Invisible Man By Ellison Essay

Life on the Strings Dolls. We are surrounded by dolls. G. I. Joe, Barbie, Polly
Pocket, and WWF action figures. Prior to our plasticene friends we had paper
dolls, marionettes, and delicately featured porcelain dolls. We are strangely
fascinated by these cold, lifeless objects that look so much like ourselves.

Children clutch them and create elaborate scenes, while adults are content to
simply collect, allowing them to sit, motionless on a shelf, staring coolly back
at their live counterparts. Which brings us to and interesting point, are people
simply dolls for other people to play with or collect? One could make the
arguement that we are all Tod Cliftons’, doomed to dance by invisible strings
while wearing a mask of individualism. However, unlike Tod Clifton, most of us
will not realize that who pulls the string, is not ourselves. Ralph Ellison’s
novel, The Invisible Man is fraught with images of dolls as if to constantly
reminded the reader that no one is in complete control of themselves. Our first
example of doll imagery comes very early in the novel with the Battle Royal
scene. The nude, blonde woman is described as having hair “that was yellow
like that of a circus kewpie doll” (19). Ellison draws a very strong
connection between the plight of the Negro man and the white woman. The fact
that they are both shown as puppets or dolls in the work is no coincidence. The
woman and the African are merely show pieces for the white men in the novel. Tod
Clifton’s dancing Sambo dolls are the most striking example of doll imagery.

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This small tissue paper doll has the capability to completely change the
Invisible Man. When he sees that the powerful and enigmatic Clifton is the one
hawking the abominable dolls, the narrator is so filled with humiliation and
rage that he spits upon the dancing figure. But what is it that has caused this
surging of fury? It is Tod Clifton and not the narrator who has degraded himself
to such a base level. However, it is our narrator’s sudden comprehension of his
own situation that causes his wrath. The line “For a second our eyes met
and he gave me a contemptuous smile” (433) illustrates this moment of
realization for our narrator. It shows the reader that Tod Clifton was aware of
his position as a puppet all along and chooses to enlighten the narrator at this
particular point in the novel. The Invisible Man recognizes that all his life
he’s been a slave and a puppet to others. Whether those others were Bledsoe, his
grandfather, or the brotherhood is irrelevant, but there has always been and
imperceptible string attached to him governing everything he does. Not only a
string but his own physical characteristics echo those of the grotesque Sambo
dolls. It’s cardboard hands were clenched into fists. The fingers outlined in
orange paint, and I noticed that it had two faces, one on either side of the
disks of cardboard, and both grinning. (446) Hands doubled into fists? This is
the brotherhood message in a nutshell, Strong, ready to fight for what one
supposedly believes in. Yet, at the same time these fists are controlled
exclusively by the one holding the strings. And the black Sambo puppet
blissfully unaware that he is merely a plaything. He smiles to the crowd and
back to the puppeteer. It is the grin on the face of this doll that initially
angers the Invisible Man. But why? Thinking back to the very start of the novel
we have the Grandfather’s dying words to our narrator, “…overcome ’em
with yesses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and
destruction…” (16). It would seem as though the Grandfather and Tod
Clifton are in league with one another as they both have a firm grasp on what
power men have over men. We get a powerful and disturbing image of this very
idea when the Invisible Man is in the factory hospital after the explosion. It
is a scene that seems to fade into the mishmash of confusion that accompanies
this part of the novel, but it is nonetheless very important. As the narrator
lies in his glass enclosed box with wires and electrodes attached all over his
body, he is subjected to shock treatment. “Look, he’s dancing,”
someone called. “No, really?” …” They really do have rhythm,
don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!” it said with a laugh. (237) This image
is almost a perfect match with that of Clifton’s dancing Sambo doll. The only
thing missing is the huge grin and even that is taken care of with the line,
“My teeth chattered” (237) giving us the picture of a grotesque and
pained smile. He experiences a burst of anger which I can only assume means that
he catches a glimpse of the strings that he is being pulled by and is helpless
to do anything about it. Our final encounter with a doll occurs again with
Clifton’s dancing Sambo. At the end of the narrative, while escaping the hell of
the Harlem riots, the Invisible Man stumbles upon an open manhole and the gloom
below. While trying to keep warm and get a good look at the place he in, he
begins to burn the various objects in his briefcase. When he comes to the flimsy
tissue-paper doll he finds that it will not burn. He remarks “it burned so
stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else.” (568) The
doll’s difficulty in burning is symbolic of the fact that we, as men , will
never fully be able to break free from our puppet-like imprisonment. Ellison’s
narrator can be found in each and every human being. We live our lives
attempting to be independent and free thinking individuals, but there will
always be the strings that bind us to someone who controls our destiny. Even the
Invisible Man has his turn at being a puppeteer, as we all do, with Mr. Norton
at the train station when he calmly states, “I’m your destiny.” (578)
Do we know who we control? Do we know who controls us? The answer the Invisible
Man might give: Maybe.


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