Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Female Stereotypes

Carolyn W. Sylvander’s article “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Female Stereotypes” criticizes Ellison’s “Invisible Man” in the feminist point of view.

“The analysis of Black Americans which Ralph Ellison explores in various ways and places in Shadow and Act has applicability to any oppressed group. Unfortunately, however, his own creations do not always transcend the very fault he is opposing. Ironically, both Black and white female characters in Invisible Man reflect the distorted stereotypes established by the white American male. Though Ellison in Shadow and Act also suggests correctives to the oppression of a group by means of stereotyping, he does not apply those correctives to the women characters of Invisible Man. The narrator of Invisible Man in fact loses what slight recognition he has of woman-as-human at the beginning of the novel as he becomes more closely allied with manhood, Brotherhood, and his own personhood. Fitting his patterns of beast, clown, and angel, Ralph Ellison’s women characters are not, in his own analysis of stereotyping, fully human.”

Ellison brings up the contradictions of racial inequality in American Society in the novel. However, Ellison does not appeal gender inequality and describes stereotypical female characters in the novel. When the protagonist is invited to give a speech to a group of important white men in his town, a white blonde woman is portrayed as a seductress. The character’s name is not mentioned, and only her physical attractiveness is describes such as “The hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as through to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon’s butt.” (19) In the novel, the protagonist shows that he wants to protect the woman, and Ellison tries to differentiate the black character from lustful white characters. However, the way Ellison describes the female character is inconsistent. In the novel, black women are also stereotypically portrayed. The daughter of Jim Trueblood is impregnated by her own father. Furthermore, in the scene of The Golden Day, black women are mentioned as prostitutes. Their descriptions are mainly based on their appearance, and they are portrayed as sexual objects as well.

In conclusion, Ellison well describes the black male’s conflicts in the American society. However, as Sylvander says, Ellsion describes female characters as stereotypical women established by the white American male. Through “Invisible Man,” Readers of the novel would be able to think about women’s invisibility at the time this novel was written as well.


Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Female Stereotypes

Carolyn W. Sylvander

Negro American Literature Forum , Vol. 9, No. 3 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 77-79

4 thoughts on “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Female Stereotypes

  1. “Why goddamit, why did they insist upon confusing the class struggle with the ass struggle…..?”

    The narrator feels as if the women, like you said, were objects. He saw them as animals just like other people had seen him as an animal. Its ironic that he cannot see the similarities between his struggle with equality and their struggles with equality. Im not saying that he should but it is something that is completely lost on him. Sometimes with good reason. When the woman comments that she would think he would be darker/blacker he muses to himself what does she want me to do sweat out tar and shoe polish. Its like the woman don’t even see their own suppression because if they did they would not make these comments toward him. He thinks about raping her to show her “how black I really am” as if he is saying she has these negative thoughts in her head about me already let me show her how bad I really am. I think women also symbolize America at the time in a sense that they were not seen in the book as human (white bitch goddess America).

  2. This is a very interesting topic that I remember discussing in high school while analyzing Invisible Man. Ellison’s treatment of women, or perhaps lack thereof, is perhaps a hark to the real life neglect of women’s rights as a social issue. Invisible Man was a sort of epic with multiple ideas and morals to be learned, but when it comes down to it it is a man who is taking this journey of self discovery. The text is certainly not progressive in its depiction of women, perhaps even regressive compare to the growing feminist movement of its time, but I’m sure many would argue that that was never the point of Invisible Man.

  3. Pingback: IR Blog 2: Characters, Culture, Dominant vs. Dominated – Boarding Passing

  4. Pingback: A Deep Read of “Invisible Man” | HFW

Leave a Reply