Invisible Man: Essay Q&A
1. Why is Mr. Norton so moved by Jim Trueblood's story?
Mr. Norton is moved by Trueblood's story because it reveals the harsh realities of life for African Americans at the time. This is something Norton has been shielded from because during his visits to the college he rarely sees the negative aspects of African American life. The sad truth of Trueblood's story is that even after slavery was abolished, so many African Americans had difficulty in finding work and providing for their families; they lived in poverty and were forced to sleep in the same beds for warmth in winter, which is the situation Trueblood is in when he has to sleep with his daughter. Mr. Norton does not want to believe things are that bad; he presumes that the work he does with the college serves to prevent these kinds of situations from happening.
Mr. Norton is also moved because he too had a close bond with his now deceased daughter. He explains that a major part of his work with the college is to preserve her memory. Even though his words do not seem prurient, he suggests that he has a passionate love for his daughter and often could not believe they were related. He describes her as being too beautiful for life. Trueblood's actions could suggest a probable outcome for Mr. Norton had he lost control and taken his own daughter sexually.
Trueblood's story functions as a tragedy, and Mr. Norton, after hearing the story, experiences catharsis or emotional release. This is reminiscent of Aristotle's description of tragedy in his Poetics, in which he describes how tragic plays produce a catharsis in which the audience is purged of negative emotions by their vicarious participation in the fate of the hero. Mr. Norton pays Trueblood not only out of sympathy and guilt, but also to subconsciously compensate him for his storytelling.
2. How has the protagonist's grandfather's deathbed statement haunted him throughout the text and does he ever come to understand it?
"Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open," says the grandfather on his deathbed. His words re-enter the text primarily whenever the author experiences a disappointment of some kind or encounters people who desire to use the protagonist for their own gains. The protagonist initially recalls these words after his interaction with Dr. Bledsoe in which the college president reveals that he masks himself for his own purposes. Dr. Bledsoe is unapologetic about his masking or disguising of himself and expresses that it is this behavior that has enabled him to attain the power he has today.
It is not until the protagonist is betrayed by the Brotherhood that his grandfather's words begin to make sense to him. He decides that an organization like the Brotherhood should not exist, so he uses his position in order to infiltrate the organization and destroy it. Although his attempt is unsuccessful, he still emulates his grandfather's behavior and puts his words into practice.
To be sure, it is not clear whether or not the protagonist ever truly understands his grandfather's words or that if he does understand them that he chooses to govern his life by that philosophy. What is clear is that he is no longer disillusioned and comes to an understanding of why sometimes it is necessary to mask one's true self and true feelings in order to achieve one's aims.
3. If the veterans at the Golden Day had so much former success, why are they insane and institutionalized?
The veterans of the Golden Day are symbolic of members of the African American middle class who were stifled because they could not attain success even though they were well educated. They are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professional people. However, their inability to get work or to practice at all in their respective fields has driven them mad. The doctor who confronts Mr. Norton expresses this sentiment. They have all been unburdened of their illusions of success and this realization has evidently produced madness. But there is an irony here. These men have been declared insane by society but they are the ones who are able to give expression to the truth about the effects of racism on society. It has deprived them of everything they worked for not because of anything to do with their competence as individuals but because of the color of their skin.
The veterans also serve as evidence of the failed dreams that await the protagonist should he continue along the road he is traveling. The protagonist's interaction with them is quite interesting. Because he is so full of hope, he fails to recognize the plight of these men and clings deeply to the dream of those like Mr. Norton who desire that he assimilate into American society without disrupting the system or stepping out of his place. He is in effect, blind to the larger, insidious forces that pervade the society in which he want to make his mark, and which instead will mark him only with the stigma of being black. As the veteran who is also a doctor says to Mr. Norton about the masked men who whipped him for trying to save a human life: "I was forced to the utmost degradation because I possessed skilled hands and the belief that my knowledge could bring me dignity-not wealth, only dignity-and other men health."
