4-Part Analysis of Invisible Man (Part 2)

[Synthesis with Rudyard Kipling’s “If“]

I thought that this poem really fit with what’s going on in the story. It is also kind of ironic to apply this poem to Invisible Man when Rudyard Kipling is someone who also wrote “The White Man’s Burden” but that’s a topic for another time. Here, the poem is detailing the various milestones to becoming an adult. Furthermore, the poem talks about dealing with problems being treated unfairly. It talks about being the bigger person. Here, we can measure the growth of the IM’s character. In these hundred pages, we see the IM really grow. We see him dealing with Bledsoe’s betrayal, we see him accepting his race, we see him realising a new power and we see him starting to let go of his old mindsets. After he was disillusioned as to the contents of Bledsoe’s “recommendations”, the IM was understandably angry. He wants revenge and actually plans on murdering Bledsoe. The IM’s straightforward nature by this predictable reaction would soon change as we see him grow more cynical in the following pages. In previous scenes in the book, the IM was really self-conscious about how his race is perceived (like how the IM got offended at the drugstore because they recommended him a Southern breakfast) and tries to separate himself from the rest of his race’s “dirt”, but we see him starting to not feel ashamed about his race anymore in the scene where he buys the yams despite the stereotype. We also see him starting to have doubts. In the scene with the black man with the heap of blueprints, the black man symbolises a collection of unrealised plans and latent future action. The IM doesn’t like this because he believes that once conceived, an ambition/dream should be carried out. This continues in the scene where the IM meets with Emerson’s son and he tries to get the IM to let go of his attachment to the college. The IM defends his ambition before being shown the true contents of the recommendation letters. That night, he questions his identity for the first time while trying to sleep. This marks the turning point in the IM’s characterisation.

Using his anger at his betrayal at the hands of Dr. Bledsoe, the IM then redirects his energy into earning money in order to survive in the short-term. He goes to work at the paint store and here, his preconception of a more egalitarian North is also undermined. I talked about Mr. Norton a lot last week and his more subtle brand of racism and we can see it here at Liberty Paints where they literally boast about the white paint’s ability to cover up black. When the IM was told to mix the paint, he notices that one of the ingredients used to make the paint was a darker chemical. This ties into the invisibility theme where the black man is only seen through the white man and how America was built on the backs of its slaves but the credit and power remain in the hands of the white men. This is further amplified by Mr. Kimbro telling the IM not to think and to just follow directions, treating him like a machine. Then, when the IM was sent to the basement, he meets Brockway, who seems to embody everything that the IM was before, happy in a position that is clearly degrading to his value as a human being(paying him very little although he is experienced) and his complicity with the whole broken system that’s taking advantage of his race (“white is right”). Then, later on, after the IM passes out after the accident, he wakes up from “treatment” and realises he didn’t know his name. He is on his way to becoming the character we see in the prologue. We see him slowly filling up the requirements listed in the poem…


[Liberty Paint]

“Our white is so white 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.” (Ch. 10)

The first and most obvious meaning of this quote is in the attitude of some black people that are either resigned or have accepted the way they are treated. This quote was spoken by Brockway and he embodies the surrender of the fight to have true equality. Instead, like Dr. Bledsoe, he’s integrated himself into the system instead and fights to defend his situation even though he’s being undervalued and being paid way below what his experience in the company should gotten him. Not only is he content with his situation, he actively opposes any progress that could be had by labelling the unionists upstarts and being paranoid about being replaced.  He, like the Mr. Nortons of the world, holds the word ungrateful over the heads of black men so that he can keep his place in the world. In a way, Brockway is the more pitiable version of Dr. Bledsoe where at least Bledsoe knew what a rotten world it is and fights for the betterment of his own situation while Brockway is content to waste away in a job that goes nowhere and earns him no recognition. It is more ironic, then, that his name is Lucius (meaning light). It might signify his desire to be white or at least to blend into white like the paint that he helps make or it might be that he has lost his dignity and identity and tried to cover himself in the same blinding white that he makes in paint and allying himself with the factory owners against the rest of the workers. This reminds me of a lot of the older generations within the populations that are trying to affect change but they tell the youngsters to follow the grain to “stay out of trouble” and “be humble” etc because they’ve lived out most of their life already and they don’t want any trouble in their established routines. For example, the reason why there was a lot of teenagers involved in the protests during the Civil Rights Movement was because the older generations couldn’t risk their livelihoods to protest and many wanted to maintain status quo and slowly work for change while the teenagers had less of a risk of endangering the rest of their family if they participated in protest.

In Brockway’s character, there exists another instance of illusion where he believes that he has control over his white “masters” due to him being indispensable to the operations at the paint factory. Despite that, he is afraid of losing his job to the point that he becomes violent. This was the same case with Bledsoe where although he claims he has control over what the school’s trustees see and believe about said school, he felt so threatened that he sent the IM to New York on a goose chase.

The quote implies how the system benefits those who create and maintain it. Liberty Paints is just a metaphor for the different brand of racism in the North. The word liberty in the shop’s name is meant just for those that are favored by the system. Everyone else in America has no part of that same liberty. I’ve mentioned it before but this can be seen in how Mr. Kimbro treats his employees. To him, his employees are nothing more than entities to extract labor out of and he gives no acknowledgement of his employees’ thoughts or feelings. They even call him a slave driver if that wasn’t obvious enough. When the black “dope” ran out, the IM was tasked to refill it and when he refilled with paint remover instead, he was punished and had to redo all the paint he’s made so far. He wasn’t given adequate direction and was punished for his mistake. This is exactly what happens to those without the protection of the selective liberty. This can be seen in a lot of authority figures like Bledsoe where the IM, in his naivety, was sent to drive a trustee out and was punished when he committed a taboo that he didn’t know about. This selective liberty also extends to the labor union that the IM walks in on. Earlier, when he was being shown around, it was mentioned that black people were being brought in to oppose the labor union and I know that historically, a lot of labor unions excluded a lot of black people and women and this was a hint of racial tension between the union workers and the black workers brought in to potentially replace them. This resembles the ever-present pointing finger of Americans who think that some minority group were threatening their jobs and in the 1950s and 60s, since the influx of Asian immigrants had proven themselves to be “model minorities”, the finger that had originally been pointed at them turned back to the restless black population especially since the 1950s was during the Great Migration where there was a shift of the black population out of the South into Northern urban centers and with immigrants came prejudice from the majority population.

Another layer of meaning lies in the denial of the African American culture through individuals like the IM ( where the black coal is covered by the blindingly white paint). One of the character developments that the IM goes through is the acceptance of his race and all the good and the bad that is associated with his skin color. The IM tries to cover up his blackness the best he can in the beginning by speaking carefully and he feels embarrassed at his race’s examples of baseness and tries to separate himself from them as it can be seen in his internal dialogue during the Trueblood scene. When he comes to the North, he tries to hide his Southerness as well, taking offence when offered pork chops and grits. After the accident and his electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), he doesn’t feel as bothered by his Southern black identity anymore and indulges in some buttered yams (much like today’s fried chicken and watermelon stereotype, I assume). Only after a dissociative experience does he break free from the stigma of being black and is comfortable in his own skin. To achieve this, he had to acknowledge that the system wasn’t designed for someone like him in mind and he had to let go of his anger because, on a deeper level, he knew about this and he just decided not to acknowledge it.


[On the IM’s “treatment scene after the paint shop accident]

Since the IM went under electroconvulsive therapy for his accident with Brockway, he experienced a sort of dissociation with his former identity and I want to research into the history of the treatment. They did compare ECT to lobotomy in the book and some of the effects of lobotomy include loss of personality, instability with mood, a breakdown in reasoning abilities etc. On a side note, the IM mentions seeing a third eye on one of the doctor’s faces (which was a flashlight) but a third eye has the connotation of power and the ability to see truth and after the ECT, the IM gained a new perspective so the procedure could have been symbolism for a rebirth of the character in the light of truth.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/electroconvulsive-therapy-a-history-of-controversy-but-also-of-help/

Excerpts:

On why ECT is under attack: By acting so directly on the body, without any delving into the life history of the patient, ECT’s powerful effects raise questions about what mental illness is, and what kind of psychiatry is best. It evens raises questions about who we are, and what a person is.

 

“There is no question that ECT was benefiting patients then, but there is also a lot of evidence from that period showing that ECT, and the threat of it, were used in mental hospitals to control difficult patients and to maintain order on wards.”

I found it coincidental in the mention of identity in the article and while the article does mention Kesey’s work in Cuckoo’s Nest, the IM wasn’t mentioned at all.

The article talks about the fact that while ECT is used to treat depression and other mental illnesses now, it was used on a wide range of patients before the physiological effects of ECT were truly understood. I know that ECT was used to “treat” homosexuals (obviously doesn’t work) and it is still being used today in places like conversion camps. Bad history with ECT where it was used unwillingly on patients and to control them like stated above (also in One Flies Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and in the doctors’ brazen use of this treatment with only anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness meant that many patients who didn’t need the treatment were subjected to it and sometimes unwillingly as in the case of the IM where the “treatment” suggested ranged from ECT to castration all just to treat a hit to the head.

