Symbolism in "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

Categories: Dystopia


Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" weaves a tapestry of symbolism, with the pivotal "Battle Royal" scene serving as a microcosm of the protagonist's marginalized existence. This essay explores the profound symbolism embedded in the narrative, focusing on the protagonist's struggle for identity and the pervasive racial undertones that permeate the novel.

The Calfskin Briefcase: A Symbol of Constrained Destiny

The opening chapters introduce the reader to the protagonist's reverence for education. The acquisition of a calfskin briefcase becomes a poignant symbol of the Invisible Man's journey.

The superintendent's words, "Take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office. Prize it. Keep developing as you are and someday it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people," underscore the predetermined path envisioned by white authority figures (Ellison; pg. 32).

The calfskin briefcase, meticulously covered in white tissue paper, becomes a metaphor for the controlled life charted out for the protagonist. The tissue paper symbolizes the pervasive influence of white authorities, dictating the trajectory of the Invisible Man's existence.

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The protagonist, although cherishing the scholarship that accompanies the briefcase, grapples with the symbolism it carries—a life scripted by those in power.

However, beneath the surface, the concluding paragraphs of this chapter offer glimpses of foreshadowing. The protagonist, basking in the acclaim of accepting the scholarship, feels a semblance of accomplishment. The photograph of his grandfather, whose disapproving eyes seem to follow him, introduces an eerie dimension to his triumph. The grandfather's stoic face, described as a "stolid black peasant's face," hints at the ancestral scrutiny the protagonist seeks to overcome through academic success (Ellison; pgs.

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Yet, the foreboding dream disrupts this narrative. The circus dream, where the grandfather refuses to laugh at clowns, symbolizes the protagonist's futile attempts to please his forebear. The clowns represent the protagonist's endeavor to uplift his race through personal success, an endeavor met with disapproval. The dream's ominous culmination, with the grandfather instructing, "To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running," foreshadows the entwined destinies of personal success and subservience to white authority (Ellison; pg. 33).

Racism and Dehumanization in the Paint Plant

The narrative's progression to the paint plant introduces a heightened sense of foreboding. The protagonist's journey, shrouded in fog as he crosses a bridge, signifies his obscured vision and limited foresight. The emergence into the plant reveals a sign proclaiming, "KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS," a stark representation of prevalent racism during the era (Ellison).

The term "pure" serves as a metaphor for racial segregation and the suppression of black progress. Liberty, in this context, excludes the black race from its purview, emphasizing the discriminatory societal norms of the time. The Invisible Man's first task at the plant, crafting the purest white paint, becomes a poignant commentary on the racial dynamics at play.

Mr. Kimbro, the protagonist's boss, instructs him to add drops of "dead black dope" to achieve the desired purity. This act of mixing paints is symbolic of the exploitation inherent in white society, utilizing black contributions to advance without due acknowledgment. The paint metaphor, as noted by Anne Seidlitz, reflects the intertwining of black and white cultures, where the black experience remains influential yet invisible, devoid of tangible outcomes (Seidlitz).

Ralph Ellison's use of symbolism in the paint plant scenario serves as a powerful critique of the racial inequalities ingrained in American society. The act of crafting pure white paint by incorporating black elements becomes a metaphorical representation of the exploitation and dehumanization faced by the black community.

Conclusion: Symbolism and the Search for Identity

Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" transcends its narrative to become a profound exploration of identity amidst a tumultuous and indifferent world. The symbolism embedded in the calfskin briefcase and the paint plant illuminates the protagonist's journey—marked by predetermined paths, racial subjugation, and the elusive quest for selfhood.

The calfskin briefcase, a badge of office laden with white control, encapsulates the struggle against a predetermined destiny. The dream sequences and ominous laughter of the protagonist's grandfather foreshadow the challenges ahead, hinting at the inextricable link between personal success and subservience to a white-dominated society.

As the narrative unfolds in the paint plant, Ellison uses powerful symbols like "pure" white paint and the act of mixing to unravel the racial tensions of the time. The metaphorical use of paint underscores the exploitation of black contributions without due acknowledgment, a poignant commentary on the dehumanizing experiences faced by the black community.

"Invisible Man" stands as a literary testament to the complexities of the African-American experience, offering readers a mirror to reflect on the societal issues of identity, racism, and the quest for visibility. Ellison's masterful use of symbolism elevates the novel into a timeless exploration of the human condition, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of American literature.

Updated: Dec 01, 2023
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Symbolism in "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison. (2016, Jun 19). Retrieved from

Symbolism in "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison essay
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