Comparison of 3 Novels: Native Son - Invisible Man - Song of Salomon

Essay, 1996

13 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


HS 32 250

"Three novels by African-American Writers- Native Son, Invisible Man, Song of Salomon"

Dr. Terence Martin

Abteilung Literatur

J.F. Kennedy-Institut für Nordamerikastudien Freie Universität

A comparison between Richard Wright's "Native Son" and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" in regard to the portrayal of the Communist Party

Stephanie Grimm

In the following essay, I want to look at how Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in their novels "Native Son" and "Invisible Man" portray the Communist Party (or the Brotherhood, as Ellison calls it). From that starting point I want to investigate inhowfar Ellison and Wright consider the Communist Party capable of solving those problems which result out of racism, or, at least, how the Communist Party lives up to the ideal of the equality of the 'races' which is an important element of communist theory. In my opinion, this topic is a crucial issue in both novels.

To make this comparison, I first want to look at the characters who represent the Communist Party, and at the nature of their relationship to the protagonists, which in "Native Son" is Bigger Thomas, and Invisible Man in Ralph Ellison's novel.

The next step I will be taking is to look at the scenes in the novels when Invisible Man and Bigger Thomas encounter these characters for the first time. Later on, I will look at how the author lets their relationship with the Party or its representatives end. In my opinion, those scenes tell the reader a lot about the nature and the development of the relationship between the novels' protagonists and the Communist Party.

In "Native Son" the Communist Party is personified by two characters. One of them is Jan Erlone, the boyfriend of Mary, and the other one is Mr. Max, who defends him in court after Bigger has killed Mary.

Jan Erlone, as he is being portrayed in the beginning of the novel, is a friendly and kind-hearted man with good intentions, whose behavior nevertheless makes Bigger feel very uncomfortable with him during their first encounter, for reasons I will account for later. However, in the course of the novel, he develops in a positive way, understands the nature of the mistakes he made in dealing with Bigger, offers him legal support by introducing him to Max, and in the end he is the one who enables Bigger for the first time in his life, to recognize the humanity of a white person.

"he saw Jan as though someone had performed an operation upon his eyes, or as though someone had snatched a deforming mask from Jan's face."

When Bigger and Jan first meet, Jan is too blind, in a naive rather than ignorant manner, and also too paternalistic to relate to Bigger with more social competence. Although being paternalistic is probably exactly what he is trying to avoid, he falls into that trap. He tries hard to be nice to Bigger, desperate to prove that he does not feel superior towards a black servant; but in doing so, he just as much as any white person before him sets the rules for the interaction between him and Bigger. His and Mary's behavior makes Bigger feel extremely uneasy, since he has never encountered anything like that beforehand and therefore cannot handle the situation.

From Bigger's perspective, there are mainly two reasons why he feels so uncomfortable during that first encounter. The first reason is that Bigger simply is afraid to be brought into contact with the ideas they introduce to him, since he fears that any affiliation with communism may cost his job. He has a vague notion that communism is extremely unpopular with the majority of the white society, and in order not to get in any trouble, he would rather stick with the majority. He his too uneducated and to inarticulate to make a choice for himself how he thinks about communism, his approach to it is mainly determined by fear.

The second reason is that he feels uncomfortable about how they treat him as an individual. He has never been in contact with whites who -at least try totreat him as an equal and that experience makes him feel uneasy. Again he fears what he conditioned to fear.

It seems, as if Jan and Mary do not pay much attention to Bigger's feeling which he so obviously displays. To them, his abstract, rather symbolic value as a representative of a disadvantaged and exploited 'race' and class is more important than his individual personality. They do not seem to make a real effort to understand him. Their main objective in dealing with Bigger during their first encounter seems to be to make themselves feel good about their own liberal attitude; or, to put it less negatively, they simply try to be nice. They demand of Bigger to provide them with an "authentic" experience (going out for dinner at "Ernie's Kitchen shack" in a black neighborhood) although they cannot oversee, that Bigger obviously feels uncomfortable with that.

Other than Jan, his lawyer, Mr.Max, is presented almost thoroughly as a positive character (although, in my opinion, there are a few curtailments towards a too positive assessment of Max's character - but I will go into that later). At least Bigger sees Max as a very positive character. However, Bigger's appreciation of Max is not a appreciation of communism or the Communist Party, since Bigger never in the entire novel cares much about politics. It is rather his taking pride in the fact that Max recognizes Bigger as a human being it is worth fighting for, and also the positive attention Bigger gets for the first time in his life, which make Bigger see Max as someone positive. Max is described as someone who is caring about Bigger. He tries to help Bigger, although he must be aware that his support of a murderer who is considered a "beast" in the public opinion, does not do his reputation or the reputation of the Communist Party any good. Although he tries to make a political point in his defense of Bigger Thomas, his politics do not seem to be the only motivation for him to defend Bigger. But as I will argue later on, his approach to Bigger, although there definitely is a caring element in it, nevertheless is quite rational and analytical. That, in my opinion, is an ambivalent trait in Max personality. He keeps a scientific distance to Bigger, but nevertheless he passionately fights for his life.

