The Trouble With Bugs and Coffee Grinds

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"'Guess I'll have to get some better filters,' she mused. 'These I got just lets through the grounds along with the coffee, the good with the bad.  I don't know though, even with the best of filters you apt to find a ground or two at the bottom of your cup.'" The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (323)

I'm fond of this quote for a few reasons, one being its usefulness as a simple life-reminder that the negative is a constant even in the best of conditions. The other relates to its placement and purpose (rather, what I think its purpose and placement suggest).  I've noticed figures in the book occasionally slip these hints to the narrator--red-flags if you will--that deliver the reader a "heads up" as to what lies ahead.  Although I haven't gotten too much further past this conversation, the suggestive capability of Mary's words surely stress more than the quality of a cup of coffee. 
There is also Mary's point about the filthy folks roaches:  "'Just let a little knocking start and here it comes crawling out.  All you have to do is shake things up a bit.'" Notice she doesn't refer to the insects as they, which would seem the more likely way to talk about a living thing, instead she says it as if speaking about the nature of something. My guess is the remark forecasts problems: all's fine while things remain calm, but let trouble come and out come the BUGS too.  I suspect these innuendos aren't aimed at The Invisible Man, but at us, the reader.

Oh, and has anyone else noticed how often the word staccato is used.  I only noticed because after encountering it several times, I decided my vague understanding of its meaning could use a refresher.  (For me it's one of those words you come across that you sort of get but if someone asked you to explain what it meant you'd fail.) Anyway after the word kept popping up, I looked it up: Detached, Disconnected, Disjointed were the (key) parts I was missing. Ellison's emphasis of this word might be significant, what do you think?


Alyssa Sanow said:

I agree, there are many moments of foreshadowing for the reader. It’s almost as if Ellison wants to keep the reader on his or her toes, not letting them get to comfortable with the story or the idea of a “happy ending” for the narrator. I did not notice the use of “staccato” until you mentioned it. The narrator does, however, discuss being removed from reality quite often as well. Maybe Ellison’s use of “staccato” meaning disjointed or detached relates to his narrator’s feelings.

Chris said:

I didn't read very much into this conversation, but after having read your blog, April, I must agree that it certainly does appear to deliver a message to the audience. Whilst Mary is obviously a glass half full person, she acknowledges that emptiness and negativity can affect the glass that is life because that is all part of life.

As for the use of staccato in Ellison's novel, I feel that their is a definite corrolation between the word and the actions of the narrator. Ellison makes extensive use of musical terms and styles. Staccato, as you defined, means detached and separated. The narrator becomes more detached as he goes through the novel: leaving the family, then the university, breaking ties with the university, and eventually having to break ties with Mary in order to work for the Brotherhood. He has become increasingly separated and filtered out, to bring this back to the coffee filter. Ellison is displaying both distance and the everyday evils of life.

Ang Saffer said:

your quote caught my eye and I'm glad I visited your blog because the foreshadowing is deep in this novel and so is the quirky way Ellison uses his words. It brings closure to the reader the way his foreshadowing is used- if the reader picks up on it- because the reader is expecting it and then it happens and this happiness fills us- even if the story is not so happy.

I did also notice the use of the word staccato used very often, and I agree with you both that this is very significant.

Andrew Adams said:

I feel the part about the roaches is a sort of foreshadowing but backwards. What I mean is that when I think she says that, she is talking about the speech that Invisible Man gives. Whenever he shakes things up, the roaches, or the Brotherhood, come out. I do enjoy Ellison's use of seemingly useless passages that are actually quite deep.

As for the staccato, Ellison wanted this book to be prose jazz pretty much. It only makes sense that he would use musical qualities in the words he chooses.

April M. Minerd said:

Thanks everyone for your thoughts about Ellison's use of the word staccato. I figured it correlated with a musical interest (cleared up by the academic article as well).
Andrew, I hadn't thought of it as an effort to elaborate on the speech. That's and interesting idea, because in my blog on Hanlon's article I pulled a quote that discussed a similar example of that. Also following the speech, there is a very short labor scene (I thought nothing of) which serves to reinforce the protagonist rebirth.

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