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Blindness and Invisibility are major topic in African American novels published in the 20th century, but often not a physical but rather psychological blindness is meant by this. It is about what the inner eye sees through the physical ones. Blindness in African American novels is often perceived to be ignorance towards black people, but we will find cases where it is the other way round. Ignorance refers to the fact that people refuse to recognize people and to notice their individuality. The two novels to be analyzed are Native Son by Richard Wright and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In both novels, we find physical as well as psychological blindness. By having a look at these aspects, the thesis that sight and blindness are central topics in the novels can be proven. The paper will analyze both forms of blindness in the novels. In doing so, also physical blindness and eye metaphors will be analyzed.
Add Brother Jack The reader encounters Brother Jack's blindness quite late in the novel. On page 381, he
Because of the fact that he has only one blind eye, he managed to stay independent. He does not need to rely completely on other people's eyes as he has one that works.
To begin with, one should first have a look at the physical blindness in the two novels. The blind character in Wight's work is Mrs. Dalton and in Invisible Man it is Reverend A. Barbee. Both characters can be considered to have a symbolic meaning in the novels. They represent the "real" blindness and contrast it with people who are able to see with their eyes but obtain psychological blindness. Rev. Barbee is a completely blind person and he tries to hide this by wearing dark glasses during his service. In case somebody did not know he was unable to see, it would be hard to notice it. The Invisible Man and the other people sitting in the audience only notice it because he fell down and lost his glasses (Ellison 113). As a blind person, he has to rely completely on what other people tell him about the world. Because of the fact that he is so dependent on other people, he trusts or rather has to trust other people more. This trust makes him vulnerable. For examples, he believes Bledsoe to be honest when he tells Barbee that he is going to preach to black college students only. This brings the Reverend in an embarrassing situation, as he talks about the black identity, the integration of the black people and calls the audience "daughters and granddaughters, sons and grandsons, of slaves (101). It seems as if Bledsoe only uses Barbee to impress guests and not because Bledsoe likes Barbee and the way he preaches. Due to his inability to see the reality, he flees into his ideal world of religion and feels comfortable under the protection of God. Now the physical blindness of Mrs. Dalton will be analyzed. She is the only character who really is blind and therefore represents the "real" blindness in the book. As she is not able to see, she depends on other people telling her how the world and its people look like. The fact that she relies on other people telling her how to perceive her surroundings leads to the fact that she gets influenced by them and their prejudices. For example, she is not capable to see that Bigger's skin color is different and this is the reason why she should not treat him differently. Nevertheless, she does so because the people in her environment constantly tell her that he is a black, poor guy who needs their support and needs a job to improve his conditions in life. One could argue that she is not only physically, but also psychologically blinded by prejudices because he environment makes her to act like this. In contrast to her husband, she will never be able to see again and to get rid of prejudices. She will always have to rely on other people's opinions and on their eyes. In case her husband never "opens his eyes" and starts to see Bigger (and everyone who is like him) as an individual, Mrs. Dalton will always stay in his situation.
