Throughout life there are moments where an individual must conform to society and the people around them in order to be accepted, however it is the individual actions and how the individual chooses to conform that creates their unique identity and place within that society. Ralph Ellison published the novel that follows a sense of outward conformity and obedience to an established order while at the same time invoking an inward questioning of the roles an individual plays within such an order.
The main character is forced to conform to the cliche laws and expectations of the laws and expectations of the society that he lives in, in order to survive and function within them, while he privately goes against these societies in order to define themselves as individuals and uncover the truth about those societies that they live in. The outward conformity and inward questioning constantly clash, causing the character to doubt and confuse with what he knows is the truth and what he wants to believe is the truth.
In Invisible Man, the narrator is in a continuous search for his own identity as he passes from one section of society to another, taking on different roles within each as he questions his place to find his own true self. He is forced to make a choice of whether he will go against society to find himself, or if he will stay obedient to that society, in conforming to the stereotypes that he is given and go with the expectations of him in society. The narrator portrays many qualities of outward conformity while at the same time is inwardly questioning his own actions as he searches for his identity and place within society.
However the main character presents these ideas in unique ways through the main character’s awareness of the standards he is conforming to. The narrator from Invisible Man is not aware of his conformity or his rebelling against it until the end of the novel. Throughout Invisible Man, the narrator is labeled with a variety of stereotypes given to him by the various groups and organizations that he passes through on his search for his identity to characterize himself.
His first conformity occurs during the Battle Royal conforming to the racial stereotype of blacks being violent and savage, “I was fighting automatically…Then on a sudden impulse I struck him lightly and he was clinched” (24), where the narrator conforms in for his own survival in the fight. The first evidence of the narrator noticing this conformity in a more abstract form while he is employed at Liberty Paints is when he is given the task of mixing paint, “I looked at the painted slab.
It appeared the same: a gray tinge glowed through the whiteness….. a brilliant white diffused with gray” (205). This gray showing through the white paint symbolizes the accepted idea of the black understructure that supports the white society is ignored but still shows through. The narrator at first believes that he did something wrong with the paint, noticing this truth, but then ignores it when his supervisor is satisfied in the same way that society ignores the white reliance on blacks.
The reference to the stereotype of black sexual potency is referred to multiple times towards the narrator, which is a major theme throughout the novel, until finally under the influence of the brotherhood he is seduced under the pretence, “it has so much naked power that it goes straight through one. I tremble just to think of such vitality” (413). The narrator tries to resist this seduction and deny this stereotype which ultimately proves to be false, but not before giving in to it.
The narrator conforms to these in order to be accepted by one of the groups in hopes of finding his own identity within one of them, this being his search for his personal truth. At the same time of his conformity, the narrator is continually questioning who he really is in his own inward reflections upon himself. In the search for his true identity, the narrator takes on other identities which he at first believes are his own. As he follows these identities through, he finds both more security with them while also finding more questioning leading him away and to new identities.
The first questioning he notices occurs at the school after Bledsoe tells him, “you learn where you are and get yourself power, influence, contact with powerful and influential people –then stay in the dark and use it” (145) causing the narrator to question his place in society that he thought he served, finding that he isn’t there to just serve the white society, but that he has a greater influence then he thought. This answer to his question is later reinforced when he goes to work for Liberty Paints and finds that, “I been studying this machinery for over twenty-five years….
That fool couldn’t make no engineer ‘cause he can’t see what ‘s staring him straight in the face”(217) where just because a man may have a better theoretical understanding of the job doesn’t mean he can actually perform the job, where Liberty Paints must rely on Lucius Brockway rather than someone higher in society portraying the need for the oppressed black society. This eventually leads the narrator to rise up against this oppression, joining the brotherhood where at first he believes that he is helping to strengthen the black community, but as he soon realizes he is once again only being used by another group to suit their own needs.
He finally realizes that the brotherhood is just another group manipulating him to their own ends. However he finds that, “For now I saw that I could agree with Jack without agreeing. And how I could tell Harlem to have hope when there was no hope” (507), resulting in the finding that he can use their manipulation to his own advantage in order to continue his quest for his identity under the cover of his seemingly conformist disguise. This is the point where the narrator finally becomes aware of his need for conformity so that he can continue to question his own individuality and become his own character.