Happy birthday, Ralph Ellison. The late author is perhaps most famous for his 1952 existentialist novel, Invisible Man, which touched upon issues facing African-Americans, as told through one man’s search for his identity in New York City during the 1930s. The title spent 16 weeks on the best-seller list and won the prestigious National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. Ellison’s use of the nameless protagonist echoes themes of social blindness throughout the novel. The narrator describes himself as “invisible” in the prologue:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Sometimes misunderstood, other times preferring the cloak of anonymity, the unnamed protagonist has acted as the voice of many throughout literature. Here are ten compelling uses of the literary device.
The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A nameless woman is confined to her bedroom by her physician husband. She’s been diagnosed with a vague nervous affliction, the details of which are recorded in a secret journal she hides from him. The conclusion of the story is hotly debated. Some see the character’s surreal visions of women hidden within the wallpaper of her room as a descent into madness. Others call it a feminist epiphany — a realization that there is no freedom in marriage and a triumph over her inner world. The nameless woman becomes a universal symbol of female social oppression during the 19th century.