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What's in a Name?

"I watched her reach into the bosom of her taffeta hostess gown and remove a white envelope.
'This is your new identity,' Brother Jack said. 'Open it.'
Inside I found a name written on a slip of paper."
~page 309 of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

The last time I read a book with a nameless protagonist, I found it annoying. With this book, however, I think it was an interesting choice on the author's part to leave the character's name out of the book. To me, this choice seems to serve two purposes: 1) to draw the reader in further and 2) to further establish the idea that the character is an invisible man.

The point of view an author chooses to use can affect how distant the reader feels while reading, however subconscious it may be. Though we know that the "I" we are reading is really the character speaking, not ourselves speaking, we tend to identify with the "I" on some level. Because the character is nameless, we are not pushed away as we would be if another character were to address him by name. This allows us to identify with him more.

As for the second purpose, the protagonist states towards the beginning that he is more or less invisible. If he considers himself to be invisible, then how important is his name, really? It mustn't be that important to him, so it is never mentioned.

This may also come down to the fact that he was given a new name and identity when he started to work for that organization. It is interesting still that even this new name isn't revealed. Whatever the reason is, I think it was a clever choice.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Comments (2)

I agree that all of Ellison's choices in the narrator's characterization contribute to diminishing his identity. We aren't even told that much about his family, except for the one anecdote involving his grandfather. When he does speak of his family, it's only vaguely in reference to a general group of people and not specifically to a mother or father or siblings. As the novel progresses, the narrator sort of falls in and out of his own chosen families--at college, with Mary, with the Brotherhood. We are given very little at the outset that would help constitute an identity for the narrator, so the narrator must find ways of assembling his own identity as he goes through the different stages of his life. Even the title of the novel itself--"Invisible Man" as opposed to "The Invisible Man" or "An Invisible Man"--helps create this sense that the narrator is not a well-defined individual but more of a wispy idea rather than a person.

Christopher Dufalla:

I too found the narrator's anonymity to be intriguing. I had thought of the idea that his name is left out in order to lure the reader in closer and hook the audience, but I had not thought of the invisibility. It seems quite logical that the absence of a name creates a sense of invisibility. Ellison has created a character that we can see, but cannot pinpoint, truly. While the audience can formulate an image of the narrator, it is a vague one. The narrator is left to the imagination and not clearly defined: blurry, invisible, so it may seem.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 26, 2009 3:46 PM.

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