How is a man defined by the materials in which he possesses? How does a man’s physical labor become embodied in the objects he owns? On pages 278 and 279 of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison examines how the material reality that surrounds his unnamed narrator and the characters around him upholds the ideas of an unchanging human nature that leads to the domination of racial and class hierarchies. Ellison explores the intricate relationship between a man’s labor and its products of physical materialism, dialectical struggles between the “law” and the “law abiding”, and the notion of dispossession.
In context, the unnamed narrator is living on edge every single day in Harlem, New York. Not only for the color of his skin, but of his constant struggle dealing with expulsion from school and the struggles of finding identity within the concrete jungle of New York. He is dirt poor and spends his days working at a paint factory in which Ellison purposely structures it as a representation of class struggle confined within the floors of the building. This symbolic examination is as well present in the passage above. Ellison begins by establishing the role of the man in which he is the victim of a passive aggressive act of eviction in which a group of armed men, from the orders of a landlord, throws out a family’s belongings in the middle of the street, disturbing the surrounding scenery of the city. The local folks begin to grow discontent with the acts from the armed men and begin pleading for sympathy. Thus, the narrator jumps into the scene, eager to utilize his passion for speaking, and begins to rile up the crowd (unintentionally).
The narrator begins by asking the male evictee of his employment status. He makes this decision because the narrator is attempting to humanize the man and give him an identity in which the crowd can define him, sympathize him, and emotionally connect with his situation. Therefore, by going a humanistic route, the narrator is successful in giving the random evictee recognition from the crowd as an active member of the community. The evictee responds by establishing himself as a “day laborer”. This ultimately gives an insight as to the shared conflict in which the evictee and the community as a whole go through together. By directly acknowledging the existing struggle of the evictee, the struggle of the people of Harlem becomes embodied by the evictee. The narrator then uses a simile in comparing “his stuff strewn like chitterlings in the snow?” and then metaphorically compares the evictee’s “stuff” to his “day labor” by exclaiming, “where has all his labor gone?” First, by comparing his “stuff” to “chitterlings in the snow”, the narrator gives the image of a literal interpretation of a “pigsty”, as the objects on the ground are scattered like trash. Also, the narrator being from the south, it is very interesting how he uses his southern identity in the use of figurative language. It allows an oddly specific comparison that only those within the community might understand (I myself had no idea what chitterlings were before researching).
Given the status of his day labor, the accumulation of the hours of labor the man had put during his lifetime are symbolized by his objects scattered on the sidewalk. To have a marshal drop by the apartment and throw out one’s “labor” so effortlessly and uncourteously symbolizes the conflict of class and racial struggle of the day laborers of Harlem, and to that thought, the people in the crowd continue to identify with the struggle of the evictee. Continuing, the narrator then uses the age of the evictee, eighty-seven years, as a means of given his materials a reference of time in which they have been accumulated. “Look at his old blues records and her pots of plants, they’re down-home folks, and everything tossed out like junk whirled eighty-seven years in a cyclone. Eighty-seven years, and poof! Like a snort in a wind storm”. This accumulation of material possession reflects the labor and livelihoods of the people who possess them. Ellison portrays the action of the men’s carelessness in the materials of the evictees through simile and hyperbole. By comparing “everything tossed out like junk whirled eighty-seven years in a cyclone,” Ellison gives a hyperbolic sense of the scenery as if a cyclone had passed by and whirled the evictee’s “junk” around the proximity. Comparing the materials to junk is intriguing; as if the narrator is giving the idea that by which he first gives the objects a sense of humanity at first, giving the idea of the “pots of plants” that defines the evictee’s identity as “down-home folks”. However, this is contrasted when the evictors get their hands on them, instantly transforming them into “junk”. It is assumed that Ellison is attempting to define humans by the materials they possess; or could it be vice versa? By exploring this duality, Ellison is successful in drawing the questions as to the nature of the “day laborer’s” relationship with his material possessions. Therefore, it is inferred by Ellison that ideas cannot exist separate from their material conditions that exhibit such ideas.
Next, Ellison tackles the internal contradictions between the “law” and the “law abiding”. The marshal, being metaphorically given the title, “law”, has been indicated by the narrator of being unjust. He infers that when the “law” acts lawless, it is permissible for the “law-abiding” to speak its language.
