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Morgan Reynolds AP Literature A Nameless Stereotype “Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity. ” (Stephen King, On Writing). In Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” symbolism plays an excessively important role. More specifically, the symbolism of a particular coin bank and Sambo doll not only add greatly to the themes of the story, but accurately depicts the black man’s Harlem in the 1920’s.
The protagonist of the story, a nameless young black man, struggles with finding his identity among a society of warring stereotypes. Throughout the novel, the narrator is continuously reminded of the black stereotype thrust upon him. The coin bank serves as a realization of the image many white men still hold regarding African Americans in the 1920’s. The Invisible Man, otherwise known as the narrator, awakens to find a coin bank in a guest room of the home owned by the only woman whom he trusts, Mary. Then near the door I saw something which I had never seen before: the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth. ” (Ellison 319).
The coin bank embodies the idea of the well-behaved slave, who fawns over white men for trivial rewards such as petty change. The narrator smashes the coin bank due to a sharp hatred for the stereotype that his brethren, and himself, are subjected to. However, he also resents the black men whom embody this stereotype, and make breaking out of it difficult for the rest. The restricting idea of the coin bank appears earlier in the novel during the “battle royal” as well. “I crawled rapidly around the floor, picking up the coins, trying to avoid the coppers and to get greenbacks and the gold.
Ignoring the shock by laughing, as I brushed the coins off quickly, I realized that I could contain the electricity- a contradiction, but it works. ” (Ellison 27). The battle royal dehumanizes the poor young black man for the sake of entertainment, and reinforces the lowly manner in which they are viewed. The narrator’s stereotype follows him throughout life, leaving no chance of proving his reality to the outside world. The Sambo doll, a small paper doll with puppet-like strings, depicts a harsh and undeniably racist stereotype of black entertainers. A grinning doll of orange-and-black tissue paper with thin flat cardboard disks forming it’s head and feet and which some mysterious mechanism was causing to move up and down in a loose-jointed, shoulder-shaking, infuriatingly sensuous motion, a dance that was completely detached from the black, mask-like face. It’s no jumping-jack, but what, I thought, seeing the doll throwing itself about with the fierce defiance of someone performing a degrading act in public, dancing as though it received a perverse pleasure from its motion. ” (Ellison 431).
The dolls are introduced to the narrator through a former member of the “Brotherhood,” Todd Clifton. The Brotherhood embodies an unhealthy, communist-like group of black and white men whom seek change through the use of a token spokesperson, typically a young black man with charm and a knack for public speaking. The Brotherhood as a whole subconsciously, or perhaps even consciously, uses this stereotype to their advantage by exploiting charming young black men as poster children for the cause. “Shake it up! Shake it up! He’s Sambo, the dancing doll, ladies and gentlemen.
Shake him, stretch him by the neck and set him down, -He’ll do the rest. Yes! He’ll make you laugh; he’ll make you sigh, si-igh. He’ll make you want to dance, and dance- Here you are, ladies and gentlemen, Sambo, The dancing doll. Buy one for your baby. Take him to your girlfriend and she’ll love you, loove you! He’ll keep you entertained. He’ll make you weep sweet-Tears from laughing. Shake him, shake him, you cannot break him for he’s Sambo, the dancing, Sambo, the prancing, Sambo, the entertaining, Sambo Boogie Woogie paper doll. ” (Ellison 431-432).
As Clifton sings this song to the onlookers, he not only stereotypes the black man as a mere entertainer for the White, but himself as well. The dancing doll pleases the onlookers through absurd motions. Even though it appears to be moving through sheer willpower, the doll attaches to a string, giving the illusion of a puppeteer bending his puppet to his will. The puppeteer represents the white man’s control from behind the scenes, such as the case in the Brotherhood. The Sambo doll represents the power and control a stereotype has over a person’s actions.
Stereotype and prejudice, like the invisible strings of the paper Sambo doll, often manipulate the extent one may or may not achieve in life. The author, Ralph Ellison, provides many political themes throughout the novel. “Ralph Ellison declared his intention to shape public opinion when he received the National Book Award in 1953 for Invisible Man. In his acceptance speech, he comment that his own attempt to write a major novel derived from a feeling that, ‘except for the work of William Faulkner, something vital had gone out of American prose since Mark twain. He added that American writers once assumed ‘a much greater responsibility for the condition of democracy, and, indeed, their works were imaginative projections of the conflicts within the human heart which arose when the sacred principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights clashed with the practical exigencies of human greed and fear, hate and love. ’” (Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man 1). Ellison uses the political and social experiences of the time period in which “Invisible Man” takes place to enhance the reality of the book.
He blends the themes of emotion, personal struggle, oppression, and politics in a way that feels most realistic. He uses these to develop the theme of the novel. In the analytical novel, “Ralph Ellison and the Raft of Hope: A Political Companion to Invisible Man,” Ellison is depicted as a man who “hoped to follow in the footsteps of great American writers not only by developing and honing is craft as they did theirs, but also writing Invisible Man as a deliberate attempt ‘to return the mood of personal moral responsibility for Democracy. ” (1). Through Ellison’s determination and seven year struggle to complete “Invisible Man,” he brought the story of a nameless man to the masses, and not only developed a format of technical literary genius, but stirred up 1950’s America in his thought provoking novel. “Invisible Man” tells the story of prejudice and stereotype of both black and white men in the early 20th century.
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The novel is not merely about racism, but more accurately the struggles of finding one’s identity through a state of stereotypes against stereotypes. Works Cited: Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House Inc. 1947. Print. Ralph Ellison and The Raft Of Hope. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Print.
Author: Dave Villacorta
Invisible Man Essay
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Essay about Symbols in the Briefcase in “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
758 Words4 Pages
Towards the end of the book “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the narrator who remains unnamed thought the entire book, risks his life to save a briefcase filled with seemingly random assorted items. But later in the book the narrator is forced to burn the items in his briefcase in order to find his way out of a sewer he gets stuck in. Closer reading reveals that the items in his briefcase are more than random assorted items, but instead are symbols. Each one of those symbols represents a point in the narrator’s life where he is either betrayed or made “invisible” by the people around him. Through the book the two main recurring themes are betrayal and invisibility and the narrator keeps these symbols with him because they represent who he…show more content…
The crowd continually asks him to repeat himself and at one point the narrator miss speaks and says “social equality” instead of “social responsibility.” This immediate arouses the whites in the crowd. When they yell threats at him he Denys what he said and claims that the blood in his mouth caused him to misspeak. In this incident the whites in the crowd immediately stop any variation from what they want to hear coming out of the mouth of an African American. This is another way that he is oppressed into being what people want him to be and therefore becoming invisible. The narrator also feels betrayed when he sees Clifton with the doll. At that time the narrator still considered himself a part of the brotherhood, and since the brotherhood would never allow such a thing to be sold, Clifton is betraying the brotherhood and also the narrator himself. Another symbolic item in the narrator’s briefcase is the Sambo doll that brother Clifton was selling illegally on the street. It is not the doll itself, but instead the circumstances surrounding Clifton’s death that make the doll significant. Before his death, the narrator meets brother Clifton, and describes him as the ideal man. He is educated, well dressed, muscular, and has a stylish swag about him, that the narrator admires. But we don’t know Clifton long before he is shot. Clifton suddenly drops from his original