When they first meet, Bigger senses that Max is willing to help him, but, on the other hand, feels that there is not much Max can do for him. He knows that the outside world has already made up his mind about him, without giving him a chance to speak for himself.

Later on that same day, after Max asked him about his past and his feelings, Bigger understands how important it is for him to talk about his own life. The real value Max had to Bigger was not only that he defended him in court, but more so that he lended his ear to what Bigger had to say.

His activism for Bigger in public is not so important as what he does to him on a more personal level. Since Bigger, for example, does not even really understand the content of Max's speech in court, he cannot appreciate the source of political motivation Max has in helping Bigger.

"Max's asking of those questions he had felt a recognition of his life, of his feelings, of his person that he had never encountered before."

In an overall statement, I would say that Wright presents both characters which are associated with the Communist party in a rather positive light, although at the time of the writing of the novel, Wright felt growing disillusionment with the Communist Party, which he had been a member of for several years. Actually, Max and Jan are the only persons in the entire novel who are not being described as blind in the metaphorical sense- although Max shows some signs of blindness in the closing scene, which I will deal with later on. Jan, who starts off "blind" towards Bigger, overcomes his blindness, after he has been traumatized by the murder of his girlfriend. He was forced to think things over and in that process has accepted his share of guilt in what has happened. As I have mentioned aerlier, Bigger - after Jan reveals to him that the events of the last few days have helped him to overcome his blindness towards Bigger and have given him a better undertanding of his personality - for the first time is able to overcome his blindness towards the humanity of white people.

Another interesting facet in the portrayal of Max and Jan is that they are always presented as individuals -it even seems as if there is no higher party doctrine guiding them. Wright hardly ever says anything about the superstructure in the Communist Party.

Jan and Max are self-assured individuals who do not need the judgment of a superior institution to know what is right and wrong. They act according to their own judgment, and not on the behalf of their Party. Actually, it is not really explained in the book, whether Max offers Bigger his help, because his organization (the Labour Defenders) told him to do so, or if he acts as an individual. One way or the other, the overall impression is created, that Max is an autonomous person (even, if Max was guided by his Party, the Party would live up much more to its humanitarian standards than the Brotherhood does in "Invisible Man - their strategy would not allow them to publicly defend someone as unpopular as Bigger Thomas).

On the contrary to Max's efforts in "Native Son", the Brotherhood in "Invisible Man" seems to act only in terms of strategy, not in an effort to create a more humanitarian society. In Ellison's novel, the protagonist always gets in conflict with his political leaders when he acts according to his own judgment. Unless something is approved by the Brotherhood Committee, it is not allowed as a political strategy, even if it seems the right thing to do.

Contrary to the portrayal of Max and Jan as individuals in "Native Son", in "Invisible Man" just the opposite seems to be the case. It hardly ever seems as if an individual is speaking, although certain characters like Brother Jack and Brother Hambro, and to a smaller degree Brother Wrestrum play quite a crucial role for the plot of the novel. But nevertheless, the general impression is created that every individual speaking always has a higher goal (the good of their party) in mind. So it is Brother Jack, who recruits Invisible Man as a speaker for the Brotherhood after he has spoken to the crowd at the eviction, not because he finds out that Invisible Man shares his beliefs (which at that time he doesn't), but rather because he is impressed with Invisible Man's ability to arouse a crowd.

The only exception among the members of the Brotherhood is Todd Clifton (who, remarkably, is also the only member of the Brotherhood, who is introduced to the reader with his full name), whose understanding that "a man has to plunge outside history sometimes", in order not to go crazy sheds a light on what is going to happen to himself -later in the course of the novel, he leaves the Brotherhood and decides to plunge outside history.

The first impression the reader gets of the Brotherhood is not at all favorable. Brother Jack is very cynical when he tries to recruit Invisible Man as a public speaker for the party. He praises the speech Invisible Man has delivered to stop the eviction of the old couple, but nevertheless dismisses the motive Invisible Man had when he delivered that speech as sentimentalism. He claims that individuals do not count, that there is no need to feel empathy for those old people.