“Remember it when you look up there in the doorway at that law standing there with his forty-five. Look at him, standing with his blue steel pistol and his blue serge suit, or one forty-five, you see ten for every one of us, ten guns and ten warm suits and ten fat bellies and ten million laws. Laws, that’s what we call them down South! Laws! And we’re wise, and law-abiding,”.
Ellison also uses imagery and repetition of the color “blue” and the “forty-five” (referring to the pistol) to give an image as to whom the “law” is defined. Just as how the evictee was defined by the materials in which he possessed; the “law” is defined that way as well. Interestingly, Ellison develops the concept of the negation of the negation. In this circumstance, the evicted run into their opposites (the evictors) in the course of development. The evicted cannot fully develop in their bloomed potential as they have become ousted by those who possess the keys to their metaphorical “apartment”. Ellison also provides the negation of the negation within the relationship of the marshals and the African American community. The marshal disregards the “objects” (in this circumstance, the material possessions of the evictees. In the metaphorical sense, the development of culture and identity in which the materials were produced and influenced by) as junk, leaving the community continuing to struggle to objectify their identity. In this specific circumstance, the wife of the man, wants to pray in her home one last time. She possesses a Bible, and requests one last wish. She is in a sense, defined by her passion for the Bible, and vice versa. The narrator knows this and utilizes it to his advantage. By exclaiming the words of scripture, “blessed are the pure in heart”, the narrator then is able to ask the question, “what’s happened to them? They’re our people, your people and mine, your parents and mine. What’s happened to ‘em?”. By identifying the couple of evictees as part of the community, the narrator continues to allow the crowd to see themselves in the footsteps of those victimized. Their response, however, gives the reader an interesting word that clearly defines the interconnectedness of the material possessions, what they define, and what the couple represents- dispossessed.
To dispossess means to deprive someone of land, property or other possessions. Intriguingly, an ambiguous question emerges- who is being disposed in this situation? The evictees? The materials? The community? In a sense, all of these assumptions are correct. A person in the crowd introduces the term “dispossessed” and the narrator then says,
“Dispossessed, eighty-seven years and dispossessed of what? They ain’t got nothing, they can’t get nothing, they never had nothing. So who’s being disposed? Can it be us? These old ones are out in the snow, but we’re here with them. Look at their stuff, not a pit to hiss in, nor a window to shout the news and us right with them… They’re facing a gun and we’re facing it with them. They don’t’ want the world, but only Jesus… How about it, Mr. Law? Do we get our fifteen minutes worth of Jesus? You got the world, can we have our Jesus?”
We have already examined the interconnected relationships between material possessions and those who possess them. Now it is next to examine how does one react when they have been dispossessed from their materials. The narrator infers that the evictees have already been dispossessed, and that they have handed their “world” into the hands of the marshal, who acts as an interpenetration of opposites. He becomes the facilitator that blurs the line between the evictors and the evictees. The people only want “fifteen minutes of Jesus” but the marshal cannot allow due to his “orders” and threatens to shoot anyone who approaches the apartment. The narrator then continues by referring back to the symbolism and imagery associated with the color “blue”, saying
“with his blue steel pistol and his blue serge suit. You heard him. He’s the law. He says he’ll shoot us down because we’re a law-abiding people. So, we’ve been dispossessed, and what’s more, he thinks he’s God. Look up there backed against the post with a criminal on either side of him.”
By again referring to the dialectical relationship of the “law” and the “law-abiding”, the narrator is able to then legitimize the calls for the people to respond to the lawlessness of the law in its own “language”. He has successfully riled up the crowd, and they begin the process of repossessing what had been stolen from them- identity.
The narrator operates in an assertive and sincere tone. He is fed up with the “dispossession” and “displacement” of his people, and he utilizes his speaking ability to finally draw the final straw. By examining the relationships of a man’s labor and the materials he possesses, the dialectical relationships between the “law” and the “law abiding”, the “evicted” and the “evictor”, and the weight the word “dispossession” possesses in the circumstance of the evicted family and of the African American community, Ellison is able to whip up a narration that leaves those who listen with answers and motivates an act of reclaiming what is being taken away from you. We shall overcome our eviction by bringing consciousness to the evicted of their dispossession and displacement and bring about a synthesis of a new apparatus.
(1) Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York :Vintage International, 1995.
Jacob Masterson is a looming political science major at an undecided college. He currently specializes in Marxist political philosophy, radical social movements, and American history.
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