The next section of the paper is concerned with psychological blindness. In the first part of it, eye metaphors found in Ellison's novel will be analyzed to prove that there are a lot of allusions made to the human eye. The second part of it deals with blindness and invisibility in Native Son. In the following three metaphors that are concerned with the eye are presented. Ellison used these metaphors as a tool to remind the reader that the bock is about sight and blindness. We find a lot of these reminders throughout the whole novel. The first one that can be found in the novel is in the scene of the battle royal. The black men that fight against each other have to wear blindfolds, which make them unable to see their surroundings. The boys fighting in the ring are not only physically blind, but also emotionally. They do not feel how the white people sitting in the outside of the ring are amused by them and how their reactions are. They do not see that they are only used to entertain them and that there will be no gold or other rewards waiting for them after the battle. They are blinded what the white people told them and they are also so blinded that they do not wonder about the gold bars being under electric power. In contrast to the black people fighting in the ring, the whites watching them also seem to be blinded, as they are not able to recognize the humanity and individuality of the fighters. Even though the audience and the fighters have very different roles in this scene, there seems to be a similarity between the two groups. They are both blind. Although there is the ring between them, there is blindness on both sides of the ring. The next metaphor I want to refer to can be found in the hospital scene, in which the Invisible Man wakes up after an accident in the paint factory. When he first opens his eyes, he feels very dizzy and describes his first sights as follows: "sitting in a cold, white rigid chair and a man was looking at [him] out of a bright third eye that glowed from the centre of his forehead" (188 Penguin). The narrator is too confused and too dizzy to notice that the third eye he is talking about is a simple stethoscope. After the man has gone out of the room, the narrator still seems to feel the presence of the "third eye": "the bright eye still burning into [his]" (189 Penguin). This symbolizes the importance of the "third eye" to the Invisible Man because he takes its presence and its impact on him very serious. Nonetheless, the narrator does not know what to do with this experience and does not know what to think of it. He seems very confused. It seems as if the narrator feels to be observed by the "third eye". During the scene in which he gets the electric shocks, we can notice a lot of other words that refer to the topic of sight or eyes. On page 190 (penguin), he sees a "circle of light" and a woman with "gold nose glasses". In addition to this, he sees someone that looks at the Invisible Man with "eyes behind the thick glasses blinking as though noticing [him] for the first time" (190 penguin). All this refers to the narrators feeling of being watched steadily. The third and last metaphor to be mentioned here is that of the dark sunglasses. When the narrator disguises with some new clothes to flee from Ras the Exhorter, he buys dark sunglasses to hide himself. They are so dark that he cannot see properly. Thus, the sunglasses do not only make him invisible, but also change his own view of the world, as he sees it as this: "the streets swarmed in a green vagueness" (388 Penguin) and "faces were a mysterious blur" (389 Penguin). The new sunglasses have two functions in his life: In the first place, they provide him protection, as nobody can recognize him (one woman even thinks he is Rinehart). In the second place, they provide him with blindness, which prevents him from seeing the real world.
Another aspect that points to the importance of blindness in Invisible Man is the fact that some names of the characters make allusions to blindness. The reader is consciously or unconsciously aware of them, but it is clear that it contributes to the overall shape of the book. One of these characters is Reverend Homer A. Barbee. His name alludes to blindness, as Homer, a Greek poet, was blind as well. It is believed that the name "Homer" came from the Greek "ho mÄ“ horÅn", which means "the person who does not see". His surname "Barbee" can be linked to the famous Barbie doll, which was launched on the market a couple of years before the novel was published. The doll represented an ideal world in which little girls flee, similar to Barbee's ideal world of religion. Another aspect that might be comparable is the fact that the Barbie doll spread as successful through the world as once Christianity did.
In the next chapter I would like to focus on the psychological blindness in Wright's Native Son. Bigger's own blindness and the blindness of the people in his environment should be analyzed. Psychological blindness arises a lot of problems in the characters' lives. Having a look at Bigger's blindness, there are several hints in the novel which propose that is unable to see clearly and thus suffers from a lack of reality. In the very beginning of the novel, the author makes an illusion to physical blindness because Bigger is "rubbing his eyes" (Wright 7). In a this state, when you have just woken up and cannot see clearly, a person is almost blind and also thinking is not that easy. No matter what Bigger does in the next moment after waking up, this action will be very unconscious or even intuitively, because he cannot see properly nor is he able to think about his behavior. He can only act like an animal and is blind to his environment. A similar scene is that in which Bigger threatens his friend Gus, holding a knife in his hand. Wright describes his eyes as "bloodshot" (40), which leads to the fact that his sight cannot be clear. A lot of other scenes can be found, in which Bigger's sight seems to be disturbed. When he find himself in Mary's bedroom, he feels blinded by the "hazy blue light" (85) and his eyes are out of focus and thus unable to perceive reality in any clear way. In the moment when Mrs. Dalton enters the room, Bigger only perceives her as a "white blur" (84). Also, Wright mentions that "reality of it all slipped from him" (222). His loss of reality and his inability to see and think properly could be an explanation for the murders of Mary and Bessie. Bigger could have been to recognize that Mrs. Dalton is already unable to see him and just be silent until she leaves the room. Instead, Bigger killed Mary. He could have easily escaped from the situation. Also, he did not understand in advance that the murder of Bessie can make his whole situation even worse than improving it. His inability to see can be made responsible for the fact that he could not think clearly and was blinded by his surroundings. He is too blind to realize what he is actually doing and what these actions mean. The reader has to understand that in the case of Bigger, "real" blindness and the psychological one are more connected that expected. Bigger's physical blindness leads to his psychological one.
