This month’s book from Marilyn Monroe’s list was the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The book was first published in 1952, and Marilyn Monroe owned a first edition which sold in auction at Christies in 1999 for $3680.
The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed Black man living in the 1930’s. The fact that the man’s name remains unknown by the reader is significant, as the main tensions in the book surround the main character’s perception of his own identity, and the stereotypes placed upon him by those he encounters.
“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. Maybe I was just this blackness and bewilderment and pain, but that seemed less like a suitable answer than something I’d read elsewhere.”Ellison, Invisible Man, 183
The story begins in the South, when the main character wins a scholarship to college. To receive the scholarship, however, the narrator is put through to a humiliating, torturous series of obstacles as entertainment for the white men of the town. There is a particularly interesting moment in this scene that made me wonder what Marilyn Monroe must have felt when she read it. Before the young Black men are beaten as a spectacle for the white men, a blonde woman performs a sensual number for the men. The narrator watches her, and describes the disgust in her eyes (concealed with a plastered smile upon her face) as the men grope and grab her, and begin to carry her away. Her body, like the narrator’s body, become a source of entertainment for these men, who treat neither the woman nor the main character as humans. The passage inverts the setting’s social hierarchy by showing the men who hold all the power in the community as animalistic and incapable of obeying proper social conventions. The white men in the town behave as though both the black men and white woman’s bodies belong to them. This later is put into sharp relief when the main character, while riding a subway in New York, finds himself physically pushed against the body of a white woman who he is desperately trying to avoid. His own fear and revulsion at physically touching this white woman contrasts with the experiences of the white men in the South, who act as though they own the body of the woman performing. It made me wonder if Marilyn’s own experiences (particularly when she was young and trying to make her way in Hollywood) might have shaped her reading of this book.
The color white is constantly referenced in the book and seems to coincide with deceit–an inversion of the typical symbolism of white as purity. The head of the school that expels the main character (and lies to him about it) wears a white suit; the main character works for a paint factory that makes a paint so white that “you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through”; and the main character stays in a hospital in which the chair is white, after surviving an explosion at the paint factory intentionally caused by a deceitful, paranoid boss.
Later, the main character gets involved with a group called The Brotherhood, and he is confronted by a Black nationalist named Ras. The novel ends with the main character attacking Ras after Ras calls for lynching the main character. The protagonist then hides in a coal bin, in which he is sealed by white men. The Epilogue goes into more detail about being an “invisible man,” with the main character explaining his own experiences:
“When one is invisible he finds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other, depending upon who happens to be looking through him at the time. Well, now I’ve been trying to look through myself, and there’s a risk in it. I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I’ve tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied–not even I. On the other hand, I’ve never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to ‘justify’ and affirm someone’s mistaken beliefs; or when I’ve tried to give my friends the incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear….But here was the rub: Too often, in order to justify them, I had to take myself by the throat and choke myself until my eyes bulged and. my tongue hung out and wagged like the door of an empty house in a high wind. Oh, yes, it made them happy and it made me sick.”Ellison, The Invisible Man, 432
The book is dense and not a quick read. The style transitions from narrative prose to internal monologues and dialogues (some imagined or dreamed by the main character). Ellison creates characters through varying dialects, and his descriptive language helps orient the reader in a variety of settings–the rich, green south, the stark paint factory and hospital. Narratively what really comes through is that the main character himself is trying to live his life and not create trouble–but events (usually incited by other characters and due to misidentification) constantly put him into awkward or dangerous situations. Other characters, both Black and white, place their own perceptions about Black manhood (based on stereotypes) upon the character, and he constantly has to figure out how to navigate life around these stereotypes.
Though this book was written around 70 years ago, the themes and tensions are still incredibly relevant, and leaves the reader thinking critically about construction of identity–both the identity placed upon others as well as the identity society constructs for stereotyped individuals. To learn more about the work and about Ellison, check out this article by the Los Angeles Public Library, which includes links to checking out audio and e-copies of the book.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: 1952.