Life on the Strings Dolls. We are surrounded by dolls. G.
I. Joe, Barbie, PollyPocket, and WWF action figures. Prior to our plasticene friends we had paperdolls, marionettes, and delicately featured porcelain dolls. We are strangelyfascinated by these cold, lifeless objects that look so much like ourselves.
Children clutch them and create elaborate scenes, while adults are content tosimply collect, allowing them to sit, motionless on a shelf, staring coolly backat their live counterparts. Which brings us to and interesting point, are peoplesimply dolls for other people to play with or collect? One could make thearguement that we are all Tod Cliftons’, doomed to dance by invisible stringswhile wearing a mask of individualism. However, unlike Tod Clifton, most of uswill not realize that who pulls the string, is not ourselves. Ralph Ellison’snovel, The Invisible Man is fraught with images of dolls as if to constantlyreminded the reader that no one is in complete control of themselves. Our firstexample of doll imagery comes very early in the novel with the Battle Royalscene.
The nude, blonde woman is described as having hair “that was yellowlike that of a circus kewpie doll” (19). Ellison draws a very strongconnection between the plight of the Negro man and the white woman. The factthat they are both shown as puppets or dolls in the work is no coincidence. Thewoman and the African are merely show pieces for the white men in the novel.
TodClifton’s dancing Sambo dolls are the most striking example of doll imagery. This small tissue paper doll has the capability to completely change theInvisible Man. When he sees that the powerful and enigmatic Clifton is the onehawking the abominable dolls, the narrator is so filled with humiliation andrage that he spits upon the dancing figure. But what is it that has caused thissurging of fury? It is Tod Clifton and not the narrator who has degraded himselfto such a base level.
However, it is our narrator’s sudden comprehension of hisown situation that causes his wrath. The line “For a second our eyes metand he gave me a contemptuous smile” (433) illustrates this moment ofrealization for our narrator. It shows the reader that Tod Clifton was aware ofhis position as a puppet all along and chooses to enlighten the narrator at thisparticular point in the novel. The Invisible Man recognizes that all his lifehe’s been a slave and a puppet to others.
Whether those others were Bledsoe, hisgrandfather, or the brotherhood is irrelevant, but there has always been andimperceptible string attached to him governing everything he does. Not only astring but his own physical characteristics echo those of the grotesque Sambodolls. It’s cardboard hands were clenched into fists. The fingers outlined inorange paint, and I noticed that it had two faces, one on either side of thedisks of cardboard, and both grinning. (446) Hands doubled into fists? This isthe brotherhood message in a nutshell, Strong, ready to fight for what onesupposedly believes in. Yet, at the same time these fists are controlledexclusively by the one holding the strings.
And the black Sambo puppetblissfully unaware that he is merely a plaything. He smiles to the crowd andback to the puppeteer. It is the grin on the face of this doll that initiallyangers the Invisible Man. But why? Thinking back to the very start of the novelwe have the Grandfather’s dying words to our narrator, “.
. . overcome ’emwith yesses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death anddestruction. . . ” (16).
It would seem as though the Grandfather and TodClifton are in league with one another as they both have a firm grasp on whatpower men have over men. We get a powerful and disturbing image of this veryidea when the Invisible Man is in the factory hospital after the explosion. Itis a scene that seems to fade into the mishmash of confusion that accompaniesthis part of the novel, but it is nonetheless very important. As the narratorlies in his glass enclosed box with wires and electrodes attached all over hisbody, he is subjected to shock treatment.
“Look, he’s dancing,”someone called. “No, really?” . . . ” They really do have rhythm,don’t they? Get hot, boy! Get hot!” it said with a laugh. (237) This imageis almost a perfect match with that of Clifton’s dancing Sambo doll.
The onlything missing is the huge grin and even that is taken care of with the line,”My teeth chattered” (237) giving us the picture of a grotesque andpained smile. He experiences a burst of anger which I can only assume means thathe catches a glimpse of the strings that he is being pulled by and is helplessto do anything about it. Our final encounter with a doll occurs again withClifton’s dancing Sambo. At the end of the narrative, while escaping the hell ofthe Harlem riots, the Invisible Man stumbles upon an open manhole and the gloombelow. While trying to keep warm and get a good look at the place he in, hebegins to burn the various objects in his briefcase.
When he comes to the flimsytissue-paper doll he finds that it will not burn. He remarks “it burned sostubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else. ” (568) Thedoll’s difficulty in burning is symbolic of the fact that we, as men , willnever fully be able to break free from our puppet-like imprisonment. Ellison’snarrator can be found in each and every human being. We live our livesattempting to be independent and free thinking individuals, but there willalways be the strings that bind us to someone who controls our destiny. Even theInvisible Man has his turn at being a puppeteer, as we all do, with Mr.
Nortonat the train station when he calmly states, “I’m your destiny. ” (578)Do we know who we control? Do we know who controls us? The answer the InvisibleMan might give: Maybe.