The Ending of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

“In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived. That goes for societies as well as for individuals. Thus, having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge” (580-81).


11_ralph_ellisonIn this richly ambiguous passage near the end of the novel, the invisible man regards the end of his hibernation as an imperative; he “must emerge.” Yet the role he claims – namely, to give pattern to chaos – contains within it not only the remedy to invisibility but also the very cause of invisibility in the first place. The ambiguity of the passage is a product of this dilemma. The same method he must employ to combat marginalization runs the risk of replicating afresh the iniquitous social system. However, having the second sight that comes from being disenfranchised, he can advise his readers to organize their lives, shape their identities, compose their personal narratives, and write their histories, in patterns necessary for significance, but not at the expense of others.


At the start of the passage, the invisible man suggests that going underground is a solution: “In going underground, I whipped it all […]” Ostensibly, his escape down the manhole rescues him from the police and the riot, the respective representatives of order and chaos. But his immediate escape extends into a hibernation, which suggests that going underground (a limited solution itself) is also a rejection of the other solutions he encounters throughout the novel (such as Rinehart’s postmodern subjectivity, Ras’s violent resistance, Clifton’s fatal plunge outside history, the Brotherhood’s sacrificial science, and even Mary’s care). Perhaps these incomplete solutions are part of the “all” that he has “whipped.” He says, “all except the mind,” but this “all” needs even further qualification, because he knows that when he emerges, he will still be invisible. He has not substantially changed the social system, not yet at least, for at the moment the system does not feel or know how he has whipped it. While blindness and invisibility still remain above ground, he, however, now understands his position in relation to the system. Subjectively, the extent to which his new vantage point stabilizes his identity is the extent to which he has “whipped it all.” Underground he had time to think and figure out not only his place in the scheme of things but the very structure of the scheme itself. His new knowledge, his new vantage point, contributes to a restructuring, or a re-visioning as Adrienne Rich would say, especially because he has written his story and thus rewritten the prevailing narrative – the authors of which he addresses directly, when he challenges “your certainties.”


One of the primary ways to give order to chaos is through writing, which is what the invisible man does underground. Of course, he is aware of the dangers of writing. Such is usually the master’s position, and the violent word “whipped” underscores this point. This helps explain why he excludes “the mind.” On one level, he seems to be referring to his own mind, as though trauma, memory, and double consciousness so haunt him that they resist submission. However, this is only partially correct, because his personal experience provides the details of his counter-narrative. Rather than expunge his story of these painful details, he wants to keep these details alive, and perhaps through writing, he can control and own them with a mastery that facilitates his visibility. Nevertheless, his repetition of the word “mind,” his use of the definite article, and his italicization of the word, indicate that on another level he is referring to “the mind” as an abstraction. This is the mind that belongs to the legacy of the Enlightenment, to the enterprise of the western white man who contrives metanarratives “to give pattern to the chaos” and establish a set of “certainties” and categorical imperatives that have been officially stamped with Reason and Truth. It belongs to Hegel’s immanent Spirit, which progressively unfolding itself through History, can exclude the whole continent of Africa because it fails to contribute to Spirit’s story. It belongs, too, to those versions of dialectical materialism that sweep the individual aside in the name of inevitable progress. But the danger of the mind – in imposing patterns – extends beyond the science of the Brotherhood, into all the codes and narratives that organize society, record public memory, create divisions and hierarchies. The invisible man’s warning “goes for societies as well as individuals,” because at both levels, the need for organization and certainty can entail marginalization and stereotypes.


Even so, the invisible man recognizes that patterns are necessary in order to have “a plan of living.” In fact, his use of the demonstrative pronoun (in “that pattern”) directly links the pattern to the “plan of living.” Life itself would be unlivable without the mind providing patterns, making sense out of total experience, parceling and labeling the formless real. Also, without the coherence of narrative, history would be so undifferentiated that it would be meaningless. On the one hand, the “chaos” is the world without patterns. On the other hand, it is also the riot, the people outside of official history, the other against which the empowered define themselves. Being cast to the margins and driven underground, the invisible man can now advise people that they “must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived.” Although order is necessary, it must not be at the expense of others. This is one reason why he “must emerge,” because he, too, is part of the chaos that needs to be kept in “sight” and made visible.


Furthermore, the invisible man has literally written himself out of the margin and into history. By telling about himself and the disregarded black community, his story reconfigures the prevailing pattern that once excluded him and the community. While his story itself is another pattern, carrying with it all the dangers of marginalization, his story is essential to his survival. Of course, he has “whipped it all except the mind,” because he needs the mind for coherence. While the mind has been historically unfair in the imposition of patterns, this imparity is not a necessity, for the invisible man imagines the mind can conceive of patterns and plans of living that are just.


Michael James Rizza has an MA in creative writing from Temple University in Philadelphia and a PhD in American Literature from the University of South Carolina. He has published academic articles on Don DeLillo, Milan Kundera, Harold Frederic, and Adrienne Rich. His award winning novel Cartilage and Skin was published by Starcherone Books in November 2013. His short fiction has appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Switchback, and Curbside Splendor. He has won various awards for his writing, including a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction. His scholarly monograph entitled The Topographical Imagination of Jameson, Baudrillard, Foucault, is forthcoming with Davies Group, Publishers. He is currently at work on a funny, fast paced, literary novel called Domestic Men’s Fiction. He teaches at Kean University. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Robin and their son Wilder, who was named after a character in DeLillo’s White Noise.

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