The Unconscious Mind
A fundamental aspect of the modern fictional character is his or her development as illustrated through the building of self-consciousness. Correspondingly, this development of consciousness often unveils systematic flaws or corruption within the fictional novel’s social world. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the main character is one who, by a process of confronting his unconscious mind, ultimately exposes and escapes from the social order that oppresses him. This confrontation unfolds over the course of various episodes wherein the Invisible Man rejects a stereotypical role imposed upon him, and in doing so also reveals those memories and emotions that he has internalized. In each consecutive episode of confrontation, the Invisible Man becomes a less repressed and more conscious version of himself, until, ultimately, he achieves the level of near-total self-awareness from which he narrates the novel.
The upward development of consciousness chronicled in Invisible Man reflects a sociohistorical function of fictional character that Alexander Gelley underscores in his essay “Character and Person” from Narrative Crossings. In the essay, Gelley highlights the historical salience of fictional characters in post-eighteenth century novels, and explores modern literature’s thematization of these characters’ “development of self-consciousness as it becomes manifest at both an individual and a social level” (Gelley 77). Gelley’s own claim refutes those of the structuralist theorists, who maintain that character only functions as a source of participation in “typical” acts. Rather, Gelley posits that through their interiority, characters allow readers to identify and assess the novel’s exterior world and the logic that governs it. A character’s “quest for self-definition has been served to further the articulation of a social sphere,” he writes (73). In this way, characters such as the Invisible Man act as points of access into readers’ understandings of their fictional worlds.
To unpack the interior journey of self-consciousness and subsequent social exile of the Invisible Man, a reader might want to start from a base model of the character’s most unrestrained self. Such a model would manifest as the Invisible Man’s unconsciousness. Borrowing from the discipline of Freudian psychology, the unconscious are those memories and desires that one represses deep within their mind. It is only through certain behaviors and responses – such as Freudian slips, projections, associations, and dreams – that unconsciousness surfaces. In practice, a psychoanalyst would help a patient read manifestations like these as clues into that person’s unconsciousness. Such a reading in Invisible Man reveals key elements of the narrator’s unconscious mind, including repressed memories and shame associated with his Southern childhood, internalized racial stereotypes, unbridled anger, and self-condemned sexuality. Also present in Freudian psychology is the notion that a patient will only be able to heal through an act of consciously confronting the unconscious. In his ulterior stance as narrator, the Invisible Man has already undergone this confrontation, and so possesses the ability to reconstruct elements of his own unconsciousness for readers to decode.
Later in “Character and Person,” Gelley further enunciates the process of fictional world-building through character in relation to a theoretical definition of personhood. Citing philosopher Georges Gusdorf, he differentiates between the French terms personne, an individual’s essential nature, and personnage, a restrictive role or guise one takes on in order to accommodate expectations in various social settings. Characters’ notions of their own personhood, according to Gusdorf, arise from their recognition of the undermining influence of personnages on their personne. Inevitably, though, this act of awareness – a split between the interior and exterior self – results in the character’s alienation from society (Gelley 65). On his path to complete consciousness in Invisible Man, the protagonist demonstrates episodic breaks between personne and personnage when he resists the normative roles designated to him. In this way, it is perhaps destined that his character ultimately rejects the social order that confines him, positioning himself by the end of the novel in an alienated space of invisibility.
The Invisible Man establishes himself in this alienated positioning in the Prologue, but for the first chapter he restores a much younger, more innocent, and less conscious version of his character. He begins with the memory of his grandparents, who were freed slaves, and specifically the advice his grandfather uttered on his deathbed to “overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction” (Ellison 16). The narrator reveals that this advice has long plagued his unconsciousness: “It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind” (16). In his highly self-conscious narrative voice, however, the Invisible Man constantly questions his propensity to conform.
Other aspects of the Invisible Man’s unconscious mind manifest after the battle royal scene. In the midst of delivering his speech, he has a Freudian slip, articulating the words “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” (Ellison 31). That night, he has a dream in which his grandfather gives him a briefcase that holds the message: “Keep This N***** Boy Running” (33). Both the dream and the Freudian slip exhibit significant notions regarding racial inequality that he immediately represses into his unconscious mind, but that later events will bring to surface again.
The first notable break between personnage and personne in the Invisible Man does not occur until he has left his college for New York. Even then, he is reluctant abandon his social identity as an obedient, tokenized scholarship student. He thinks to himself that he will soon return to that campus, “basically the same…yet so subtly changed as to intrigue those who had never been North” (Ellison 175). It is not until he has his encounter with Emerson – a potential employer who shares with him the derogatory nature of his “recommendation” letter from Dr. Bledsoe – that the Invisible Man realizes he must take control of his own destiny. In this moment, he sheds his former personnage of subservience, and reveals a part of his personne that is “dreaming for revenge” (191).
Now progressing in his self-consciousness and agency, the Invisible Man goes to work at the paint plant, only to land injured in the factory hospital. It is here that the next break between personne and personnage occurs. In response to one of the doctor’s racialized questioning about Buckeye the Rabbit, the Invisible Man grows enraged. His knee-jerk reaction reflects a much more internalized anger at the typecasting and guinea-pig-like treatment he receives as a black man. He continues to experience this rage, reflecting, “Coming to New York had perhaps been an unconscious attempt to keep the old freezing unit going, but it hadn’t worked; hot water had gotten into its coils” (Ellison 253). Later on, he encounters a street vendor selling buttered yams, and makes the impulsive decision to buy and eat them on the spot. The moment represents a reconnection with his suppressed Southern identity. “They’re my birthmark,” he says, “I yam what I am” (260). In these incidents of compulsivity, the Invisible Man discards the personnage of the restrained, polished black man, and instead reclaims the elements of his personne of justified rage at unequal treatment, and untethered Southern pride.
