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Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is novel rich with themes and motifs regarding the African American experience of early twentieth century America. It depicts a young African American man’s descent from an acceptance of racism during his tenure at an unnamed African American collge to his eventual disillusionment with Northern leftist radicalism, until finally realizing his true life’s purpose as an “invisible man” who will work to make the world a better place. Ellison’s tale of an unnamed African American man and his journey to personal enlightenment, along with themes and motifs, is layered with symbols that drive the narrator in ways that would be impossible without. One of the most poignant symbols in the novel is the “Sambo” doll, a crude stereotype of an African American man. Based on the evidence in the novel, the “Sambo” doll represents the novel’s themes regarding identity and race more fully than any other symbol.
In chapter twenty, the narrator is walking down the street when he hears Tod Clifton’s voice.(Ellison, p. 430) He then immediately comes upon Clifton controlling a “Sambo” doll like a puppet, making it dance and sing a song. The narrator caught Clifton selling a cheap toy version of a common stereotype of African American (431-432). This act is viewed as a betrayal of the race by Clifton, as he is profiting off of a negative stereotype. Immediately following, Clifton is shot and killed by a police officer (436). The narrator soon takes the doll as a souvenir and in the final chapter burns it for light when he is hiding underground (568). In its first appearance, the doll appears to represent the classic stereotype of a black street performer, dancing and singing for the amusement of white people. The doll is manipulated by strings held by Clifton, symbolizing how stereotypes are controlled by outside forces and do not define one’s identity. The stereotype perpetuated by the doll, in combination with it being controlled like a puppet, suggests that the outside force that pushes the stereotype and racism may in fact be the person that the stereotype is degrading.
Clifton’s acceptance and profiteering of the this stereotype gives the inherent racism of the doll merit, as an African American man is willing to make light of this issue for personal gain. The narrator, however, comments on this, stating “Yes, the dolls were obscene and his act a betrayal. But he was only a salesman, not the inventor, and it was necessary that we make it known that the meaning of his death was greater than the incident or the object that created it” (448). Clifton, although he benefited from the racism, was not the provoker in the eyes of the narrator. Rather, to the narrator, it was society that allowed this betrayal to occur, and that Clifton was merely a victim that had to go along with it.
This sense of individual profit and victimhood is consistent with the narrator’s struggles and views with individuality, perhaps the most important theme in the novel. When the narrator burns the doll for light while hiding underground, the narrator is showing that although a stereotype may be controlled and manipulated by outside forces, the individual is powerful enough to destroy its stranglehold on their identity. This act of defiance represents the enlightenment that can come from breaking free of the tyranny of society’s rules. The narrator states “The next to go was Clifton’s doll, but it burned so stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else” (568). The narrator’s difficulty in burning the doll represents the difficulty, but not the impossibility, of the individual to destroy man-made prejudices and ideals. All of this supports the premise of the narrator’s views on the self and how to achieve personal enlightenment. The narrator is only able to break free from racism by taking charge and destroying it himself.
The “Sambo” doll is a powerful representation of the ingrained acceptance and profiteering of racism in America, as well as the role of the individual and their ability to conquer it. Clifton selling the dolls shows how one can be subservient to societal pressures that ultimately benefit no one, and yet his profiteering shows that one can sacrifice morals for the sake of personal gain. The destruction of the doll proves the absolute power of the individual to fight those societal pressures, and is the perfect summation of the novel’s themes of individuality.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
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