Invisible Man: Life on the Strings
Dolls. We are surrounded by dolls. G. I. Joe, Barbie, Polly Pocket, and WWF action figures. Prior to our plasticene friends we had paper dolls, marionettes, and delicately featured porcelain dolls. We are strangely fascinated by these cold, lifeless objects that look so much like ourselves. Children clutch them and create elaborate scenes, while adults are content to simply collect, allowing them to sit, motionless on a shelf, staring coolly back at their live counterparts. Which brings us to and interesting point, are people simply dolls for other people to play with or collect?
One could make the arguement that we are all Tod Cliftons’, doomed to dance by invisible strings while wearing a mask of individualism. However, unlike Tod Clifton, most of us will not realize that who pulls the string, is not ourselves.
Ralph Ellison’s novel, The Invisible Man is fraught with images of dolls as if to constantly reminded the reader that no one is in complete control of themselves. Our first example of doll imagery comes very early in the novel with the Battle Royal scene. The nude, blonde woman is described as having hair “that was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll” (19). Ellison draws a very strong connection between the plight of the Negro man and the white woman. The fact that they are both shown as puppets or dolls in the work is no coincidence. The woman and the African are merely show pieces for the white men in the novel.
Tod Clifton’s dancing Sambo dolls are the most striking example of doll imagery. This small tissue paper doll has the capability to completely change the Invisible Man. When he sees that the powerful and enigmatic Clifton is the one hawking the abominable dolls, the narrator is so filled with humiliation and rage that he spits upon the dancing figure. But what is it that has caused this surging of fury? It is Tod Clifton and not the narrator who has degraded himself to such a base level. However, it is our narrator’s sudden comprehension of his own situation that causes his wrath. The line “For a second our eyes met and he gave me a contemptuous smile” (433) illustrates this moment of realization for our narrator. It shows the reader that Tod Clifton was aware of his position as a puppet all along and chooses to enlighten the narrator at this particular point in the novel.
The Invisible Man recognizes that all his life he’s been a slave and a puppet to others. Whether those others were Bledsoe, his grandfather, or the brotherhood is irrelevant, but there has always been and imperceptible string attached to him governing everything he does. Not only a string but his own physical characteristics echo those of the grotesque Sambo dolls.
It’s cardboard hands were clenched into fists. The fingers outlined in orange paint, and I noticed that it had two faces, one on either side of the disks of cardboard, and both grinning. (…..446)
Hands doubled into fists? This is the brotherhood message in a nutshell, Strong, ready to fight for what one supposedly believes in. Yet, at the same time these fists are controlled exclusively by the one holding the strings. And the black Sambo puppet blissfully unaware that he is merely a plaything. He smiles to the crowd and back to the puppeteer. It is the grin on the face of this doll that initially angers the Invisible Man. But why?
Thinking back to the very start of the novel we have the Grandfather’s dying words to our narrator, “…overcome ’em with yesses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction…” (16). It would seem as though the Grandfather and Tod Clifton are in league with one another as they both have a firm grasp on what power men have over men.
We get a powerful and disturbing image of this very idea when the Invisible Man is in the factory hospital after the explosion. It is a scene that seems to fade into the mishmash of confusion that accompanies this part of the novel, but it is nonetheless very important. As the narrator lies in his glass enclosed box with wires and electrodes attached all over his body, he is subjected to shock treatment.
“Look, he’s dancing,” someone called.
…” They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!” it said with a laugh. (237)
This image is almost a perfect match with that of Clifton’s dancing Sambo doll. The only thing missing is the huge grin and even that is taken care of with the line, “My teeth chattered” (237) giving us the picture of a grotesque and pained smile. He experiences a burst of anger which I can only assume means that he catches a glimpse of the strings that he is being pulled by and is helpless to do anything about it.
Our final encounter with a doll occurs again with Clifton’s dancing Sambo. At the end of the narrative, while escaping the hell of the Harlem riots, the Invisible Man stumbles upon an open manhole and the gloom below.
While trying to keep warm and get a good look at the place he in, he begins to burn the various objects in his briefcase. When he comes to the flimsy tissue-paper doll he finds that it will not burn. He remarks “it burned so stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else.” (568) The doll’s difficulty in burning is symbolic of the fact that we, as men , will never fully be able to break free from our puppet-like imprisonment.
Ellison’s narrator can be found in each and every human being. We live our lives attempting to be independent and free thinking individuals, but there will always be the strings that bind us to someone who controls our destiny. Even the Invisible Man has his turn at being a puppeteer, as we all do, with Mr. Norton at the train station when he calmly states, “I’m your destiny.” (578) Do we know who we control? Do we know who controls us? The answer the Invisible Man might give: Maybe.