Invisible Man Compare and Constrast Essay

This essay has a total of 5589 words and 24 pages.

Invisible Man


According to Goethe, "We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our
planet is the mental institution of the universe." Despite the hyperbolic nature of
Goethe's statement, it holds some truth. Because of this element of truth, society looks
to psychoanalysis as an important tool for understanding human nature. Furthermore,
psychoanalytic criticism of authors, characters, and readers has a place in literary
criticism that is as important as the place of psychoanalysis in society. This is because
of the mimetic nature of much of modern literature. In fact, the psychoanalyst Jacques
Lacan wrote, "If psycho-analysis is to be constituted as the science of the unconscious,
one must set out from the notion that the unconscious is structured like a language,"(1)
thus directly relating literature - the art of language - and psychoanalysis. Searching
the database of the Modern Language Association for articles about the use of
psychoanalysis for understanding Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man yields one article by
Caffilene Allen, of Georgia State University, in Literature and Psychology in 1995. Thus,
further study of this subject seems warranted. As Allen points out, "Purely psychoanalytic
interpretations of Invisible Man are rare, even though Ellison clearly threads the
theories of at least Freud throughout his novel."(2) Because of the rarity of
psychoanalytic critiques of Invisible Man, this paper will examine the character of the
invisible man in the Prologue and Epilogue of Ellison's masterpiece using the theories of
Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Jacques Lacan.


The first step in this study should be to look at previous psychoanalytic critiques of
Invisible Man. As stated earlier, Caffilene Allen's article showed itself as the only
article of this type in the Modern Language Association database. Other researchers
mention Freud, and Allen cites one other article of this type, but as Allen notes, "Even
those critics who touch on Freud do not emphasize the relationship between his clinical
theories…and the literary action in Invisible Man."(3) Allen's own work focuses on the
fact that Freud's book Totem and Taboo appears in Invisible Man, and she describes how the
action of Invisible Man, possibly at the intention of Ellison, mirrors the theory of Totem
and Taboo. The use in this paper of three psychoanalysts to study the character of the
invisible man makes this an article emphasizing psychoanalysis.


Even though the focus of this current paper is quite different from Allen's, some concerns
she had about the limitations of such a study still must be recognized. One limitation to
a psychoanalytic study is that Freud himself is limited and has become less than
popular.(4) The use of Jung and Lacan in addition to Freud will combat this limitation.
Another limitation is that Invisible Man is such a multifaceted work that it deserves
analysis of all its parts.(5) However, this study will take on only a small part of the
text because of the post-modern attitude valuing studies of specific parts of texts in
detail. A final limitation is that psychoanalysis is a field of speculation, and, as the
editor of The Critical Tradition points out, "…the hazards of speculation about
characters are even greater than about authors…Another problem stems from the fact that
characters are both more and less than real persons."(6) This limitation will not be a
hindrance because the character of the invisible man will be analyzed independent of the
author and the author's intentions.


Next, a brief background of each psychoanalyst will be given. According to the anthology
The Critical Tradition, three stages exist at which psychoanalytic theory joins
literature. That is, three minds can be examined: the mind of the author, the minds of the
author's characters, or the mind of the reader as he reads.(7) The basis of this study is
in the second of these two, the mind of the character. The theorists of use in this study
are Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, and Jacques Lacan. As the father of psychoanalysis,
Freud is an important theorist to reference. Despite the limitations of his theories,
their usefulness still exists, especially as a background for Jung and Lacan. The Freudian
text at work in this analysis will be Civilization and Its Discontents. In this text,
Freud's theories about aggression and the death drive are related to societal tensions
that isolate the individual.


Carl Gustav Jung was somewhat of a "son" to Freud, but he quickly outgrew his "father's"
theories, and, in an ironically Œdipal conflict, overthrew Freud as the leading
psychotherapist.(8) The buzzword of Jungian theory is "archetype," so the text of his
being used in this study is Four Archetypes. In The Critical Tradition, the editor gives
the description of archetypes as "structures deep in the human unconscious."(9) The editor
continues and says, "In Jungian analysis, the patient recapitulates his life and looks for
the ways in which symbols of the above-mentioned archetypes have been embodied within its
texture."(10) From Four Archetypes, the section on rebirth will be the most useful to this
study. Jung's essay "Rebirth" includes descriptions of five different forms of rebirth
along with their psychological implications.


