Solitude in Literary Fiction

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

Although Ralph Ellison's 1951 book, Invisible Man -- his only novel -- is widely esteemed a classic expression of African American literature, its themes reach a universal concern with alienation, society, self, and  solitude.

 In remarks 30 years after publication, Ellison acknowledged that his novel is "ever so distantly" structured after Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground. The association is revealed not only in structure, especially the prologue and ending, but in the novel's protagonist.

 Here is Dostoyevsky's opening in Notes From Underground:

I am a sick man. I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. ... I couldn't make myself anything: neither good nor bad, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now I go on living in my corner and irritating myself with a spiteful and worthless consolation that a wise man can't seriously make himself anything, only a fool makes himself anything.

And here is Ellison's:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. ... I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.  ... You wonder whether you aren't simply a phantom in other people's minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. ... You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it's seldom successful.

Like Dostoyevsky's narrator, Ellison's is unnamed. And similarly he tells the end of the story in the beginning, telling us that he has gotten nowhere in the world except to suffer its rejection but at least opening his mind to its nature. Dostoyevsky's protagonist was responding directly to the naive idealism of contemporary social reformers in 19th century Russia, who maintained that hard work and effort would bring equality and justice. Ellison's protagonist knows that assumption as the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. In a telling opening chapter, he recites a speech by Washington (though not attributed to him) to the white elite of the town. The narrator chokes on the phrase "social responsibility" and instead says "social equality," bring down the wrath of the listeners, to whom the narrator has to apologize for his mistake.

The novel is the protagonist's detailing of  his life as a black man in contemporary (1930's or 40's) United States. The course of his experiences reveals every corner or society and social illusion. The insight is black, but fundamentally it is that of an invisible human being, a solitary.

So the narrator, now in an underground, waits in what he calls "hibernation." He tells us: "A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action," and thinks he may reenter the world because "not all sickness is unto death, neither is invisibility." But by the end of the story, we know that psychologically at least he will remain in the underground.

The novel is scene after scene tumbling from one after another illusion and hope: the narrator's dismissal from a Southern black college by the hypocritical black college president; dismissal from a Long Island paint factory where union members take him for a "fink" and an old black supervisor quarrels with him, fearing his losing his job to the young upstart; disillusion with the Brotherhood, the thinly-veiled Communist Party, with its authoritarianism and intense animosity for individual initiative.

The Brotherhood, however, is any brotherhood, any institution with goals, objectives, plans, and power over others. It is any structure, any authority. It is the narrator's conception of an ideal world of others, so that when it fails, everything fails.

In the Brotherhood, jealousy and racism dog the narrator's exemplary organizing efforts. Brotherhood members lead a bourgeois life with expensive appointments, apartments, and alcohol. A wealthy woman-member wonders aloud if he is black enough for their plans; another flatters the narrator as "primitive" and hearing "tom-toms beating" in his voice. With Tod Clifton, a successful young black activist, the narrator learns of Harlem's rival to the Brotherhood, Ras the Exhorter, a black nationalist favoring segregation from whites. Ras resurrects the converse of Bledsoe, the black college president who had told the narrator that he must lie to whites in order to get along, in the fashion of Booker T. Washington.

Where the Brotherhood believes itself realist and embracing the future, that it holds the reigns of history, Ras has left time and realism. Tod Clifton muses on Ras, telling the narrator that "I suppose sometimes a man has to plunge outside history. Plunge outside, turn his back. ... Otherwise he might kill somebody, go nuts." And this is part of the fate of Clifton. One day he disappears, renouncing everything, renouncing his ties to the future and to history, to reappear selling Sambo dolls in Times Square. A white policeman guns him down, precipitating a riot in Harlem (the 1942 Harlem Riot being the clear historical precedent for Ellison).

As events unfold, and the narrator's experience of the racist Brotherhood grows, he finds himself caught in the riot. He had, he had told himself, tried to "hold on desperately to Brotherhood with all my strength, for to break away would be to plunge ... To plunge!" As had Clifton? "Perhaps the truth was always a lie."

And then, in the midst of night, of burning buildings, and mobs, trying to escape a horsebacked Ras looking like a surreal African king, and with the police moving inexorably into the burning Harlem streets, the narrator falls through an uncovered manhole. Everything has betrayed him, everything is tainted beyond redemption. He simply replaces the manhole cover. Eventually he will make his way to where he began the narrative.

I could only move ahead or stay here, underground. So I would stay here until I was chased out. Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or, if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.

Ellison's breakthrough in Invisible Man is to touch upon the universality of solitude as a cultural and racial experience, not simply a psychological or philosophical one. The novel's relentless pace, its sincere and experiential revelations, are a catalog of the nature of society presented from the unique mindset of a solitary sufferer thrown into history, a black man whose misfortunes are laid out clearly and compellingly as a narrative for the construction of solitude and disillusion.