Basically, as a cure-all, ECT was used often without the administrator of the treatment knowing much about the patient or their condition and we see this in IM where the IM given the treatment although he had no mental illness and the doctors performed the treatment when he didn’t have his mental facilities about him and they didn’t ask for consent or inform him of what they were going to do to him. In fact, the doctors talked about his treatment right in front of him. This could be an extension of the theme of invisibility where what is best for them (a treatment for black people) is discussed right in front of them without their being able to contribute to a discussion involving their own fate. What’s more telling is the fact that afterwards, the IM had to sign a paper releasing the company from any responsibility of his injuries and was assured that he would receive a compensation check. So, the society that forced “treatments” upon a marginalised group can be absolved of any guilt or responsibility if the treatment happens to not work out. If it doesn’t, then it’s the colored population’s fault for not carrying through and not because the treatment may have been harmful and ineffective. This lack of understanding, in history and in modern times, have led to mass actions against and within the black population by authorities to solve some problem that the authorities clearly didn’t understand the causes of or didn’t want to understand and caused more trouble than good in those populations while also blaming the black population for ineffectual results (a very big example: the authorities’ actions against gun violence and drug usage in cities, often implementing policy that encouraged abuse to the people that they were supposedly trying to help, again, directed at minorities). Some of the treatments, like the stop-and-frisk policy implemented in cities like NYC, were used as threats against the minority population and was marketed as an effective way to deter crimes like what the second excerpt says except it was just as ineffective as deterring crime as ECT is at treating physical head trauma and unconstitutional to boot.

All in all, what this brief segment in the story shows us is the systemic misdiagnosis of a minority population in an effort to “solve its problems” without any input from the population in question, contributing to their sense of invisibility. While the treatment may have turned out okay for the IM (with only temporary memory loss), we can’t entirely attribute his “rebirth” to the ECT as he also suffered a blow to the head which may have also produced the same effect. So really, we don’t even know if the treatment worked and if it didn’t work out and the IM ended up with mental impairments or something, those who imposed the treatment couldn’t be held accountable for it anyway because of that paper he signed. This is especially prevalent today in the light of police brutality and the number of acquittals of the police officers guilty of shooting someone with little to no reason to. Overall, this scene is an extended metaphor for the external locus of control when it comes to having decisions made for the minority population and for the theme of invisibility.


Discussion Questions

1. How does the IM go through rebirth in chapter 11 and what does it signify?

When the boiler explodes, there was a lot of water imagery and he wakes up to a light in his face with his memory temporarily gone. At first, I thought he had drowned or drowning and hallucinating the doctor scene. Then, I realised that, in a way, he was able to throw off his current situation through this experience. With the water being symbolic for a baptism (How To Read Literature Like a Professor) and the doctor’s light being the beacon toward a new being (like the light that people supposedly see right before they die that calls them to heaven). This scene could be the transition between the IM trying to be seen and then him becoming the IM and beginning to really see what it’s like to be invisible.

2. Being a submissive black person was ideal for the white community and is an enabler for their further mistreatment of black people. Why does the IM keep acting submissive even though it’s detrimental for him to act this way?

I was thinking about the behavior of children and how some who are abused or treated badly by their caretakers but still defend them and cry when their caretakers get taken away. This is kind of what I imagine is happening here. The IM was raised to be obedient and be grateful for what they’re given and never question what the “gentlemen” higher up say or do. This occurs throughout the first part of the story in the mannerisms and beliefs of the IM in the various scenes where he admires Mr. Norton and how out-of-reach his existence seemed to be to someone of the IM’s station as a black scholarship student. The IM wants praise and recognition from what he believes is a higher form of living with the millionaires and the affluent white people he comes into contact with so he aspires to be like them, more “civilised” so what he’s trying to do by submitting under their rules. He wants to be like Dr. Bledsoe where he acts civilised and is able to speak to the trustees on a more equal term than what the IM had ever seen before from a black man. He sees that to achieve that, you have to bow and scrape and he uses that modelled behavior to try to also get the same recognition. The only problem, of course, is that his motives are too naive and he doesn’t understand that this behavior doesn’t gain him anything if he doesn’t have anything to offer to the millionaires like the Bledsoe does.

 

3. What do you think about the “wrong” that the IM committed? How does it actually threaten Dr. Bledsoe’s position?

I think the scene where Dr. Bledsoe revealed his true colors surprised most who read it because he was described as a stately, well-spoken man and the scene in his office was the first time we see him act anything but. Why was he so incensed? You would think that he was mad because the IM lost face for the school by showing Mr. Norton “the dumps”. He talks about how he had bow and scraped to have enough “fine lanes” to show the trustees so what the IM is doing isn’t humiliating the school, rather it is undermining Bledsoe’s facade that he’s trying to present to the trustees to keep them happy and think that they’re contributing to racial progress. So even in that respect, Bledsoe isn’t thinking about the good of the school or even about what he supposedly believes in (his mission to bring enlightenment to his race by educating the young men). In a way, Bledsoe is like a dystopian dictator that paints an ideal facade and the trustees are the sheep who are led along to continue fuelling this facade so that Bledsoe can continue his reign. He says as much in the book and he claims that he has the support of the trustees and therefore has power through them and that although the trustees have the appearance of power, he’s really the one that directs where their power goes so he’s the one in charge of the school. So, in conclusion, what the IM threatened wasn’t the image of the school or the reputation of Bledsoe, it was the threatening of Bledsoe’s ego by challenging the idealistic facade he built for the school, therefore, the unproportionate punishment by exile. Before considering this point, it didn’t make sense that his punishment would be so disproportionate to what he did wrong but if it’s a question of ego, then it makes more sense.

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