Color Symbolism: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison


Color red symbolizes strong emotions rather than intellectual ideas [5].

external image MR%20SITE%20RED%20HORIZON(1).jpg
Danger & Deception
False American dream, combination of red, blue, white [4]. Brother Jack decieves the narrator. His red hair shows that his an evil character. "He wagged his round red head" (291).
The narrator decieves Sybil into thinking that he raped her: "And now, avoiding her red, oily nails I gripped her writsts and pulled her up, toward the door. We tottered, her lips brushing mine as we wavered there" (527).
"I bent to write furiously across her belly in drunken inspiration: 'SYBIL, YOU WERE RAPED BY SANTA CLAUS SURPRISE'" (522).

The cartman on the street: "Close to the curb ahead I saw a man pushing a cart piled high with rolls of blue paper and heard him singing in a clear ringing voice. [...] As I drew alongside I was startled to hear him call to me:
'Looka-year, buddy...'
'Yes,' I said, pausing to look into his reddish eyes" (173).

red-dress.jpgOftentimes, red is also looked upon as a sensual color, and can be associated with the man's most profound urges and impulses. In the novel, the rich white men turn into "wild animals" during the naked blonde's erotic dance. "It was mad. Chairs went crashing down, drinks were split, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached the door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixated smiling lips, I saw the terror and disgust in her eyes" (20).

Further association of red with love and passion occurs when the narrator has an affair with a white woman [1]. A woman approaches him, following one of his speeches, in hopes that he will talk over some points in the ideology: "'I'm sure you'll straighten out my little ideological twists and turns. But sit here on the sofa, Brother; it's more comfortable'"(412). The narrator notices that she is very beautiful in her red dress: "She was a small, delicately plump woman with raven hair in which a think streak of white had begun almost imperceptibly to show, and when she reappeared in the rich red of a hostess gowsn she was so striking that I had to avert my somewhat startled eyes" (411). Thanks to the wine they have instead of coffee, the narrator feels at ease to talk at length on his ideas for the Woman Question. Soon, she leads him into the bedroom; he resists for awhile but finally gives into her seductive ways: "And now I saw her smile, 'Yes, Gwen, dear. Yes,' as one free hand went up as though to smooth her hair and inone swift motion the red robe swept aside like a veil, and I went breathless at the petite and generously curved nude, framed delicate and firm in the glass. It was like a dream interval and in an instant it swung back and I saw only her mysteriously smiling eyes above the rich red robe" (416).

Hatred & Violence
Ellison's use of red elements denotes the atmosphere of violence, agression and hatred in the Battle Royal [3]. What the narrator describes as the Battle Royal is in reality a brutal rite of passage that thrusts the young black boys into a violent, chaotic world where the rules that govern a society do not apply [4]. Nonetheless, the naive narrator is honored to be invited to recite his graduation speech at the gathering of the town's leading white citizens. Unfortunately, the only way the young boy could be granted the opportunity to voice himself was to first participate in the humiliating blindfolded boxing match. During the first couple of rounds, he finds himself caught in a struggle amist the blows, punches and violent words: "Chairs were being kicked about and I could hear voices grunting as with a terrific effort. [...] The men kept yelling, 'Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out! Uppercut him! Kill him! Kill that big boy!'(23-24)" In due time, the narrator is beaten until he is bleeding; here red is the color of blood. "My saliva became like hot bitter glue. A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood" (22).

Battle Royal
Battle Royal
As it is a custom for the two men left in the ring to fight for the winner's prize, the narrator faces Tatlock [4]. He describes the opponent's face as a "black blank [...], only his eyes alive - with hate and aglow with a feverish terror" (24). Tatlock, the biggest of the gang, is of course no match for the narrator: [He] spun me half around with a blow, and as a joggled camera sweeps in a reeling scene, I saw the howling red faces crouching tense beneath the cloud of blue-gray smoke. [...] The room went red as I fell. It was a dream fall, my body languid and fastidious as to where to land, until the floor became impatient and smached up to meet me. A moment later I came to. An hypnotic voice said FIVE emphatically. And I lay there, hazily watching a dark red spot of my own blood shaping itself into a butterfly, glistering and soaking into the soiled gray world of the canvas" (25-26).


external image gold.jpgGold symbolizes power, elusive wealth, or the illusion of prosperity [5].
"I would run in, get a pint, and run out again, I thought. Then [Mr. Norton] wouldn't see the Golden Day. I seldom went there myself [...]. The school had tried to make the Golden Day respectable, but the local white folks had a hand in it somehow and they got nowhere. [...] At the door I paused; the place was already full, jammed with vets in loose gray shirts and trousers and women in short, tight-fitting, stiffly starched gingham aprons. The stale beer smell struck like a club through the noise of voices and the juke box" (73-74).

"Entering the office I found myself face to face iwth young woman who looked up from her desk as I glanced swiftly over the large light room, over the comfortable chairs, the celing-high bookcases with gold and leather bindings, past a series of portraits and back again, to meet her questioning eyes" (166).

external image gold_coin_splash.png"I saw the rug covered with coins of all dimensions and a few crumpled bills. But what excited me, scattered here and there, were the gold pieces. [...] I trembled with excitment, forgetting my pain. I would get the gold and the bills, I thought. I would use both hands. I would throw my body against the boys nearest me to block them from the gold" (26).