Jacques Lacan, a more recent theorist than Freud or Jung, based his works on a revision of
Freudian ideas. Lacan is the father of the philosophy of psychoanalysis. That is, he
believed that psychoanalysis was a valid field of thought independent of its use as a
medicinal therapy.(11) In The Critical Tradition, the editor points out that "Lacan
approached literature primarily as material that, properly interpreted, illustrated the
major concepts of his psychology."(12) Since his theories are illustrated by literature,
they will easily fit with this study. The Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis, a
collection of lectures delivered by Lacan to the Ecole pratique des hautes Etudes, works
with the current analysis of Invisible Man. In this text, Lacan included lectures on "The
Split between the Eye and the Gaze" and "Alienation."


Next, it is important to further explain the method behind selecting the Prologue and the
Epilogue as the text from which to study the character of the invisible man. "The end was
in the beginning," writes the invisible man on page 571.(13) This statement refers to
Invisible Man as a framed story. Because the action of the Prologue and the Epilogue
occurs after the action of the novel, the unity of these two pieces should be a part of
critical analyses. Ellison explains the action of the Prologue and the Epilogue in his
essay "The Art of Fiction: An Interview:"


The Prologue was written afterwards, really - in terms of a shift in the hero's point of
view. I wanted to throw the reader off balance - make him accept certain non-naturalistic
effects. It was really a memoir written underground, and I wanted a foreshadowing through
which I hoped the reader would view the actions which took place in the main body of the
book…The Epilogue was necessary to complete the action begun when he set out to write
his memoirs.(14)


Ellison is saying that the Prologue and the Epilogue share the same position in the time
continuum of the novel - the present. Since the aim of this paper is to analyze the
character of the invisible man, the important part of the novel is the part in the
present. Ellison's above passage also points out that the last part of the book that his
invisible man wrote was the Prologue and the Epilogue, thus his most developed state of
character lies within the pages of this final part of text. In this study, the character
who writes the novel is of interest, not the character who lives the novel. Because of
this the study will focus on the Prologue and the Epilogue.


According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., " ‘Race,' in much of the thinking about the proper
study of literature in this century, has been an invisible quality, present implicitly at
best."(15) This "invisible quality" of race is part of the character of the invisible man
in Ralph Ellison's novel; however, the causes of invisibility are much deeper than just
race. Beginning with Freud's theories from Civilization and Its Discontents, a sentence
from page four of Invisible Man will be analyzed. The invisible man writes about his
frustrations toward society:


You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that
you're a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse
and you swear to make them recognize you. And alas, it's seldom successful.(16)


The first aspect of Freudian theory that must be applied here is that of the Œdipal
struggle. The Œdipal struggle actually created society, according to Freud. If brothers
had not needed to overthrow, be aggressive toward, or kill their father, then they would
not have realized the effectiveness of communal living.(17) In other words, Freud posits
that social living is a higher form than individuality because it came later and replaced
aggression. Thus, in the above quote, the invisible man seems to be reverting to a
presocietal stage, in which his instincts are more in control than his learned behaviors.
Freud, to emphasize that aggression is the psychosis and civilization the norm, says:


Civilization, therefore, obtains mastery over the individual's dangerous desire for
aggression by weakening and disarming it and by setting up an agency within him to watch
over it, like a garrison in a conquered city.(18)


Thus, civilization has lost its mastery over the invisible man because he feels the need "to strike out" with his fists.

A second point of interest while pursuing a Freudian critique comes on page fourteen,
where the invisible man says, "I was the irresponsible one; for I should have used my
knife to protect the higher interests of society."(19) This particular passage is rather
complicated. The invisible man seems to be expressing guilt with the phrase "for I should
have." Part of the complication of this sentence relates to a psychological problem that
Freud deals with. The invisible man has not properly shifted his instincts, and because of
this he is frustrated by society. Freud says, "The task here is that of shifting the
instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the
external world."(20) Furthermore, guilt is supposed to arise after an act of aggression is
carried out. In fact, the first feeling of guilt came after the initial band of brothers
killed their father. On this topic, Freud reviews earlier works and says:


We cannot get away from the assumption that man's sense of guilt springs from the Œdipus
complex and was acquired at the killing of the father by the brothers banded together. On
that occasion an act of aggression was not suppressed but carried out.(21)


The invisible man's sense of guilt has not developed properly, for his guilt comes from suppression, not aggression.

A final passage to examine using Freud comes from page 573, when the invisible man says,
"And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone's way but my own."(22) Here we
begin to see the invisible man looking inside himself for pleasure. He has found, through
the writing of this book, great pleasure; whereas, in society, he had found little
pleasure because his works were not his own. Freud admits that "one gains the most if one
can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from the sources of psychical and
intellectual work."(23) The invisible man finds himself through the psychical work of
writing this book. However, he still thinks he is invisible, and he lives underground. A
particular passage from Freud seems useful here:


While this procedure already clearly shows an intention of making oneself independent of
the external world by seeking satisfaction in internal, psychical processes, the next
procedure brings out those features yet more strongly. In it, the connection with reality
is still further loosened; satisfaction is obtained from illusions, which are recognized
as such without the discrepancy between them and reality being allowed to interfere with
enjoyment. The region from which these illusions arise is the life of the imagination; at
the time when the development of the sense of reality took place…(24)


The invisible man's statement about going in everyone's way but his own fits Freud's first
procedure because this realization makes the invisible man independent. The second
procedure refers to the invisibility of the invisible man. The invisible man's
satisfaction comes from his illusion that he is invisible. Both these characteristics
arise, according to Freud, from the imagination. This then relates back to the invisible
man's purpose in the Prologue and the Epilogue. His purpose is to relate the process he
went through in order to create, from his mind, a novel about his supposed existence.
Thus, the invisible man, when looked at through Freud, seems to be creating a story from a
failed "development of the sense of reality."


Theories of Freud's "son," Carl Gustav Jung will be used next. Using his theories from
Four Archetypes, several statements made by the invisible man in the Prologue and in the
Epilogue will be examined. First, in the Prologue, the invisible man says, "I have been
boomeranged across my head so much that I now can see the darkness of lightness."(25)
Also, the invisible man, in the Prologue, explains why he is living underground by saying,
"A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action."(26) Both darkness and
hibernation indicate aspects of a cave, and Jung has something interesting to say about
the result of being in a metaphorical cave:


I have chosen as an example a figure which plays a great role in Islamic mysticism, namely
Khidr, ‘the Verdant One.' He appears in the Eighteenth Sura of the Koran, entitled
‘The Cave.' This entire Sura is taken up with a rebirth mystery. The cave is the place
of rebirth, that secret cavity in which one is shut up in order to be incubated and
renewed…The legend has the following meaning: Anyone who gets into that cave, that is to
say into the cave which everyone has in himself, or into the darkness that lies behind
consciousness, will find himself involved in an-at-first-unconscious process of
transformation.(27)


Even though the invisible man does not yet realize what will become of his hibernation, he
has become aware of the darkness and the cave in which he lives. These two images are
important to his unconscious mind, and Jung sees their existence as an indicator of a
rebirth to come.


The next line of interest to this Jungian interpretation shows signs of the rebirth Jung
predicted. In the Epilogue, the invisible man says, "The hibernation is over."(28) It is
important to note that Jung believes:


Rebirth is not a process that we can in any way observe. We can neither measure nor weigh
nor photograph it. It is entirely beyond sense perception.(29)


This statement is important because it indicates that rebirth cannot be identified by an
external source. Jung places rebirth "beyond sense perception," and, in doing so, leaves
it solely for the individual to self-realize. After notifying his audience that his
hibernation is over, the invisible man has the revelation that he is being reborn:


I'm shaking off the old skin and I'll leave it here in the hole. I'm coming out, no less
invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it's damn well time. Even
hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that's my greatest social
crime. I've overstayed my hibernation, since there's a possibility that even an invisible
man has a socially responsible role to play.(30)


With this statement, the invisible man shows the world his rebirth which is beyond sense perception.

Continuing with the skin-shedding metaphor, a type of rebirth will be assigned to the
invisible man. Jung describes five types of rebirth at the beginning of his essay
"Rebirth" in Four Archetypes. The type of rebirth that relates to the invisible man is the
fourth:


The fourth form concerns rebirth in the strict sense; that is to say, rebirth within the
span of individual life…This word [rebirth] has a special flavour; its whole atmosphere
suggests the idea of renovatio, renewal, or even of improvement brought about by magical
means. Rebirth may be a renewal without any change of being, inasmuch as the personality
which is renewed is not changed in its essential nature, but only its functions, or parts
of the personality, are subjected to healing, strengthening, or improvement…


Another aspect of this fourth form is essential transformation, i.e., total rebirth of the
individual. Here the renewal implies a change of his essential nature, and may be called a
transmutation.(31)

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