4. Women are largely absent from the novel. What role, if any, do they play?
In large part, Invisible Man is a novel about men and based on interactions between men which are infused with power relations and posturing. The female characters are for the most part over-simplified, one-dimensional, flat characters, not presented fully in all their varied humanness. They are players in a drama scripted entirely by men. Since they have no power, they are in a sense as invisible as the invisible man himself. A key moment regarding the status of women comes at the end of chapter 18, when the protagonist is told that he is to lecture on the "Woman Question." He takes this as an insult, and wonders if the other men are laughing at him because of it. The status of women is obviously not a serious concern.
Of the women characters presented, Mary is a stereotypical Nanny figure or black matriarch. She is the woman who takes the protagonist in after the explosion at Liberty Paints, rejuvenates him and provides a secure environment for him to develop. The protagonist describes her as a person who reminded him of his home in the South. Mary is nurturing, and at the end of the novel, when the protagonist is in danger, he seeks Mary's home before he retreats underground. Ultimately, Mary serves as a semblance of home that helps that protagonist cope with his sense of homelessness.
Another female character, Sybil, is a white woman who is driven by a desire to objectify and stereotype black men. In doing so, she makes herself into a stereotype of how white woman are thought to view black men. For example, Sybil tells a story about how her friend was raped by a black man and confesses that she has always had a desire for the same thing to happen to her, to be raped by a black man, "a strong big brute" as she puts it. This sexual attraction to a stereotypical view of black men is echoed by the unnamed white woman who the narrator meets after he has lectured on the "Woman Question." She tells him about how powerful and "primitive" he is, that he has "tom-toms beating in [his] voice." She "tremble[s] just to think of such vitality." But after spending a night with her, the protagonist expresses concern that this woman was being used to smear his reputation. This is an example of how white women and black men in the text are placed in opposition to one another. This reflects racial tensions at the time relating to black men and lynchings. In the years following Emancipation and for many years to come, black men were often lynched because they had been rumored to have assaulted a white woman.
Overall, the women in the novel, while not fully developed characters, serve a similar function as the male characters do, in that they restrict and define the protagonist in ways that do not allow him to fully discover or express his true identity.
5. Why was the protagonist so enraged to see Tod Clifton selling the dolls?
The protagonist is upset at seeing Tod Clifton selling the Sambo dolls because he feels that Clifton has completely fallen. Clifton had once been a leader in the Brotherhood movement in Harlem and to see him reduced to selling these kinds of dolls is overwhelming for the protagonist. He is also enraged because the dolls represent a continued servitude and subordinate position that African Americans serve in relationship to whites. This Sambo doll is also reminiscent of the coin-bank that the protagonist destroyed at Mary's. This bank depicts a black man smiling and filling his mouth with coins. In many respects, the selling of the Sambo dolls for money represents the selling of one's dignity. It also reflects the protagonist's choice to affiliate with the Brotherhood and be paid by them. At this point in the novel, he is coming to realize that his voice and ideas are irrelevant. He is merely a paid figurehead who is supposed to express the views of the Brotherhood only. The connection between money and the selling of one's dignity and/or voice has been a recurring theme in the novel beginning with the battle royal scene.
The protagonist is also saddened because he identifies so closely with Clifton. They are close in age and mindset. They had become good friends. The protagonist experiences fear at seeing Clifton's actions because he sees a bit of himself being reduced to the same thing or driven mad because of his allegiance to the Brotherhood in spite of the fact that they are beginning to exhibit little concern for the black residents of Harlem and their struggles.
Ultimately, it could be argued that Clifton's demise is a metaphor for the difficulties in establishing a black identity that is not an extremist view like that of Ras the Exhorter or a assimilationist view that reflects the objectives of the Brotherhood. Clifton was in the difficult position of negotiating an identity that was not sufficient to define him. This struggle is similar to the protagonist's in many ways. Clifton's death serves as a cautionary tale to the protagonist and, by extension, the reader.