Ralph Ellison began his 1952 novel with the sentence; “I am an invisible man. ” (Ellison 3) These five words summed up the way in which the majority of Black Americans felt about their place in society at the time. The Civil Rights Movement was still years away, and the caste of American society had placed the Black American near the bottom. This is how the two characters from the novel Native Son and The Invisible Man are seen in society, and it is how Bigger sees himself, but how the unnamed narrator of Ellison’s work refused to allow himself to be seen this way.
The following paper will explore these two characters, their similarities and their differences. The self-awareness of the Black American was limited to only what the white establishment would allow (as seen with Wright’s character Bigger who gets a job for a wealthy white family but still cannot seem to escape stereotyping)– and in the majority of the country, that was very little. However, the essence for the change that would occur had already been born.
The awakening, in the late 1950s, of the Black American would take place in religion, politics, self-awareness and literature, and this powerful character can be seen with Ellison’s unnamed narrator whose narration and story tell the reader how a black man can become visible, while Bigger’s character only shows how a black man can become visible through crime. Richard Wright’s Native Son explores the manhood of Bigger Thomas.
The point of the novel is to explore this manhood, how Bigger as less than a second class citizen defines himself as a man through his motives and actions (i. e. killing, feeling small in a big city, his sexuality). The nature of man, or a black man is the focus of Wright’s writing. Bigger Thomas, despite the false conceptions of his society and how they are emphasized through Mary, her family and the police, is a man with all of the complexities of human nature, from murder to misunderstanding his sexual desires because of the environment he grew up in.
This is what either character has in common; they ‘suffer’ due to their environment, their stereotyping, and the views that society places on them. In Ellison’s work the black man is invisible is a second class citizen, and despite his attempts to make the world a better place by making history, but is waylaid through the Brotherhood’s prejudice. Bigger Thomas has a similar situation in which he is treated as a second class citizen because he is black; both characters are seeking identity, either in accepting their race, or denying it.
Bigger Thomas whose goal is that of attaining identity but with which this identification cannot be found except through the murdering of a white banker’s daughter, and the childhood manifestations of space, sex, and the over population of prejudices, “He had murdered and created a new life for himself” (Wright 101).
Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. Random House Inc. New York. 1952. Wright, Richard. Native Son. Buccaneer Books, New York. 1993.