Now we are going to have a look at the people in Bigger's surrounding, which all refuse to see him as an individual. Mary is the first character to be analyzed in this section. She grew up in rich family, where she never had problems and always got what she wants. She does not know anything about the world outside of her ideal world. This is the reason why she is blind towards everything outside her little world and this makes it impossible for her to understand Bigger. Her unawareness of the world is also displayed in the scene where she wants to see "a real place" (69), where only Black people are. She always says that she is interested to see how "they" (the African Americans) live, but in fact she is unable to understand anything because she is so much blinded by her family. Bessie, Bigger's girlfriend, brings herself into a blind position as she flees reality by drinking a lot of alcohol. By doing this, she cannot judge anymore what is right and wrong and she also not capable anymore to understand Bigger and to notice his individuality. This is the reason why he feels misunderstood. She also does not recognize that Bigger does not really love her but only uses her for his own pleasure. Bigger's mother does not use alcohol, but religion and prayers to flee reality. If there is a problem, she simply praises the Lord. She is unwilling to accept that her innocent son is a murder and only prays to God, thinking that this is the only way somebody could help her son. Thus, she is not only blinded by her religion, but also by the love a mother has for her child. Even after Bigger admitted his crime she does not want to believe it. Jan and Boris May are blinded by their communist views and their goal to convince black people of its benefits. They see in Bigger only a poor boy that never really had a chance in life. In their feelings towards Bigger, there is also a lot of sympathy involved. The same could be said for the Daltons, who feels a lot of sympathy for Bigger and try to give him a chance to improve his life. For the media Bigger represents a monster. They are blinded and driven by their prejudice that black men like to rape white girls and accuse him of this crime, even though there is no real evidence for it.
In sum, I can say that not only Mrs. Dalton, but a lot of other characters of Wright's Native Son were blind. They just see the stereotype of a poor American boy and not the personality that hides behind the surface. He turns into somebody that does not exist for his surroundings and thus he is invisible. One could say that the blindness that other characters have towards him leads to the fact that he is invisible. This thesis can also be applied to Ellison's Invisible Man. Although the title already suggests that the main character is invisible, it can also be deduced from its content. The Invisible Man is invisible because the people surrounding him treat him like he was not there; as if he did not exist at all. They do not care about his feelings and do not notice his individuality. For example, the Brotherhood only tries to use him for their own purposes, ignoring his own interests.
In conclusion, it can be said that the human ability to see or not to see is a major topic in the two novels, as there can be found a lot of metaphors and allusions towards the characters' eyes. One could even say that blindness guides the reader like a red line through the novels. The allusions made by the authors constantly remind the reader of the importance of seeing. The reader has to keep in mind that blindness can be understood in different ways. The most obvious meaning is physical blindness, which is represented by Mrs. Dalton in Native Son, and Rev. Barbee in Invisible Man. Their blindness can be transferred to other character in the novel and make them blind, too. For example, Mrs. Dalton is unable to see Bigger, not only literally, but also metaphorically, as she cannot see his individuality and his character. She is blinded by prejudices. This makes Bigger invisible for her and for many other people who are influenced by these prejudices. The psychological meaning of blindness can be split up into an internal and external blindness. This means that a character can be blind himself (e.g. as Bigger who loses his sense of reality or Mrs. Dalton, who is "really" blind) or s/he can become blind or invisible for other people.