Soon after, though, the Invisible Man joins the Brotherhood, whose leader immediately instructs him to forget his memories and his past. Though he tries to comply, the anger from his unconsciousness once again manifests through oration. After a passionate speech in Harlem, he thinks: “What had come out was completely uncalculated, as though another self within me had taken over and held forth” (Ellison 344), and then again: “Something occurred to me that was hidden from my own consciousness. I acted out a pantomime more eloquent than my most expressive words” (410). Realizing the rhetorical advantage of his passion, Brother Jack and his cohort exploit the Invisible Man for their own political purposes. The Invisible Man does not fully recognize this exploitation until after Tod Clifton’s death, when a song sung at the funeral march reminds him of his repressed past. “It was not the words, for they were all the same old slave-bourne words; it was as though he’d changed the emotion beneath the words while yet the old longing, resigned, transcendent emotion still sounded above, now deepened by that something for which the theory of Brotherhood had given me no name” (442). Here, the Invisible Man breaks from the personnages of rabble-rouser and tokenized black man that the Brotherhood had assigned him.
In his act of rejection of a perceived oppressive system, the Invisible Man’s break from the Brotherhood resembles a quality of fictional character that theorist Timothy Melley identifies as agency panic. Melley writes that agency panic, or ways of comprehending social control, can originate from self-repression like that of the Invisible Man, but also “develops from the refusal to accept someone else’s definition of a universal social good or an officially sanctioned truth” (Melley 13). After the Invisible Man leaves the Brotherhood, though, he must confront his unconsciousness, where his agency, according to Melley, becomes subject again to uncertainty (24).
The Invisible Man returns to this project of confrontation of his unconsciousness in the scenes in which he dons the dark glasses and hat that provide him the false identity of Rinehart. In embodying another character, the Invisible Man physically detaches himself from the restriction of his own personnages, provoking a revelation of his personne: “I was my experiences and my experiences were me, and no blind men, no matter how powerful they became, even if they conquered the world, could take that” (Ellison 496). Nonetheless, the experiment in identity fluidity does not fulfill the Invisible Man on his quest for self-consciousness. In adopting the guise of Rinehart, the Invisible Man has only succeeded in attaching himself to new personnages, or making himself visible in alternative forms.
Ultimately, it is not until the Invisible Man is thrust into the invisibility of his underground manhole that he can fully confront his unconscious mind. The dream he has here illustrates that his oppressors have previously blinded him to his own consciousness, and realizes that he can only continue to see himself lucidly if he remains underground. Therefore, he decides to take up the project of writing, the process of which he illustrates in the Prologue and Epilogue.
In his vantage from underground, the Invisible Man displays a pronounced level of consciousness, aligning with the attribute of hyperconsciousness that Ellison borrowed from his literary predecessors Fyodor Dostoevsky and Henry James. Typically, hyperconscious characters like the Invisible Man demonstrate acute levels of self-awareness that command the narration. As a hyperconscious narrator, then, the Invisible Man exercises the narrative agency to construct his own character as it unfolds throughout the novel. That is, his ulterior positionality in relation to the action allows him executive control over the way in which readers make sense of his character and his exterior world. Tzvetan Todorov delineates this process of reader experience in his essay “Reading as Construction,” wherein he claims that readers encounter a logic within the text that enables them to construct imaginary worlds. Through clues embedded in sentence structure, point of view, mode, or timing, readers accrue familiarity with characters and the worlds in which they operate, often gaining the ability to predict character’s actions in what Todorov terms “psychological determinism” (Todorov 77). In Invisible Man, Ellison creates a variation of this model that shifts the license to character construction and determinism from the readers to the narrator. Thus, from his position from underground, the Invisible Man reclaims not only his unconscious mind, but also his narrative agency over his own life story.
To recapitulate, the Invisible Man embodies Gelley’s theory of a fictional character who functions to demonstrate the development of self-consciousness, and reveal faults within the novel’s exterior world. His development occurs through episodic breaks of his personne from the various personnages imposed upon him. In a reading driven by Melley’s concept of agency panic, the Invisible Man escapes the control of both his oppressors and of his unconscious mind. Meanwhile, through employing the tactic of a hyperconscious narrator, Ellison imitates and modifies the Todorov model of reading as construction. Through his reclamation of narrative agency and his confrontation of his unconscious mind, the Invisible Man finally achieves true subjectivity. Importantly, though, he simultaneously isolates himself from his social world. Perhaps his invisibility is inevitable from the start, because the novel’s social world was always unequipped to recognize the presence of a hyperconscious black man. Through the Invisible Man, Ellison also seems to provide a critical take on the modernist novel and its focus on the self-consciousness of singular characters. Though he recognizes the importance of questioning the social conditions that govern one’s reality, Ellison also understands that the actions of isolated individuals are rarely enough to transform the world. Therefore, even though he becomes hyperconscious and achieves agency, the narrator in Invisible Man ultimately resigns from his position of invisibility. “I’ve overstayed my hibernation,” he says, “since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (Ellison 568).
“Character and Person: On the Presentation of Self in the Novel.” Narrative Crossings Theory and Pragmatics of Prose Fiction, by Alexander Gelley, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. Vintage Books, 1980.
“Agency Panic.” Empire of Conspiracy: the Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America, by Timothy Melley, Cornell University Press, 2000, pp. 7–25.
“Reading as Construction.” Reader in the Text, by Tzvetan Todorov, Princeton University Pres, 2016, pp. 67–82.