Postmodernist Features in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Essay, 2003

11 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Postmodernist Features in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

In an attempt to place Ralph Waldo Ellison’s novel Invisible Man within a Modernist framework, Berndt Ostendorf writes,

‘Ellison … is a “Spätling,” a latecomer to Modernism. … Ellison’s Modernism … is not one of crisis and despair, but of innovation and hope. He accepts the discipline implied in [Ezra Pound’s] slogan “make it new,” but rejects the cultural pessimism of his ancestors.’[i]

Although Ostendorf’s description is right insofar that Ellison’s work is optimistic in its outcome rather than as pessimistic as the majority of modernist novels, it does not seem to be in agreement with the term Modernism in general. Isn’t modernist literature usually called a ‘literature of … crisis’?[ii] Isn’t Modernism said to feature ‘elements of cultural apocalypse’ rather than the hope Ostendorf mentions?[iii] And: Doesn’t Ostendorf’s statement resemble a definition of Postmodernism rather than Modernism? In fact, Ellison’s novel is hard to categorize. Critics agree that Invisible Man includes characteristics of different literary periods. Malcolm Bradbury, for instance, says the novel mixes ‘naturalism, expressionism, and surrealism’ and thereby places it somewhere between Modernism and Postmodernism.[iv] As these two terms are problematic as far as their definitions are concerned, this essay will begin by naming some of the key characteristics of both periods. Later on, the essay will point out a number of typically postmodern features that Ellison integrates into Invisible Man and give examples from the novel itself. Eventually, the essay will discuss whether Invisible Man should be considered a modernist or postmodernist novel.

To begin with, while modernist writers lament the absence of a single, unified truth and a stable value system, postmodernists approach this idea with a different attitude. They celebrate the notion of fragmentation. ‘The modernist,’ Peter Barry explains, ‘features [fragmentation] in such a way as to register a deep nostalgia for an earlier age when faith was full and authority intact.’[v] For example, in The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s Fisher King persona tries to restore a former system of belief by shoring fragments against his ruins. That is, the persona voices his despair about the destabilized state of society in the early 20th century. In contrast to this, postmodernists consider fragmentation ‘an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of [the] escape from the claustrophobic embrace of fixed systems of belief.’[vi] Specifically, postmodernist writing features fragmentation on different levels. First of all, postmodernist theorists such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard reject the notion of a single, objective truth or reality. Second, Postmodernism stresses the fragmentation of the human subject. That is, the idea that humans possess an undivided and coherent self is abandoned. Third, Frederic Jameson argues that Postmodernism has a peculiar understanding of time. Madan Sarup calls this the ‘fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents.’[vii] Because of its rejection of totalization on a multitude of levels, Postmodernism can also be described as anti-essentialism.

Furthermore, Postmodernism rejects the typically modernist divide between high and popular culture. In contrast to modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound who believed that works of art should only be accessible to a highly educated elite, postmodernists attempt to write in a way that can be understood by everyone and seek to abolish the boundaries between art and everyday life. According to their conception, there is a decline of the genius view of the artist. In contrast to Modernism, Postmodernism assumes that art can only be repetitious, but not original. Pound’s slogan ‘make it new’ therefore loses its validity. Furthermore, postmodernist writers have been criticized for putting too much emphasis on style and form rather than on content. In fact, some critics see Postmodernism as ‘a model which [unlike Modernism] emphasizes not depth but surface.’[viii] Both modernist and postmodernist fiction is often full of irony, sarcasm and pastiche. Other characteristics that are typical for both periods are the loss of confidence in science, progress and rationality and the focus on subjectivity rather than objectivity.

In short, one can characterize the postmodernist movement as an outgrowth of or reaction to Modernism. The exact relation between Modernism and Postmodernism is difficult to define. Jean-François Lyotard, for instance, claims that ‘a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.’[ix] The following part of this essay will discuss in how far the main ideas of Postmodernism, such as the existence of a multitude of selves, the absence of an all-encompassing truth and Baudrillard’s idea of simulation and reality, appear in Ellison’s Invisible Man. What are their implications for a classification of his novel as either modernist or postmodernist fiction? The focus will be put on the question of identity as many critics have pointed out that the narrator of Invisible Man is, in fact, on a quest for self-hood.

One of the most important concepts that Postmodernism embraces is that of the existence of a multitude of selves. While modernists still held to the idea that there is a discoverable centre, a wholeness which can be found amidst the increasing awareness of fragmentation, postmodernists claim that such a discovery is impossible because there is no wholeness to discover at all. They reject the notion of the unified, rational human subject. In fact, postmodernists believe that every person consists of multiple selves that interact and that change at any moment. In their work entitled A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari develop a concept called ‘schizoanalysis’ which breaks with ‘repressive, representational identity and [produces] a fragmented, liberated, libidinal body.’[x] Tim Woods describes ‘schizoanalysis’ as follows:

This approach articulate [s] new mode of postmodern self organized around concepts of plural and multiple identities and decentred or displaced consciousness.[xi]

This underlines the fact that Postmodernism celebrates the idea that one has a multitude of identities. It is no longer possible to say, ‘This is who I am.’ The postmodernist has to say, ‘This is one of my identities.’

In Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, it is not the narrator, but rather a minor character that represents this concept. After Tod Clifton’s funeral, the nameless narrator is pursued by followers of Ras the Exhorter. As soon as he puts on dark glasses and a hat, people mistake him for a man named Rinehart, who, as the narrator soon discovers, must have a multitude of selves. For instance, women approach the narrator confusing him with their lover, and ‘a couple of hipsters’ ask him what he is ‘putting down’ (389). Moreover, Barrelhouse calls him ‘Poppa-stopper’ and assumes he is looking for trouble (390). In fact, Barrelhouse even asks the disguised narrator to ‘get out of [his] joint and stay out’ because he ‘just can’t stand trouble,’ and adds: ‘And Rine, … don’t go to try to pull no pistol either because [my own gun] is loaded and I got a permit’ (393-4). The longer the narrator keeps on his sunglasses, the more identities does he discover. To him, this experience is at once fascinating, shocking and confusing. After discovering that Rinehart’s identities include one as a respected reverend, the narrator has seen enough. He takes off the disguise and wonders:

Can it be, I thought, can it actually be? And I knew that is was. I had heard of it before but I’d never come so close. Still, could he be all of them: Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend? Could he himself be both rind and heart? (400-1)

The discovery of Rinehart’s infinite number of selves shakes the narrator’s world in its foundations. ‘What was real anyway?’ he asks and later adds:

‘The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. … It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was always a lie.’ (401)

Being confused with Rinehart teaches the narrator an important lesson. He suddenly realizes that Rinehart’s way of living is superior to his own because ‘his world was possibility’ (401). The narrator understands the liberating effect of having multiple personalities. In his essay “American Nightmare,” Allen Guttmann sums up Rinehart’s identities calling him ‘the numbers-racketeer, the lover, the cynic, the zoot-suited joker, the ghetto-based reincarnation of Melville’s Confidence Man.’[xii] As it is impossible to locate Rinehart’s true self or identity, this character can be seen as the representation of the Postmodernist, fragmented self.

Similarly, in the course of the novel, the narrator himself adopts several different identities. He starts out as a naïve, uninitiated high school graduate who is eager to please whites. He ‘so thoroughly and innocently subscribes to the [Booker T.] Washingtonian ethic’ that he consents to fight in a so called Battle Royal even though this is, in fact, nothing but a public humiliation. [xiii] It is not until much later in the novel, after being expelled from college, that the narrator’s attitude begins to change. The gifted student becomes a labourer at Liberty Paints. An accident occurs, and Ellison’s narrator finds himself in a hospital where he undergoes an operation resembling a lobotomy and emerges with a ‘complete change of personality,’ as a doctor points out (193). At first, the narrator cannot even remember his own name: ‘Who am I? I asked myself. But it was like trying to identify one particular cell that coursed through the torpid veins of my body’ (196). At the end of a long, confusing stay in hospital, it is a doctor who tells the narrator what his name is. However, he wishes that the doctor had not done it and feels ‘a pain [stabbing] through [his] head’ (200). Later, when returning to the boarding-house in town, the extent of his change of personality becomes visible:



[i] Berndt Ostendorf, ‘Anthropology, Modernism, and Jazz’, in Harold Bloom, Ralph Ellison, Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, pp. 161 - 164

[ii] Peter Childs, Modernism, Routledge, 2000, p.14

[iii] Malcolm Bradbury in A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms, ed. Roger Fowler, as quotes in Childs, Op. Cit., p. 2

[iv] Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern American Novel, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 166

[v] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 2nd ed., Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 83

[vi] Ibid., p. 84

[vii] Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd edition, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993, p. 132

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’, in The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press, 1984, reprinted in The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Columbia University Press, 1993

[x] Tim Woods, Beginning Postmodernism, Manchester University Press, 1999, p. 32

[xi] Ibid., p. 30

[xii] Allen Guttman, ‘American Nightmare’, in Bloom, Op. Cit., p. 32. Originally published as ‘Focus on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: American Nightmare’ in American Dreams, American Nightmare, Southern Illinois University Press, 1970.

[xiii] Richard Kostelanetz, Politics in the African-American Novel: James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, Greenwood Press, 1991, p. 112

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Postmodernist Features in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
University of Kent  (School of English)
American Modernisms
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Possibly the most complex and most scholarly essay I have written so far. It examines Ellison's work in the light of Ostendorf's analysis of him as a "Spätling" to Modernism and decribes in how far Modernist / Postmodernist theory can be applied to Invisible Man. Quotes Lyotard, Baudrillard, Bradbury etc., defines Modernism and Postmodernism. Impressive bibliography!!!
Postmodernist, Features, Ralph, Ellison, Invisible, American, Modernisms
Quote paper
Nina Dietrich (Author), 2003, Postmodernist Features in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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