COOK 9/11/13

In the narrator’s rise from an obedient, yet blind member of the Brotherhood, Brother Clifton’s death was the primary catalyst for his disillusionment and subsequent actions. After realizing that he is being excluded from meetings, the narrator’s encounter with Clifton reveals his true relationship with the Brotherhood. When he sees that the Sambo doll peddler is the friend he has been looking for, shock overcomes him: “I was paralyzed, looking at him, knowing I wasn’t dreaming.” In this instant, he begins to realize the full extent of their failure in Harlem. Not only did the Brotherhood abandon this community, it had also destroyed the people working to fix it. Clifton was a believer, a doer of good, and yet somehow he had been degraded to selling a toy that belittled his own race. In these moments of desperation the narrator lashes out in anger as he has done in the past. But in the greater context, Clifton is just a tool of the Brotherhood, and now he is broken. As a colleague, the narrator can’t help but wonder, “why did Clifton… fall outside of history?” And couldn’t the same transformation happen to him? Furthermore, Clifton’s eventual victimization by white authority confirms the narrator’s stubborn belief that change in Harlem still must occur. He is reinvigorated, and chooses to use Clifton’s death and funeral to likewise reinvigorate the black community in Harlem. As his encounter with Clifton helps explain all of the events up to this pivotal moment, Clifton’s death provides motivation for the narrator’s actions to the end of the novel. It is clear that he empathizes with Clifton’s struggles, describing Clifton as a “man of transition whose face was immobile.” In the context of “being invisible,” Clifton is the extreme, and the very epitome of what the narrator might characterize himself as. But in this instant, he chooses not to lose faith. In parallel to his rejection of the Brotherhood, the narrator

seizes his own “personal responsibility,” his out to becoming visible. When he eventually finds himself in the middle of a riot, he chooses to speak out. When he eventually hibernates, he chooses to let his stories be heard. He does not want to be Clifton; instead, he wants to take actions that are meaningful, and true to himself. Despite all of his failures and all of his obstacles, he still feels a calling to a vague ideal that is never quite described in the novel. This functions as a central theme later, and after Clifton’s death he muses that “although I knew no one man could do much about it, I felt responsible.” This event incites the narrator to action. Most importantly, Ellison uses the narrator’s strange and diverse experiences throughout the novel to connect with the reader- except with an ironic twist. From the tiniest of details (“yams… so sweet and hot!”), the reader sees exactly what the narrator sees, except he also understands just how futile the narrator’s condition is. In a world that systematically oppresses and “hides” him, the narrator blissfully runs forward, serving those in power who have far different ambitions. Clifton’s death is monumental in fixing this irony, and bringing the narrator to terms with his own reality. In the seemingly insane moment before he assaults Ras the Destroyer, the narrator proclaims, “I know it was better to live out one’s own absurdity than to die for that of others.” This is a narrator unfamiliar to the reader, just as Sambo-peddling Clifton was unrecognizable by the narrator. But the difference is that the latter survives. And now with irony removed, his final decision to “shake off the old skin and come up for breath” is met with sincerity from the reader. This time, his initiation as a hero is different- he has nothing, and he assumes nothing. Juxtaposed with his prior, naïve experiences, Clifton’s death makes the narrator see the truth. For Ellison, Clifton’s death is instrumental in conveying the themes and meaning of Invisible Man.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful