s attempt to recapture or to reject the past is important in many plays, novels, and poems. Choose a literary work in which a character views the past with such feelings as reverence, bitterness, or longing. Show with clear evidence from the work how the character’s view of the past is used to develop a theme in the work.
One’s past can be a frightening thing and for some is only a memory to be distanced. For the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, past serves as a connection to his mistakes, his grandfather, and his racial roots. But when he begins to call New York his home, these are ties he is not certain he wants to keep. At times, he wants to sever and forget all of it as soon as possible. At other times, he longs for the familiarity of his past, whatever it may encompass. Things that might once have piqued his interest now seem nothing but a stereotype. However, one cannot exist in the present without having come from somewhere past and for this reason, his attempts to have less of a past, only further his progress toward invisibility. As an outstanding student at the premier Negro college in the south, the narrator is given the opportunity and the honor of chauffeuring one of the visiting board members around the town for an afternoon. But when he has a badly-timed lapse in judgment and agrees to show Norton the most unsophisticated regions of the town, he is expelled and sent to New York to “work” and gain funds for tuition, but in reality this is the last he will ever see of the college.
However, for the narrator, out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean out of mind as he finds himself often comparing his current life to his days at the college and reflecting upon those fateful hours spent with Norton. Though he once bragged about his “college education”, he comes to realize it’s insignificance in his city life. The mistake resulting in his expulsion is at first a subject he feels quite bitter towards, but as time progresses, it is one he no longer holds contemptible. When he loses his status as a college student, he gains some degree of mediocrity. It is all too easy to become invisible when you appear to be no different than the crowd surrounding you. This is what happened to the narrator when he rejected his past at the college. When the narrator’s grandfather is on the verge of death, he leaves some ambiguous and haunting last words that confuse and occasionally torment the narrator for the remainder of the book.
Though, he does not express this inner-turmoil to anyone, it is always there to serve as unpleasant and disconcerting reminder of what was. At college, and later in New York, he often thinks of these words, or rather commands, trying unsuccessfully to ascertain meaning from them. This mystery is one he never solves and as he comes to know quite well, it is difficult to live with unresolved and incomplete instructions. When he can’t follow through on these instructions meant to be paramount in his life, he finds it easier to be invisible than to live with this discrepancy, this thorn in his side. The narrator’s favorite food is yams. That’s not to say he doesn’t enjoy a bowl-full of grits or a table of fried chicken, but yams are a sweet, syrupy reminder of home for him.
When he is in New York and is offered a bowl of grits by a white vendor, he becomes offended, seeing the suggestion as nothing but a racial stereotype. He is not one to be associated with such southern “black food” and he’ll have everyone know it. When, some months later, a Negro street vendor offers him a hot and delicious yam, he first denies it under the same premise, but walks back when the smell and nostalgia become too powerful, perhaps only accepting because of the skin color of the vendor. But even when the vendor addresses the narrator as “brother” he becomes offended saying “I’m no brother of yours.” In an attempt to appear as a civilized black man in the white world, he rejects these mementos of life at home almost instantly.
The pressure to impress leads him quickly and ironically on the path toward invisibility. And as he finds, it is pretty easy for a black man to become invisible in white society so long as he stays in line and pretends to agree with them. At the conclusion of the book, we see the narrator living below the city, occupying the sewers, with no one even aware of his existence- or inexistence. Though he once thought himself an outstanding member of the black race, the way his hand of cards has been played in the game of life has resulted in his plunge from superiority. For the narrator, past serves as a connection to his mistakes, his grandfather, and his racial roots. In denying this past, he has denied himself. He has gained true invisibility.