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The major literary device used in Ellison's Invisible Man is symbolism. Throughout the entire book Ellison uses symbols to convey two different meanings of the same situation.
The Sambo Doll and the Coin Bank
The coin bank in the shape of the grinning black man (Chapter Fifteen) and Tod Clifton's dancing Sambo doll (Chapter Twenty) serve similar purposes in the novel, each representing degrading black stereotypes and the damaging power of prejudice. The coin bank, which portrays a grinning slave that eats coins, embodies the idea of the good slave who fawns over white men for trivial rewards. This stereotype literally follows the narrator, for even after he has smashed the bank and attempted to discard the pieces, various characters return to him the paper in which the pieces are wrapped. Additionally, the statue's hasty swallowing of coins mirrors the behavior of the black youths in the battle royal of Chapter One, as they scramble to collect the coins on the electrified carpet, reinforcing the white stereotype of blacks as servile and humble.
The Sambo doll is made in the image of the Sambo slave, who, according to white stereotype, acts lazy yet obsequious. Moreover, as a dancing doll, it represents the negative stereotype of the black entertainer who laughs and sings for whites. While the coin bank illustrates the power of stereotype to follow a person in his or her every movement, the Sambo doll illustrates stereotype's power to control a person's movements altogether. Stereotype and prejudice, like the invisible strings by which the doll is made to move, often determine and manipulate the range of action of which a person is capable.
The Liberty Paints Plant
The Liberty Paints plant serves as a complex metaphor for American society with regard to race. Like America, it defines itself with notions of liberty and freedom but incorporates a deeply ingrained racism in its most central operations. By portraying a factory that produces paint, Ellison is able to make his statements about color literal. Thus, when the factory authorities boast of the superiority of their white paint, their statements appear as parodies of arguments about white supremacy. With the plant's claim that its trademark Optic White can cover up any tint or stain, Ellison makes a pointed observation about American society's intentions to cover up black identity with white culture, to ignore difference, and to treat darker-skinned individuals as stains upon white purity.
Optic White is made through a process that involves the mixture of a number of dark-colored chemicals, one of which appears dead black. Yet the dark colors disappear into the swirling mixture, and the paint emerges a gleaming white, showing no trace of its true components. The labor relations within the plant manifest a similar pattern: black workers perform all of the crucial labor, but white people sell the paint and make the highest wages, never acknowledging their reliance upon their darker-skinned counterparts. This dynamic, too, seems to mirror a larger one at work within America as a whole. The narrator's calfskin briefcase symbolizes his psychological baggage; Mary Rambo's broken, cast-iron bank symbolizes the narrator's shattered image; and Brother Tarp's battered chain links symbolize his freedom from physical as well as mental slavery.
Other symbolism can generally be divided into four categories: colors, numbers, animals, and machines (humans depicted as dolls, puppets, or robots).
Number symbolism is common in mythology and the Bible, from which Ellison draws many of his symbols and images. The following numbers are especially significant throughout the novel:
Three is widely regarded as a divine number. Many myths and religions have triads of hero-gods: the ancient African deities Ogun, Obatala, and Sango; the Greek gods Zeus, Hera, and Poseidon; and the Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The universe moves through three cycles (growth, dissolution, and redemption) which mirror the three phases of the life cycle (birth, life, and death). In Greek and Roman mythology, the heroic quest consists of three stages (departure, initiation, and return). In the European worldview, time is divided into three parts: past, present, and future, but according to the African worldview, reality consists of three worlds: the worlds of the ancestors, the living, and the unborn. In the novel, the number three occurs at several key incidents: Waiting to give his speech on Dispossession at the sports arena, the narrator sees three white mounted policemen on three black horses. He notices three brass rings among Brother and Sister Provo's possessions. Trying to escape from Ras's men, he sees three men in natty cream-colored summer suits . . . wearing dark glasses.
Seven signifies completeness and perfection: seven wonders of the ancient world, seven seas, and seven ages of man. According to the Bible, God created the world in seven days. Biblical scholars also refer to the seven last words of Christ, meaning the seven last sentences Christ allegedly uttered, compiled from all the Gospels. According to the Jewish religion, there are seven heavens, of which the seventh is the place of God. In his classic book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois refers to the Negro as the seventh son. In the novel, Dr. Bledsoe gives the narrator seven letters addressed to seven prospective employers. By focusing on the number seven, Ellison underscores Du Bois statement, highlighting the narrator's experiences as symbolizing the experiences of black men in white America.
Twelve, like seven, symbolizes completeness and perfection. But in African American folklore, the number twelve also refers to playing the dozens a wordplay ritual that often involves insulting one's mother.