"it is sad, yes. But they're already dead, defunct. History has passed them by. Unfortunate, but there's nothing to do about them. They're like dead limbs that must be pruned away so that the tree may bear young fruit or the storm of history may blow them down away. Better the storm should hit them-."

In the beginning, Invisible Man is not very impressed with Brother Jack's line of arguments. Invisible Man accepts the job Jack has offered to him, but only for the money, and not out of conviction. Even later, when he is a celebrated spokesman for the Brotherhood, he hardly ever talks about their political goals in an enthusiastic and convinced way (as opposed to Jan, for example). Throughout the book, I never got rid of the impression, that Invisible Man is only doing the job to please himself (boosting his ego for being what he has always wanted to be - a 'race' leader) and to please his leaders (as he has always tried to please the people of whom he expected some benefit for his career). He appreciates the brotherhood not for what they stand for in terms of politics, but for the fact that they offer him an identity. He is happy enough that he finally has found himself a place in history (as opposed to Ras, who, according to Todd Clifton, "has plunged outside history".) After his encounter with Ras, Invisible Man realizes that "suddenly [he was] very glad I had found brotherhood". He talks about his career in the party more as if he was pursuing a career in an insurance company or a bank than if he was talking about an organization he believes in "The Brotherhood was a world within a world and I was d determined to discover all its secrets and advance as far as I could. I saw no limits, it was the one organization in the whole country in which I could reach the very top and I meant to get there".

It seems that Invisible Man would have showed the same ambition in any other organization or institution or company if only someone had offered him the opportunity to be part of it Even long before that, his very first encounter with communists (or in order to be more precise: members of a union- which is not necessarily the same as members of the Communist Party, but which, at that time, was much closer related to socialism than it is nowadays) is not at all a friendly encounter. He accidentally runs into a union meeting in the locker room of the paint factory and is immediately considered a spy. They even claim he is not as "highly developed" as they are, since he is not part of the labor movement.

Although the union (possibly) and the Brotherhood (for sure) promote the equality of the 'races' in their political agenda, he is as invisible to them as to most of the other white people, he has encountered before. He has to realize, that they are not even willing to let him speak for himself.

"They had made their decision without giving me a chance to speak for myself. I felt that every man present looked upon me with hostility; and though I had lived with hostility all my life, now for the first time it seemed to reach me, as though I had expected more from these man than of others - even though I had not known of their existence."

I think, it is legitimate to say that in "Native Son" as well as in "Invisible man" the protagonists' first encounters with people associated with the Communist Party is unpleasant for both protagonists, but that it is for different reasons.

Ralph Ellison lets Invisible Man sense that the Communist Party, despite their effort to create a better society are not necessarily more humanitarian (and especially not more competent in dealing with the unequality of the 'races') as opposed to Bigger Thomas for whom his first encounter with communists is just an unpleasant situation, on a more emotional level, for the reasons described above. Nevertheless, the future developments in each book go in an entirely different direction.

For Bigger Thomas, Jan and Max are the only people he ever manages to open up to. Although he never really gets in touch with the ideas they promote, he gets in touch with them on a personal level, and it seems as if their approach towards society and their belief in communism and equality enables them to see beyond the racist stereotypes most other white people have towards black people. From what I have read about Richard Wright, it seems to me that he was aware that racism could not be resolved easily by political programs. Nevertheless, the communists portrayed in "Native Son" seem to be less racist than the other whites Bigger has encountered. Although Jan and Mary also have a problem in dealing with Bigger in the beginning, they are able to go through a positive process. In "Invisible Man", the white people who are the leaders of the Brotherhood are doing the same to Invisible Man than the other whites (and also some blacks, such as Bledsoe) have done to him. In the end, they even do not hesitate to create a political vacuum, which stimulates black-on-black violence. The Brotherhood views the Harlem riot from the spectator's perspective just as the white specators watch the boxing fight in the beginning of the novel. The humiliation Invisible Man experienced then mirrors the humiliation he experiences when he realizes how his influence among the black population in Harlem is abused by the Brotherhood. Their political beliefs do not make the members of the Brotherhood better people, and to them Invisible Man remains just as invisible as he is to the rest of the society. In the end he realizes that he was only used by them for their own purposes, and that he was not able to integrate his own ideas into their common concept. They do not live up to the holistic approach (unity of mind and work) in which the Communist Party likes to define itself. After Todd Clifton's funeral, they tell Invisible Man straight in his face "[..] you were not hired to think". To me, their main objective seems to be access to power and not the advancement of the people they represent.

