The Invisible Man and Existentialism

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a great American novel.

Ellison’s ability to make the reader feel the racism of the time is unsettling. The painful experience of living in a country that views you with disdain—that sees you as a problem—permeates the text.

It is also a deeply philosophical novel. Consider the following outline of the novel written by Ellison to his literary agent as he was beginning what would be a 7-year writing process:

The invisible man will move upward through Negro life, coming into contact with its various forms and personality types; will operate in the Negro middle class, in the leftwing movement and descend again into the disorganized atmosphere of the Harlem underworld. He will move upward in society through opportunism and submissiveness. Psychologically he is a traitor, to himself, to his people, and to democracy … He is also to be a depiction of a certain type of Negro humanity that operates in the vacuum created by white America in its failure to see Negroes as human.

Ellison’s novel is deeply existential. The nameless protagonist (nameless because of the cultural identity the slaves lost when brought to America) deals endlessly with alienation and anxiety—conditions Ellison links to the harsh realities of being black in America. This protagonist tries to find meaning in religion, romance, and revolutionary movements, but ultimately discovers that no place safe. Meaning is illusive when forced to live with dehumanization. He finds himself unable to actualize being in a society that fails to see his humanity. Ultimately, he makes the conscious decision to retreat from life and become in actuality what he is culturally: an invisible man.

While race is a relatively new subject of formal philosophical inquiry, writers like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison have explored philosophical issues as it relates to the black experience in America. Through their fiction and essays, they allow suffering to speak by giving voice to those who are permanent residents in the decay that that is the underside of American democracy. No discussion of fiction and philosophy should ignore the rich legacy of Black-American literature.

If you have not read Invisible Man, I encourage you to do so immediately.

-Law Ware


  1. dmf says

    it’s an almost surreal novel and I think that the form only enhances the content by enriching the reading experience, as much as existentialism is about conversion/conviction this only makes sense, I think that philosophy is finally moving off the page and back into the world (including now its virtual aspects), such that pioneers like Jane Addams and DuBois, may finally be getting their due:

    my worry about the arts in such forums is that they may often provide the kind of cathartic experience that gives people a virtual feeling of the satisfactions of participation/engagement in ways which relieve their need to get involved politically (unfortunately blogging/commenting may also serve such a cathartic release/satisfaction) and so they need to be tied in with actual encounters/community-building or they may prove to be counterproductive.

  2. sajon nola b. says

    What’s up Law. I’ve heard of this classic. I got me to thinking, this recommendation that I read a book, about my life experience. I no doubt could learn much from it. I’m a blue collar worker that has worked many jobs, often with a large percentage of blacks. Sometimes I was one of the only whites. I think of what blacks told and showed me and I wonder if that experience is more illuminating than a book could ever be. I wonder what they’d get from a book like this.. I guess your post brought to my attention that I’ve wondered about the relation of reading (and thinking critically about books) to actual living. Some of those blacks from the projects didn’t teach me shit except being from the projects sucks, which I already figured. Some taught me whatever any person with some intelligence or life wisdom, regardless of race, could conceivably teach.

    • Law Ware says

      What it do, Sajon?

      No book can ever fully give a person the experience of living day to day, moment by moment in such a horrid condition. So yes, talking to people who know how it feels can be quite illuminating. However, what this book does is twofold–it gives us a sense of the lived experience of that time; also, it provides very thoughtful philosophical analysis.

      What I think is remarkable about the text, and makes it worth reading beyond aesthetic reasons, is that it shows the path of someone who wants to integrate, but it not allowed to do so as a man with dignity. This is something many upwardly mobile African-Americans deal with.

      The value of books about this subject is that it tells a story that would be forgotten. The lived experience of those who survived that horrible time in American history as the victims of empire would be reduced to a footnote if not for the efforts of people like Ellison.

      No education, philosophical or otherwise, is complete without seriously wrestling with those existential questions. Philosophical reflection betrays an unconscious bias (or an insidious apathy) if it fails to do so.

      • sajon nola b. says

        Knew you’d respond brilliantly. Thanks. What do you think Aristotle and Plato would make of your point about education? That crossed my mind just now. We’re much nicer people now than the ancients, yes? Any way here I am on PEL and I read, so I tend to be more sympathetic than the impression the post may give, but I wanted to just throw out how I feel sometimes. I wish my co-workers felt the same about literature, but very few have at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *