150+ essays on literary topics
Ralph Ellison’s reputation depends on one thing, Invisible Man, a novel, the only one he wrote, published in 1952.
Mary Shelley’s reputation depends on several things: being the wife of the poet, Shelley; being the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin; editing, publishing and popularising the work of her late husband; being the author of Frankenstein; being the author of several other novels; inventing two literary genres, the horror novel with Frankenstein and the post-apocalyptic novel with The Last Man.
The difference between the range and number of his achievements compared to hers does not in any way diminish Ralph Ellison’s importance as a writer. His influence was arguably greater, as it affected not just American literature but American society and the racial inequality which is as great a problem now as it was then.
The fact remains however that he could not have written his novel if Mary Shelley had not written hers.
In both Frankenstein and The Last Man, Mary Shelley imagines the creation of a monster and the end of the world. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison recounts events which, if they had not happened, would be hard to imagine.
The narrator of each of these novels reacts continually to the narrative as it unfolds, both as participant and observer. Other participants in the narrative are constants towards whom the narrator’s sympathies are constantly changing.
All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.
So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein, – more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.
I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole…
Each novel combines elements which are realistic and allegorical. Invisible Man is a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress. Ellison’s narrator encounters people who variously tempt and repel him. They are realistic portrayals of particular kinds of people, all drawn from life. At the same time, each is as much an allegorical figure as John Bunyan’s Mr Worldly Wiseman or Mrs Know-Nothing.
Mary Shelley’s achievement in Frankenstein was to turn the ancient myth of Prometheus into a modern myth about science and the Age of Reason. Realistic detail, combined with a narrative method that makes use of several voices, as if to provide corroboration by independent witnesses, lends credibility to the myth.
Ellison’s achievement was to do the same thing in reverse, giving historical events the deeper significance of myth. At the end, his narrator avoids being killed by escaping underground. Or rather, a hole opens up on the sidewalk in front of him and swallows him whole. A kind of subterranean deus ex machina.
Later I would try to find my way out, but now I could only lie on the floor, reliving the dream. All their faces were so vivid that they seemed to stand before me beneath a spotlight. They were all up there somewhere, making a mess of the world. Well, let them. I was through and, in spite of the dream, I was whole.
Solitude is a theme common to all the novels. Each leaves its reader with a powerful image of a human being alone in the world. Mary Shelley ends both of hers with a man embarking on a sea voyage.
He sprung from the cabin-window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.
Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirits of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold the tiny bark, freighted with Verney – the LAST MAN.
Ralph Ellison leaves his readers with an image of a man hiding underground, out of the world.
I could only move ahead or stay here, underground. So I would stay here until I was chased out. Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or, if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.
But then, in an epilogue, Ellison’s hero changes his mind – or at least admits other possibilities.
I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole. I’m coming out, no less invisible without it, but coming out nevertheless. And I suppose it’s damn well time. Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.
It seems a pity to undermine the power of the image, the novel’s natural conclusion, with second thoughts.