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The
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a
novel that addresses the many issues faced by African Americans during the
early twentieth century. Ellison tackles the theme of double consciousness as
described by W.E.B Dubois and shows the many effects and limitations that it places
on the novel’s characters’ consciousness and self identity. Ellison shows the
destructive effects that double consciousness has on Bledsoe and Rhinehart’s
African American identity and how it helps build the narrator’s African
American Identity. Bledsoe and Rhinehart represent the extremes on the double
consciousness spectrum. Bledsoe completely accepts and Rhinehart completely
rejects the dominance of the white culture. Bledsoe only cares about his
appearance to Mr. Norton and the other white funders of the college.  Rineharts identity is fluid, he presents
himself differently to everyone, taking on various identities. The Narrator is
the only character in Ellison’s novel that undergoes many changes and
identities and eventually grows out of the double consciousness to become his
own self.

Du Bois explains double consciousness to be
a  product of the influence and  the power that white men have in the lives
and thoughts of African Americans. The first form of this double
consciousness  is the ‘second sight’,
being able to see society from the eyes of an African and not just an American,
thus giving an extra insight into society. The second distinction is that of living
being born behind a veil. This defines the limitations of existing behind a
curtain that one is neither clearly seen from nor can see clearly see himself,
thus cutting him off from society and hindering him from presenting his best
self to the society. How is a person to even form his best self if he isn’t
even exposed to reality?

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Double Consciousness was first described by
W.E.B Dubois in 1903 regarding the difficulty of African American life amongst
white people. Dubois stated in the book The Souls of Black Folk,

 

An example of living with the struggles of
double consciousness and its implications is the seen through the character of
Bledsoe. He is a portrayed as modest character who rather than serving his own
self-interest, seems to work towards improving the quality of life of the black
community. Or rather this is what the narrator thinks of Bledsoe before he sees
him for who he really is. Bledsoe helps the youth get an education but if they
step out of line and challenge the image of the black life that Bledsoe has
created in the eyes of such as Mr. Norton, Bledsoe does anything in his power
to get rid of them. Though he does not do this blatantly but rather in a
discreet way. This is the situation that occurs between Bledsoe and the
narrator. After the narrator accidentally exposes Mr. Norton to Trueblood,  Bledsoe sends the narrator who is referred to
as the invisible man off for a job with a letter that he claims will help him.
Contrarily though the letter tells the bearer to “Please hope him to death, and
keep him running” (194). Instead of looking out for his fellow african and the
progress of his race, Bledsoe is more concerned with keeping Mr. Norton and the
other white benefactors of the university happy.

He tells the Invisible Man, “You’re nobody, son.
You don’t exist… The white folk tell everybody what to think—except men like
me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the
things I know about” (143). Here Bledsoe is acknowledging his and the
narrator’s race and how it sets them back but then he discludes himself and
makes himself the exception. In his mind he has achieved a position of power
and influence but he blinds himself to the fact that he is only able to use
that power to fulfill the wishes of the white man. That this position of power
is given to him by the white man and can easily be taken.  The problem lies in Bledsoe thinking that he
holds real power amongst the white men , as if he influences them and their way
of life rather than seeing that he himself has shaped his life around their
needs and appeasement. The biggest factor in his shaping his identity towards
the white man’s needs and wants is that he is a slave to their funding. He
rejects his true identity as an African American man and gives into his 2nd
consciousness of serving the white man.

 

Rinehart is another character that falls victim
to the mindset of the double consciousness. His identity is fluid, he is
something different for everyone he meets. He doesn’t care much for the greater
good of the race but rather focuses on himself. Instead of having a single
identity he takes on different ones for whatever the time calls for. He
switches between being a friend, a lover, a bookie, and even a preacher.
Clothes and appearance are essential to the identity of Rinehart, so essential
that just by wearing new clothes the narrator so easily becomes Rinehart.
Rinehart uses his manipulation of appearance to dispel the attention of whites
for the sake of keeping his crime secret, while Bledsoe attracts their notice
for the sake of funding and support, but both define their behavior through a
performance for the sake of the white gaze.

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