Chaos and Imagination

“Because the book is written in the first person singular, Ellison cannot establish ironic distance between his hero and himself, or between the matured “I” telling the story and the “I” who is its victim. And because the experience is so apocalyptic and magnified, it absorbs and then dissolves the hero; every minor character comes through brilliantly, but the seeing “I” is seldom seen.” –Irving Howe on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, 1952

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I wonder sometimes to what extent is this book almost autobiographical. Did Ellison ever experience his own “battle royal”? Was he affiliated with a group similar to the Brotherhood? Well, I think it’s safe to say that Ellison did not end up in the bottom of a hole somewhere. That is probably metaphorical for the position he felt himself in after all these experiences. “I’m invisible, not blind,” says the narrator in the Epilogue. Ellison has most definitely proved that he is not blind either; he has written a novel filled with detailed observations and chilling accounts.

While the narrator at the end of the book might not know what his next step will be, Ellison’s next step is writing this novel. He is “trying to make sense out of chaos” (see quote below), and literature is precisely the way he thinks he can possbily change the world. “Step outside the narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos–ask Rinehart, he’s a master of it–or imagination,” the narrator says (Epilogue). According to the invisible man, there’s either chaos or imagination when one decides to challenge everyday “reality”. We can see this echoed in the two great figures of the Civil Rights Movement: Malcolm X on the side of chaos (“By any means necessary”), and Martin Luther King, Jr. on the side of imagination (“I had a dream…”).

It seems to me that Ellison is trying to be a bridge between chaos and imagination, using one to understand the other.

“I am a novelist not an activist,” [Ellison] says, “but I think that no one who reads what I write or who listens to my lectures can doubt that I am enlisted in the freedom movement. As an individual, I am primarily responsible for the health of American literature and culture. When I write, I am trying to make sense out of chaos. To think that a writer must think about his Negroness is to fall into a trap.” –From John Corry’s “Profile of an American Novelist, A White View of Ralph Ellison”

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I yam what I am!

I don’t know if anyone else found this interesting, but I really like the way Ellison writes about food. It’s like food becomes a source of identification, a symbol. At the beginning of chapter 13, the narrator is roaming the streets, searching, searching for something, for comfort maybe, for home. And he meets a man who is selling hot yams on the corner and suddenly he is hungry. Instead of taking the yam home like most people do, the narrator eats it while he walks and is “just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom […] It was exhilarating” (264). How can this yam not be symbolic!

Also, the yam vendor says something pretty interesting to the narrator when he remarks that the yam looks good. The vendor replies, “You right, but everything what looks good ain’t necessarily good” (264). This could definitely have a deeper meaning, not just about the yam itself but about the narrator’s obsession with doing right by white society. It’s very appealing to him, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for him or that it guarantees happiness, and so far nothing good has come from his efforts to fit in. I think he sums up this thought best when after going back for another yam, the narrator says, “What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me instead of what I myself had wished to do?” (266). This is a big turning point for him, and he is no longer that naive young man that we saw in chapter 1; he is evolving into something more.

“Invisible Man” and the Veil

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

-Excerpt from W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter I

Throughout “Invisible Man”, I feel Ellison channelling Du Bois’ words. Ellison uses the word “veil” several times, and I see it as a reference to Du Bois’ veil in this quote above. A veil is something that covers your eyes but is not a blindfold; you can see through it still and people can still see you through it. But at the same time, your sight is impared by a veil, foggy and unclear.

“Invisible Man” is often referred to as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story where the main character starts off from innocence and journeys into experience. If you look at the first couple chapters, the narrator is very naive and unsure of how to live as a Black man and an American man in his society. He struggles with these two sides and finds many contradictions that confuse him. It is like he is wearing a veil, and that he cannot yet see clearly how to live in the world. I anticipate that the rest of the book will show the process of the narrator throwing away the veil, although I’m not sure yet if it will be a slow and gradual change or an abrupt one. When I’m reading, I know I will certainly look for more ways in which Du Bois has influenced both the author and the narrator.

Week 7 Response

The very last chapter of “Charlotte Temple” is interesting to me because it goes back to Charlotte’s parents in England raising Charlotte’s child.  Up to this point, Belcour is killed by Montraville, and Montraville is left to spend the rest of his days “subject to severe fits of melancholy” and comsumed with guilt and remorse for what had become of Charlotte.  Charlotte, herself, is taken into the care of a kind servant, but it is too late to save her; she dies soon after.  Her father is there to witness his daughter’s last moments and to claim his grandchild, Lucy, and bring her back to safety in England.

What most intrigued me about the last chapter of the novel is that I thought Madame La Rue was going to get away with what part she had taken in Charlotte’s demise.  But Rowson instead saves the worst of all the “villains” for last.  She does not get away scot free; in fact, her marriage has fallen apart and her life has gone completely downhill.  She is treated with pity and kindness by Mrs. Temple, but La Rue feels that she does not deserve any of it, telling Mrs. Temple that “I am the viper that stung your peace.”  La Rue is the final image of the book, subjecting herself to “those miseries […] which I had unfeelingly inflicted on others.”  Despite the Temples efforts to set La Rue up in a hospital, La Rue does not live much longer after her confession.  Rowson’s last statement is perhaps the moral of her tale as well: “[La Rue] died, a striking example that vice, however prosperous in the beginning, in the end leads only to misery and shame.”  I feel this line best exemplifies why “Charlotte Temple” belongs to the world of moral tales and fables – it ends with the moral of the story, the ultimate lesson that is to be learned, the ultimate “truth” in this “Tale of Truth”.

Week 6 Response — Charlotte Temple

While reading “Charlotte Temple,” I was struck by the small passages written in first person by the author. These sections are meant to stand out from the rest of the story’s third-person narrative, and remind the reader of the author’s “intentions” as are stated in the Author’s Preface.

Rowson writes in the Preface, “If the following tale should save one hapless fair one from the errors which ruined poor Charlotte, or rescue from impending misery the heart of one anxious parent, I shall feel a much higher gratification in reflecting on the trifling performance, than could possibly result from the applause which might attend the most elegant finished piece of literature whose tendency might deprave the heart or mislead the understanding.”

This paragraph, to me, is the beginning of Rowson’s relationship with the reader. Before even reading a single line of the novel, we are lead to believe that Rowson is genuine and not looking for any kind of fame or success from this novel. That it is purely for cautionary purposes. I think it’s an odd way to start a novel, but at least we know what her intentions are as an author, and who she is writing for.

Also in the Author’s Preface, we are told that the story of Charlotte Temple is based on a true story, “thrown over the whole a slight veil of fiction.” I think Rowson includes this to control how the reader might think of the story while they are reading and the events are unfolding. By claiming that it’s based on true events, we might take the story more seriously and see Charlotte as a real person. I believe this is what made the novel so popular when it was first published; one article I read claimed that there were “Charlotte cults” and even a grave in New York that was believed to be the real Charlotte’s grave. People flocked to the grave just to get closer to the legend and to feel connected to her in some more palpable way.

Rowson continues throughout the novel to make the reader aware of her “re-telling”. It resembles a moral fable or fairy tale, with a lesson to be learned at the end. She writes, “Once more read over the sorrows of poor Mrs. Temple, and remember; the mother whom you so dearly love and venerate will feel the same, when you, forgetful of the respect due to your maker and yourself, forsake the paths of virtue for those of vice and folly” (p. 49). Here she asks the reader to reread while putting herself in the shoes of the character. It’s a very effective technique for getting the reader to identify with the characters, their situations and emotions.