Monday, January 24, 2011

Invisible Man: Mirror, Mirror...

by Drew Martin

I recently completed Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). It is a powerful book and an important American novel so I want to discuss it here in five, consecutive postings: the use of the US flag, the use of mirrors, media references, art references and the theme of invisibility.

Invisible Man is littered with references to vision but I found a few passages specific to the mirror/reflection, which serves as an interesting device, especially because the first instance of it seemed so cinematic, like a scene from a Hitchcock film:

...I followed the white line of the highway...In the mirror I could see Mr. Norton staring out vacantly upon the empty field...

Ellison's mirrors and reflections are always reality checks. In the excerpt above, our narrator is not in a position to speak candidly with Norton so his rear view mirror, meant to help him drive the automobile, becomes something with which he navigates himself into the world of white, privileged men.

The oddest mention of the mirror is as our narrator and Dr. Bledsoe, who eventually expels the narrator, visit Norton after his dizzying encounter with the incestuous sharecropper, Trueblood, and the crazy drunk veterans at the Golden Day:

Just inside the building I got another shock. As we approached a mirror Dr. Bledsoe stopped and composed his angry face like a sculptor, making it a bland mask, leaving only the sparkle of his eyes to betray the emotion that I had seen only a moment before. He looked steadily at himself for a moment; then we moved quietly down the silent hall and up the stairs.

When our narrator makes it to Harlem and is full of enthusiasm for what he believes to be letters of recommendation from school, he consults the looking glass:

Finally, I went to the mirror and gave myself an admiring smile as I spread the letters upon the dresser like a hand of high trump cards.

I was not very diligent with taking notes of all the appearances of mirrors in Invisible Man but there was one reference to young Harlem hipsters and their reflections, which I liked:

looked at the boys. They sat as formally as they walked. From time to time one of them would look at his reflection in the window and give his hat brim a snap, the others watching him silently, communicating ironically with their eyes, then looking straight ahead.