Ellison uses color to convey the novel's themes and motifs throughout the book, consistently weaving references to the following colors into the text:
Gold symbolizes power, elusive wealth, or the illusion of prosperity. References to gold and variations thereof include: the Golden Day, an ironic commentary on the lives of the veterans who, instead of looking forward to their golden years of retirement, escape only once a week on a golden day from the mental hospital; the brass tokens, which the boys mistake for gold coins; and the naked blonde\rquote s hair, described as yellow like a Kewpie doll's. Yellow also alludes to light and enlightenment.
Red, often associated with love and passion as in red roses, generally symbolizes blood, rage, or danger in the novel. Brother Jack's red hair (which, along with his blue eyes and white skin, underscore his all-American identity), the red-faced men at the battle royal, the vet's red wheelchair (underscoring his courage), and the frequent references to Santa Claus as a symbol of evil are part of a red motif that accents unpleasant personalities and symbolizes the narrator's uneasiness evoked by these characters. Numerous references to red, white, and blue: the white men at the battle royal with their blue eyes and red faces mock the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness symbolized by the Stars and Stripes.
Ellison makes several profound statements about American society and the language of racism (white generally symbolizes goodness and purity, while black symbolizes evil and corruption) by reversing traditional black/white symbolism and its associated white-is-right philosophy. Black is generally portrayed as good and positive (black skin, Ras' s magnificent black horse,and the black powerhouse). White is associated with negative images of coldness, death, and artifice: snow, the white blindfolds, the white fog, the images of a mysterious white death, the cold, white rigid chair at the factory hospital, the optic white paint produced at the Liberty Paint Factory, and Brother Jack's buttermilk white glass eye. However, in keeping with Ellison's tendency to reject polar opposites, this symbolism is sometimes reversed: the fragrant white magnolias and the narrator's favorite dessert, vanilla ice cream with sloe gin.
Blue alludes to the blues, a form of African American folk music characterized by lyrics that lament the hardships of life and the pain of lost love. In the novel, the blues are characterized by Louis Armstrong's What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue? The song haunts the narrator throughout the narrative. The blues motif is also emphasized through frequent references to musical instruments, blues language (exemplified in the excerpts from black folk songs such as Poor Robin) and references to blues singers such as Bessie Smith and to characters in the novel who sing the blues, such as Jim Trueblood and Mary Rambo. Focusing on the harsh realities of life that black men and women such as Jim and Mary overcome through their strong religious beliefs and unwavering faith that tomorrow will be a better day, Ellison's novel provides a literary counterpart to the blues. The blues provides a musical counterpart to Ellison's novel. References to the color blue also include the blues-singing cart-man's discarded blueprints, the white men's blue eyes, and the naked blonde' s eyes, as blue as a baboon's butt.
Like white, gray (a slang term used by blacks to refer to whites) is generally associated with negative images. Examples include gray smoke, the dull gray weathered cabins in the former slave quarters, and the gray tinge in the white paint at the paint factory, which symbolizes the bland and homogenous result of mixing black and white cultures without respecting the unique qualities of each. Gray is also alluded to in the fog that greets the narrator upon his arrival at the paint factory, which casts a gloomy and dismal shadow over the landscape and foreshadows the narrator's horrific experiences at the factory and factory hospital.
Although generally associated with nature, in the novel, green is the color of the lush campus verdure and money, the narrator's main motivator. While Ellison's images of the South are alive with colors of nature green grass, red clay roads, white magnolias, purple and silver thistle his images of the North are painted primarily in shades of gray and white. Thus, color contrasts the rural South with its farms and plantations, providing people a means of living off the land, against the urban North, depicted as cold, sterile, and inhospitable.
Animal symbolism pervades the novel. Men, referred to as snakes, dogs, horses, and oxen, mirror the violent, chaotic world of the twentieth century, in which humans (primarily men) often behave like animals. The animal symbolism in the Northern scenes also underscores the images of life as a circus and New York as a zoo.
Through frequent references to the man in the machine (the first occurs in Chapter 2, where Trueblood dreams that he is trapped inside the clock), Ellison emphasizes the stark contrasts between the agricultural South, with its farms and plantations, and the industrial North, with its factories and steel structures. This image is particularly powerful in Chapters 11 and 12, which focus on the Liberty Paint Factory and the factory hospital. The narrator is trapped inside the glass and metal box. In the final dream sequence, the bridge (the machine) becomes a man and walks away. Machine symbolism emphasizes the destruction of the individual by industry and technology, highlighting the lack of empathy and emotion in a society where people are indifferent to the needs of others.
Another literary device used by Ellison is foreshadowing.
The narrator dreams that the scholarship given him by white community members in fact reads “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.” This prefigures the damaging influence on the narrator of his future college's lessons in ideology. When the narrator joins the Brotherhood, Brother Jack's mistress doubts aloud that the narrator is “black enough” to be the organization's black spokesperson. This hints at a latent racism within the Brotherhood, which will eventually end in the group's betrayal of the narrator.