A Literary Dream

Invisible Man Ellison
Invisible Man is Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a young black man, who gets thrown out of university for accidentally offending a wealthy patron. He then tries to make a life for himself in New York.

This is a literary novel, and I sometimes found it irritating that symbolism seemed more important than a sense of reality. However, a few lines early on in the book sum up how I’ve come to feel about Invisible Man:

“People talk of metaphorical significance of this or that scene. Seems like a puzzle or a children’s game. But a dream sometimes tells us things in the shape of metaphor, and this is no children’s game. This is real and serious.”

When I wake up from a dream, I do not review it for realism, and give it a low star rating if the content of the dream has been one of personal symbolism rather than a realistic story. People who have studied dreams – Carl Jung for example – emphasise their strange, metaphorical nature. Dreams deal in the pictorial and the figurative. They reach into areas of taboo, with which the waking mind does not feel comfortable. Invisible Man often inhabits this sort of realm. A number of scenes have the dreamy power of exploring taboo – the famous one at the beginning of the book involving a sharecropper’s family, for example. There’s another telling passage towards the end, where a woman shares with the unnamed narrator a fantasy that she could not think of sharing with anyone in the normal run of life. Then almost as the book closes, the narrator actually has a dream that reproduces images from his waking life. The images are wild and chaotic, but strangely are not clearly the result of a dream until the narrator wakes up.

So that’s how I see the book, as a kind of literary dream reaching into all the dark areas of life that waking minds would rather leave alone. I don’t think it always works. Sometimes the novel seems disjointed because it is disjointed, and not because it is reproducing the fragmented nature of a dream. Nevertheless, the book is remarkable, perhaps more in the thinking about it afterwards rather than in the reading of it. Dreams themselves are rather like that.

I would give Invisible Man a three for the experience of reading the book, five for the thinking about it afterwards.

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