Not just a novel of epic proportions: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as modern American epic

Dana Edwards Prodoehl, Marquette University


This study discusses how Ralph Ellison offers a modern reinterpretation of the epic genre with his novel Invisible Man . Whereas, according to epic scholars such as Thomas E. Greene and others, epic has almost always been defined via form (verse), Ellison allows us to redefine it via purpose (national narrative). I contend that Ellison's novel should be seen not simply as a race novel but also, more broadly, as offering a modern American epic that builds upon classical forms. Ellison adds to the classical form of epic primarily by employing the conventions of the hero and the heroic journey. But, this re-envisioning of epic conventions does not lead to simple mimicry. Rather, we can see that Ellison builds upon how others have modified the epic over history, and challenges these modifications by bringing the epic into America during the twentieth century. Additionally, he challenges classical epic conventions through three other moves: first, he adds an explicitly psychological dimension to the hero's journey; second, he writes about a racialized hero; and, third, he composes in a nontraditional form for epic, prose. Ellison reinterprets the epic most pointedly by focusing on a hero who is neither great nor particularly heroic and who is on the margins of the larger society. But, the hero fulfills a heroic journey through the development of self, instigated by the disparity between how he sees himself and how others see him. This study explains his journey by (1) tracing the representational qualities of the hero; (2) analyzing the hero's journey toward identity, which is his central quest; (3) detailing how this journey is interrupted but also compelled by the masculine world; and, finally (4) detailing how multiple white female characters stand as the largest obstacles against which the hero must work. These women challenge the narrator the most since the relationships between the hero and these women are predicated upon extreme stereotypes of race and gender. Because of this journey, by the novel's end, we are left with a fully-formed epic hero, who might not look anything like classical models, but who has succeeded in offering an alternate, yet worthy, narrative of an American experience.

Recommended Citation

Prodoehl, Dana Edwards, "Not just a novel of epic proportions: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man as modern American epic" (2008). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3306506.