"I lunged for a yellow coin lying on the blue design of the carpet, touching it and sending a surprised shriek to join those rising around me. I tried frantically to remove my hand but could not let go. A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat. The rug was electrified" (27).

"Now it was late and as I came into the room with another round of drinks [Sybil] had let down her hair and was beckoning to me witha gold hairpin in the teeth, saying, 'Come to mamma, beautiful,' from where she sat on the bed" (517).


external image blue%20painting.jpgExcerpt from Critical Essays: Color Symbolism in Invisible Man: Blue alludes to the blues, a form of African American folk music characterized by lyrics that lament the hardships of life and the pain of lost love. In the novel, the blues are characterized by Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?” The song haunts the narrator throughout the narrative. The blues motif is also emphasized through frequent references to musical instruments, blues language (exemplified in the excerpts from black folk songs such as “Poor Robin”) and references to blues singers such as Bessie Smith and to characters in the novel who sing the blues, such as Jim Trueblood and Mary Rambo. Focusing on the harsh realities of life that black men and women such as Jim and Mary overcome through their strong religious beliefs and unwavering faith that tomorrow will be a better day, Ellison’s novel provides a literary counterpart to the blues. The blues provides a musical counterpart to Ellison’s novel. References to the color blue also include the blues-singing cart-man’s discarded blueprints, the white men’s blue eyes, and the naked blonde’s eyes, “as blue as a baboon’s butt.”

external image istockphoto_3793358_summer_green.jpgGreen

Green is life. Abundant in nature, green signifies growth, renewal, youth, vigor, and environment [4]. On the flip side, green is jealousy or envy, misfortune and inexperience. In Invisible Man, this is the color of the lush campus verdure and money, the narrator's main motivator [1].

Nature - Campus Imagery
external image Magnolia_flowers_watercolor_painting_L.jpg"It was a beautiful college. The buildings were old and covered with vines and the roads gracefully winding, lined with hedges and wild roses that dazzled the eyes in the summer sun. Honeysuckle and purple wisteria hung heavy from the trees and white mangolias mixed with their scents in the bee-humming air. I've recalled it often, here in my hole: How the grass turned green in the spring time and how the mocking birds fluttered their tails and sang, how the moon shone down on the buildings, how the bell in the chapel tower rang out the precious short-lived hours; how the girls in the bright summer dresses promenaded the grassy lawn. Many times, here at night, I've closed my eyes and walked along the forbiddedn road that winds past the girl's dormitories, past the hall with the clock in the tower, its iwndows warmly aglow, on down past the small white Home Economics practice cottage, whiter still in the moonlight, and on down the road with its sloping and turning, paralleling the black powerhouse with its engines droning earth-shaking rhythms in the dark, its windows red from teh glow of the furnace, on to where the road became a bridge over a dry riverbed, tangled with brush, and clinging vines; the bridge of rustic longs, made for trysting, but virginal and untested by lovers; on up the road, past the buildings with the southern verandas half-a-city-block long, to the sudden forking, barren of buildings, birds, or grass, where the road turned off to the insane asylum. I always come this far and open my eyes. The spell breaks [...]" (34-35).

"At the sound of vespers I moved across the campus with groups of students, walking slowly, their voices soft in the mellow dusk. I remember the yellow globes of frosted glass making lacy silhouettes on the gravel and the walk of the leaves nad branches above us as we moved slow through the dusk so restless with scents of lilac, honeysuckle and verbena, and the feel of spring greenness and I recall the sudden arpeggios of laughter lifting across the tender, springtime grass-gay-welling, far-floating, fluent, spontaneous, a bell-like feminine fluting, then suppressed; as though snugged swiftly and irrevocably beneath the quiet solemnity of the vespered air now vibrant with somber chapel bells" (109).

While Ellison’s images of the South are alive with colors of nature—green grass, red clay roads, white magnolias, purple and silver thistle—his images of the North are painted primarily in shades of gray and white. Thus, color contrasts the rural South with its farms and plantations, providing people a means of living off the land, against the urban North, depicted as cold, sterile, and inhospitable [4].

"I had never seen so many black people against a background of black buildings, neon signs, plate glass and roaring traffic" (158-159).
"Below me lay South Ferry, and a ship and two barges were passing out into the river, and far out and to the right I could make out the Statue of Liberty, her torch almost lost in the fog. Back along the shore, gulls soared through the mist above the docks, and down, so far below that it made me dizzy, crowds were moving" (165).
"Far down the island the skyscrappers rose tall and mysterious in the thin, pastel haze" (173).

"The grass is green"
"'Will you take a message to my boyfriend for me?' she said. [...] Just tell him that I said the grass is green...'
'The grass is green. It's our secret code, he'll understand.'
'The grass is green,' I said.
'That's it. Thank you, lover,' she said.
I felt like curisng as I watched here hurrying back into the building [...]. Here she was playing with some silly secret code [...]. The grass was green and they'd meet and she'd be sent home pregnant, but even so, in less disgrace than I..." (104-105).

Works Cited

[1] Critical Essays Color Symbolism in Invisible Man. "Cliffs Notes. "March 3, 2008.,pageNum-71.html

[2] Elison, Ralph. Invisible Man, New York: Random House Inc., 1952

[3] Goodsell, Beth. Color Symbolism in Invisible Man. March 3, 2008.

[4] Invisible Man - Study Guide. March 3, 2008.

[5] Symbolism Colors. March 3, 2008.