This article claims that Ralph Ellison's use and then revision of French existential themes is essential to understanding his overriding message of Invisible Man: Ellison's hope for a more polyglot American democracy that transcends the white democracy of mid twentieth century America. Specifically, I argue that Ellison, after demonstrating his ability to understand and engage in the traditional ideology of European existentialism, deviates from its individualistic conclusions demanding that the larger community, not just the solitary individual, must become ethically responsible if the classic existential tenet of authenticity is to be achieved. In order to establish this claim, I identify key passages in Invisible Man that indicate Ellison's desire to engage the existential movement. Writings from Camus and Sartre provide the foundation for comparison between Ellison's work and the French based philosophy. This background provides the groundwork to explore Ellison's deviations from the existential forms of his day. These departures have significant implications for Ellison's view of a socially productive individual, and therefore of his message in Invisible Man. In order to document the prevalence of existentialism in Ellison's literary consciousness, I then discuss its rise and decline in postwar New York. I also outline what is known about Ellison's relationship to the movement. Lastly, I conclude with a discussion of the philosophical tradition of existential philosophy and the difference between the philosophy of existence, seen in the Western canon through philosophers like Kierkegaard, and existentialism, one of its popular manifestations that peaked in the 1940s. Separating the two existential movements allows me to explore the tangential way most Ellison critics have associated him with existentialism and advocate for a more inclusive critical discussion of Ellison's relationship to existentialism.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Wilcox, Eliot J., "The Absurd in the Briar Patch: Ellison's Invisible Man and Existentialism" (2010). Theses and Dissertations. 2305.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, existentialism, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre