Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man depicts a realistic society where white people act as if black people are less than human. Ellison uses papers and letters to show the narrators poor position in this society. Many papers seem to show good fortune for the narrator, but only provide false dreams. The narrators prize of a brief case containing his scholarship first illustrates this falsehood: take this prize and keep it well. Consider it a badge of office. Prize it.
Keep developing as you are and some day it will be filled with important papers that will help shape the destiny of your people (32). The narrator is filled with joy from receiving his scholarship and brief case but subconsciously knows of the shallowness of the superintendents heart felt speech. Ellison shows this subconscious knowledge through the narrators dream of receiving a letter of deep and truthful meaning: And I did and in it I found an engraved document containing a short message in letters of gold To Whom It May Concern, I intoned. Keep This Nigger-Boy Running (33). Even though it is just a dream, the white people actually do want to keep the narrator and his race running after false dreams.
Another example of the bad associated with papers is when the brotherhood gives the narrator an envelope containing a new name on a piece of paper, replacing his identity:This is your new identity, Brother Jack said. Open it. Inside I found a name written on a slip of paper. That is your new name, Brother Jack said. Start thinking of yourself by that name from this moment.
Get it down so that if you are called in the middle of the night you will respond. Very soon you shall be known by it all over the country. You are to answer to no other, understand (302)?The fact that the narrator has been given a new identity and is not sure which one is himself means that the he has no identity at all: I would do the work but I would be no one except myself–whoever I was (303). The hospital release forms illustrate the white mans way of making the narrator less than human by depriving him of his work at the company; the doctor will not let him work: You arent ready for the rigors of industry. Now I want you to rest, undertake a period of convalescence.
You need to become readjusted and get your strength back You musnt try to go too fast. Youre glad to be released are you not?Take another job, Something easier, quieter. Something for which youre better prepared (241). Also, the doctors attempt to convince the narrator that he needs to slow down and take a quieter job represents the white man pushing the black man out of view. The warning letter that the narrator receives from a brother makes him aware of the fact that going too fast and growing too big will get him nowhere in the white mans world:Do not go too fast. Keep working for the people but remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down.
You are from the south and you know that this is a white mans world. So take a friendly advice and go easy so that you can go on helping the colored people. They do not want you to go too fast and will cut you down if you do. Be smart.
. (374). Eventually the narrator must burn all the papers in his brief case in order to see his way in the manhole: I started with my high-school diploma, applying one precious match with a feeling of remote irony I realized that to light my way out I would have to burn every paper in the brief case. . (554). Burning the papers in his brief case represents the narrators way of seeing the truth: That he, or anyone at that late date, could have named me and set me running with one and the same stroke of the pen was too much (555).
Some of the papers in his brief case burned differently than others. One such example is Cliftons doll: The next to go was Cliftons doll, but it burned so stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else (555). The fact that the doll is so hard to burn shows that his race will always be used and manipulated by puppet masters. On the other hand, the anonymous warning letter burns very quickly, illustrating that he and his race can become as big in the world as they can imagine: It was the anonymous letter, which burned so quickly that as it flamed I hurriedly unfolded another. . (555).