That takes us to the end of the novel when Invisible Man realizes that the Brotherhood only used him as someone who was able to get in touch with the Harlem population as long as it was part of their strategy to be in touch with the Harlem population. When it suits their strategy to create a power vacuum in Harlem, they do so. As Brother Hambro puts it in his last conversation with Invisible Man:

"[sacrificing the community of Harlem, and thereby leaving them to Ras' violence] is a risk we must take. All of us must sacrifice for the good of the whole.

[..] We have to protect our gains. It's inevitable that some must make greater sacrifices than others.."

That takes me back to "Native Son", where an representative of the Communist Party makes an effort to save Bigger Thomas instead of sacrificing him.

Nevertheless, Max's fight for Bigger seems to be one that is not only based on his feeling of kindness and humanity towards Bigger. In a way, Max is using him to bring across his political point (although that cannot be his predominant intention - if it had been, he could have picked someone more popular with the public). He is pleading Bigger guilty and that gives him an opportunity to give a political speech which will be carried by all wire reports in the whole country, although pleading him not guilty (because of insanity) maybe would have increased Bigger chances of not going to the electric chair ( however, it is worth mentioning, that Bigger does not want to be considered insane, but to my knowledge of the text he never says that to Max; therefore it seems that Max is making his plea according to his own judgment.)

Although Max is portrayed as a kind man, nevertheless, his approach to Bigger Thomas is a very rational one. To him, social theory can provide a sufficient explanation, why Bigger has become the way he is. He can make use of the things Bigger tells him about himself to built his defense, which is based on social dialectics, and make sense of Bigger in these terms, but he cannot react to anything that goes beyond that. He does not understand how important his visits to the cell have become to Bigger, and when Bigger opens up to him after the trial is over, Max can not react very well to that. Bigger is shocked that the part of their conversation which was the most valuable to him, does not seem to be have made such a great impression on Max.

""I remembered all them question you asked me..."

"What questions?" Max asked, coming and sitting again on the cot "That night.."

"What night, son?"

Max did not evenknow! Bigger felt that he had been slapped. Oh, what a fool he had been to build hope upon such shifting sand. But he had tomakehim know!

"That night you asked me to tell all about myself" he whimpered despairingly. "Oh."

He saw Max look on the floor and frown. He knew that Max was puzzled."

In the closing scene of the novel, just before Bigger has to go to the electric chair, Max leaves Bigger in a rather cruel way. When Bigger says in the end "what I killed for, I am", is not so very different from what Max says during the trial:

"The actions that resulted in the death of these two women were as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one's eye. It was an act of creation.[..] The hate and fear which we have inspired in him,[..] have become an justification of his existence."

It is more a difference in how it is being said and how it is being explained, than in what is being said. Bigger expresses his evaluation of what he did in a rather inarticulate manner, and does not give explanations connected to his own social background, whereas Max explains Bigger's behavior in social terms.

Nevertheless, Max cannot deal with the way Bigger explains his murder. He seems deeply disturbed, and the metaphor of blindness reoccurs "Max groped for his hat like a blind man." Max walks out on him, without giving Bigger further consolation and relieving his heart by listening to him. It seems like as if after he realizes that Bigger has not learned his lesson in social dialectics, Max feels helpless and therefore gives up on Bigger.

The questions I have dealt with so far was how the Communist Party is being portrayed in these two novels. Now I want to have a brief look inhowfar the ideal of socialist art has influenced the two novelist.

It seems that Wright wrote the novel not only for artistic, but also for didactic purposes, using an approach which lets the two most dominant points of view on the 'race' problem of the time speak for themselves, in the personification of Max and state attorney Buckley.

Wright uses Max's character to make his position on the issue clear. Hereby, he follows the Marxian line of arguments- "the actual existence creates consciousness" rather than saying "consciousness creates existence". Max's speech is based on dialectical arguments explaining how Bigger's mind was shaped by his living conditions. Wright creates a very bitter atmosphere in the book, which definitely asks for a moral as well as political position.

In Ellison's novel, in my opinion, there is no didactic claim. The only thing Invisible Man as an individual can do about the dilemma of his life, is to try and define his role in society, trying to avoid that others (ab)use him, but also trying to avoid that he turns into a cynicist (since, in Ellison's words, "hate offers no nourishment for the soul"). He does not let his protagonist lose hope and empathy, whereas it seems that Richard Wright did not have much hope left, when he wrote "Native Son".

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Comparison of 3 Novels: Native Son - Invisible Man - Song of Salomon
Free University of Berlin
1 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Comparison, Novels, Native, Invisible, Song, Salomon
Quote paper
Stephanie Grimm (Author), 1996, Comparison of 3 Novels: Native Son - Invisible Man - Song of Salomon, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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