Throughout Ralph Ellison’s novel, “Invisible Man”, the words of advice given to the narrator by his grandfather frequently reemerge, either in direct or indirect form. His suggestion that he “agree ‘em to death” however, becomes the flawed and self-denying philosophy that shapes the early experiences of thenarrator of “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. At the beginning of ”Invisible Man” the narrator is quick to please and mold himself to the demands of the white world and it is not until well into the last section of the action that he actually begins to realize how wrong this line of thinking is.
In “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, the narrator sees that the only way to truly exist, to not be invisible, is to remain true to one’s self. By relying his grandfather’s self-effacing logic, he only reinforces his sense of invisibility as he can never realize himself fully outside of the stereotypes and bounds of white perception. By shedding this philosophy in exchange for one that does not deny the self the author/narrator comes to his ultimate epiphany.
The narrator’s grandfather in Ellison’s “Invisible Man” tells him that the best way to succeed in the world of white men is to, as one of the most important quotes from “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison goes, “overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Prologue), In other words, in his view it is best to play the part of the servile negro rather than attempt any form of open rebellion. Strangely, after offering this advice, the narrator says, “what puzzles me was that the old man had defined it as treachery” (Prologue).
Although it takes the narrator over half of the novel Invisible Man to understand what was meant by such treachery, he comes to realize that it is treacherous because it is self-denying and self-effacing. Such a philosophy would not allow one to be true to one’s self, which is what the narrator wishes to do. Later, in the prologue, he comprehends the full extent of the treachery of denying one’s self in order to play the part of the stereotypical role assigned to him and says, “I’ve never been more loved and appreciated than when I tried to ‘justify’ and affirm someone’s mistaken beliefs or when I’ve tried to give my friends incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear” (Epilogue). By the time he has come to this epiphany, he has already fallen victim to acting according to his grandfather’s advice. He has allowed himself to be guided, like a blind man, into one trap after another and to be used as a tool or a puppet.
Although the narrator in Invisible Man has developed a sense of self-awareness after seeing the flaws in his grandfather’s advice, the first chapter depicting the battle royal shows just how much he adhered to the advice and played the role of the stereotypical servile black man. The narrator in Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is blind to the true malicious intent behind the event for his speech and is smiling and gracious just as he has been instructed. The reader of Invisible Man cannot help but feel pity for his lack of awareness to the truth when he states, “The harder we fought, the more threatening the men became. And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again. How would it go? Would they recognize my ability?” Although the reader realizes that his speech is meaningless and that he and the other boys fighting are viewed as mere animals, the narrator continues blindly, only thinking about how they would be impressed by his eloquence. Just as this major current or theme in “Invisible Man” suggests his perception of the flawed advice the grandfather gives is even more exaggerated later when the men toss “coins” and bills onto the floor for the boys to pick up off the electrified floor.
In the section just discussed, the narrator states at one point, “Laughing embarrassedly, we struggled out of their hands and kept after the coins.” The fact that they are laughing makes one wonder, especially since it is obviously painful. Later in the novel, the reader is reminded of this incident again when the narrator sees, “the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a level pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth.” During the coin chase in Invisible Man, these boys are playing to this exact same image as they “perform” for coins. In the end, the tragedy of this grotesque situation is emphasized when the narrator good-naturedly points out that the coins were actually only brass token of no value. He has fulfilled the role of the stereotypical black man who is glad to dance and perform for coins, just as his grandfather suggested he be. He is far too happy about the success of his speech, even though later he finds out that his “reward” for it is akin to brass tokens as well. At this early point in Invisible Manby Ralph Ellison he does not realize that what his grandfather meant by “treachery” was defined by an event like this one—he has sacrificed himself for the amusement of white men.