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Generations from now, the world will be a completely different place. Just a few decades ago, computers were invented and were a new piece of technology for the future. Now, society cannot survive a day without modern technology. Similarly, Invisible Man (IM) in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man builds upon his past to become the character that he ends up becoming toward the end of the novel. A character that contains outward conformity but questions inwardly would be IM, as he deals with a lost identity as well as being manipulated from the other characters around him due to his invisibility throughout the proceedings of this novel. These themes of manipulation and identity searching are demonstrated throughout the novel with an increasing tension between outward conformity and questioning inwardly of IM as well as establish the meaning of the book that identities can be established by the surroundings in which one lives.
IM seems to feel as though he knows where he is going in life at the beginning of the novel, but as the novel progresses, IM becomes uncertain of his future and there is an increasing tension between outward conformity and inward questioning. IM is manipulated constantly throughout this novel and he doesn’t seem to realize how the members of the society around him are actually treating him. In the beginning of the book, IM receives the “scholarship to the state college for Negroes” which he sees as a great turn of events from the battle royal in retrospect of his future, but the college scholarship will only cause IM to be manipulated more and more as time progresses (Ellison, 32). IM’s excitement does not accurately reflect the turn of events which will unfold, as he will lead himself down paths that will not turn out in a positive manner in essence toward IM’s future. IM’s scholarship to the college for Negroes will evidently allow him to meet Mr.Norton, who he has to drive around for the week he visits the college. During the week of driving Mr.Norton around, IM is requested to take Mr.Norton to Trueblood, where Trueblood explains his life story and Mr.Norton seems mesmerized by the story he tells. IM respectfully follows along with everything that’s unfolding, but when IM is thinking to himself about the situation and how Trueblood basically hypnotized Mr.Norton by the traumatizing nature of his story, he states “…but he was listening to Trueblood so intensely he didn’t see me, and I sat down again, cursing the farmer silently. To hell with his dream!” in order to demonstrate his frustration (Ellison, 57). IM’s anger toward Trueblood speaking with Mr.Norton is one of the first locations of the book where IM’s inner questioning becomes tense in correlation to his outward conformity. IM is also manipulated when he is unknowingly expelled from the college and sent to Harlem with seven letters. Because IM believes that he is sent to find work aside from college to complete and once he is done that he will return to college, IM believes that the letters that Dr.Bledsoe has enclosed are supposed to aid IM in finding this job. However, once IM realizes that he was manipulated into being sent to Harlem after meeting with Mr.Emerson’s secretary, IM feels trapped and as though he does not know who he is or will become in the future. The letter states “I beg of you, sir, to help him continue in the direction of that promise which, like the horizon, recedes ever brightly and distantly beyond the hopeful traveler” in order to bounce IM off of the college and into the working class of Harlem (Ellison, 191). IM does not know how he could have possibly done anything wrong in order to get expelled from the college, but he conforms to the expulsion and continues to find work in Harlem. However, IM never actually did anything to become expelled, Dr.Bledsoe manipulated IM’s weak ability to recognize the situation around him and forces him out of the college, as Dr.Bledsoe knows that if IM were to stay in the college, he could eventually change the future of the African American civilization, which no one except IM wants to occur. IM realizes Dr.Bledsoe manipulated him and tries to find work somewhere, so that he can at least continue to live there, as he has nothing to go back to. Once IM starts work in the paint factory, and he is knocked unconscious by the explosion, he is again manipulated in his temporary-vegetable state. IM was lobotomized without consent, as the factory hospital needed someone to test their electric shock treatment on. After he is lobotomized, the man dressed in black asks IM some questions, such as “WHAT … IS … YOUR … NAME?” and “WHO…ARE…YOU?” in order to see if the lobotomy was successful (Ellison, 240). IM’s lobotomy demonstrates how vulnerable he was to the society surrounding him, so vulnerable that he was lobotomized without anyone even asking him, and IM never seems to question it. This demonstrates the fact that IM was still trying to figure out who he was going to be in the future, but lobotomizing him most likely ruined his future plans but led him on a path to discovering the world around him. Evidently, IM joins the Brotherhood after living with Mary, and the Brotherhood manipulates him into working for them, when at the end of the novel IM realizes what the Brotherhood is actually trying to accomplish, which was take advantage of IM in order to gain their own benefit, IM became very distressed. IM has been conforming on the outside to the brotherhood, Dr.Bledsoe, and many other characters throughout, when inside he has been questioning whether or not he should be conforming, as well as inward questioning of his own true identity.
As proven through IM’s life in the South and the North, one’s identity can be created based on the surroundings in which one lives, whether inward questioning and outward conformity has great tensions or not. IM was already feeling strong tension between inner questioning and outward conformity, so when he was forcefully lobotomized, he was forced on a new identity based on the surroundings. This is evident in that IM could not even respond to questions such as “WHAT IS YOUR MOTHER’S NAME?” and “WHO WAS YOUR MOTHER?” although, even if his lobotomy did not take place, he wouldn’t have been able to answer the question “WHO…ARE…YOU?” because he had not learned his true identity (Ellison, 240, 241). Because IM wouldn’t have been able to answer the question of who he was whether the lobotomy took place or not, the question still represents a turning point in the story in that IM sees that he can change his identity to whatever he wants it to be, even though it will evidently be forced upon him. After the lobotomy takes place, IM is taken to Mary, where he learns his new identity based on how Mary treats him, in that she wants IM to be whoever he wants to be and she knows that IM will do something beneficial to the African American civilization at one point or another, or so she thought. Once IM makes the speech to try and save the elderly couple from being evicted, he is called to have coffee and cake with one of the members of the brotherhood, where he is manipulated into believing he needs to be in the brotherhood, and conforms into joining the brotherhood. The tension between inner questioning and outward conformity is strong when IM is accepted into the brotherhood as well, as he is questioning himself about many aspects of why the brotherhood would want him, such as “Why should he want me as a speaker?” in order to demonstrate how the identity Mary has allowed him to have has made IM very vulnerable (Ellison, 294). IM questions himself as to why the brotherhood would want him to be a speaker for them due to the little effort he actually put in when making the speech to save the elderly couple and also due to how insignificant that speech was in relevance to why IM believes he is in Harlem. After IM accepts to join the brotherhood, they force a new identity on him and tell him that he needs to move out of Mary’s house and into the hotel in order to stay in the brotherhood. IM doesn’t question this act outwardly to a great extent, but he does not know why he is being manipulated into moving out of a perfectly fine house under a strong woman’s roof. His incapability to realize who he is and when he is being manipulated has allowed his identity to be transformed again, reinforcing one of the main ideas of the novel that identities can change depending on what the surroundings are.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison takes the life of IM and throws many situations at him, allowing IM to shift his identity from certain ideals to others. Some of the main themes of the novel include the strong tension between inner questioning and outward conformity as well as the idea that identities are able to change if one is to be vulnerable enough to allow any individual to manipulate their current identity and change themselves into someone different. IM never seems to establish a true identity, but he does know that he is an invisible man.
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