The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is one of the early American novels that deal analytically and insightfully with the issue of racial discrimination that was persistent in the American society, till the last quarter of the previous century. This novel was published in 1952, twelve years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which declared racial segregation illegal. During the fifties and sixties, the United States witnessed social mobility against the old-rooted racial segregation that had been dominating the country, in which African Americans faced segregation in housing, businesses and education. In that sense, Invisible Man is considered one of the first literary attempts to shed light on racial discrimination as one of the serious social phenomena that doomed the American society decades ago. In order to expose the seriousness of racism and racial stereotyping in the American society, Ellison makes a perfect use of symbolism and extended metaphors, foreshadowing the violence that was engendered by the Civil Rights Movement in cities across the United States. In Invisible Man, Ellison uses dolls as extended metaphors to expose the negative side in racial stereotyping, portray the dilemma faced by some sectors of the American society, and foreshadow the existence of civil right movements.
The main doll in the Invisible Man that aims at exposing the negative side in racial stereotyping is the Sambo doll. This doll is deliberately made in the image of a black slave, who is accused of laziness and indifference by white stereotypes. In that sense, this doll, which is portrayed as a dancing doll, represents the old-rooted stereotype of the black man who acts as an entertainer, laughing and singing for white people. The use of this metaphor of the Sambo doll reflects the power of negative stereotyping to follow a person in every movement. It also illustrates the power of the stereotype to control a person’s movement in life. Hence, the Sambo doll is used intelligently by Ellison to show to the reader the powerful social forces that keep black Americans “in their place”, denying them the “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, which are enjoyed by other Americans (13). The use of this extended metaphor is completely foreshadowing and illustrative, as it cleverly anticipated that African Americans would soon succeed to end segregation, discrimination, and isolation through sincere efforts that would be done by activists, such as Marin Luther King, and other personalities and organizations (Garrow 196).Therefore, the use of the Sambo doll and its depiction of the life of black people is an embodiment of the atmosphere of racism in the United States as the blacks were indirectly deprived of their rights, to attain high position in the government. Also, private businesses used to discriminate against the black based just on the color of their skin and their ethnic origin. Most of these intolerable acts and attitudes were represented symbolically via the perfect depiction of the Sambo doll. Therefore, Ellison’s use of the symbolic Sambo doll reflects his sincere interest in understanding himself and his surrounding, trying to spot any defects such as stereotyping. This is evident when the narrator declares, “And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals” (Ellison 86).
Furthermore, the doll of the white woman is another tool used by Ellison, to establish a contrasting mode that would illustrate the dilemma of some sectors in the American society. To expose the plight of the black in the American society, Ellison makes use of contrast and paradox. In this concern, the author puts the dilemma of the black man right beside the miserable life of white American women. This is professionally done through the depiction of the doll of “the nude blonde woman” as opposed to the Sambo doll. The author describes the nude blonde as having hair “that was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll” (Ellison 19). This exposes the way white women were negatively stereotyped as mere amusing instruments in the American society. With the use of the extended metaphor of those two particular dolls – The Sambo Man and the Blonde Woman - the author is actually sending the message that some sectors in the American society have no full control of themselves, and the way they are perceived in their societies. Accordingly, when Ellison describes the American nude blonde woman as having hair “that was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll” (19), Ellison is actually drawing an insightful strong connection between the dilemma of the black man and that of the white woman.
Moreover, the fact that the black man and the white woman are both shown as mere puppets and dolls in Ellison’s novel is deliberately made to show that the American white woman and the African- American man are no more than show pieces, which are made for the white man’s enjoyment. In this context, Ellison does not only expose the plight of the black man, but he also sheds light on the suffering of the white American woman. The message of the author, here, can be absorbed easily by modern readers, even in recent years, as American women are treated more as a commodity and sex tool that can bring money than a human being who should be fully respected. A growing number of women in the United States are used as body models and sex tools, working in huge advertising corporations and adult sites. These kinds of jobs deprive those women of their human aspects, turning them into machines or tools to bring money for huge corporations. Michael F. Jacobsen and Laurie Anne Mazur declare, “Women’s bodies have been used whole, or in parts, to market everything from brassieres to monkey wrenches” (Jacobsen). This view of women as a sex commodity in advertising and adult corporations gives them an inferior status as human beings, exactly as argued by Ellison tens of years ago.
Similarly, Ellison was able to anticipate the fate of the American black man, the way he anticipated the dilemma and suffering of white women till the present day. Through the insightful and symbolic portrayal of the Sambo doll, the author indirectly sends the message that this extremely humiliating status of blacks in the United States will soon come to an end. In that sense, the Sambo doll can be seen as a representation of the narrator himself, who asserts, “I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me” (Ellison 16). Although the novel was written several years before the emergence of the civil rights movements, the reader of the novel can understand that the misery of the Sambo doll could not continue forever. As such, it was able to absorb the goals of civil rights movements fully which emerged later to resist any signs of discrimination against black Americans. For example, the blacks during that time were not allowed to sit in front seats, in public transportation. Such practices were extremely condemned by King and his companions (Garrow 56). As a result, they initiated the Birmingham campaign to call for the respect of black Americans' civil rights. This campaign, which was started in Birmingham, Alabama, continued for about two months, during which African Americans participated in various marches and demonstrations (Garrow 66). Consequently, it can be said that the extended metaphor of dolls in the Invisible man helped in paving the way for the American society to anticipate the emergence of movements that would call for an end of the plight of African Americans.
In conclusion, through the use of the extended metaphor of dolls, Ellison succeeds in exposing many of the sufferings faced by some sectors in the American society, especially black men. Discrimination, humiliation, and lack of respect are some of the dilemmas and plights of black people in the American society during the fifties. In this regard, Ellison expected that America will one day be able to absorb all sectors of the society with their shapes and cultures as he realizes, “America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let it so remain. Our fate is to become one, and yet many” (Ellison 149). Dolls are used as a tool, to embody the life of the black man with all its miseries. Hence, this perfect depiction of black dolls, the author prepared the reader to expect a real change in the American society in favor of the black man. In that sense, it is important to note that a decade after the publishing of this novel, the civil rights movement emerged in the United States, which was successful in reaching the goal of ending racial segregation in the country. The effective tactics of the movement, as well as the positive personal traits of Martin Luther King, are the major reasons behind the success of the movement.