A Literary Journey into Consciousness

December 3rd, 2016

Annotated Bibliography

Posted by Krystal Dillon in Uncategorized

Benjamin, Shanna Greene. “There’s Something about Mary: Female Wisdom and the Folk  Presence in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man”. Meridians 12.1 (2014): 121-48.

I will not be using this article extensively, because Benjamin’s argument diverges from the path that I wish to take my analysis of Ellison’s novel. Benjamin argues that Mary becomes a symbol, for Ellison, of his deep respect for the wisdom rooted in black folk culture. However, I intend to use Benjamin’s analysis of Mary Rambo in the excised chapter of Invisible Man, which she argues has gone through more revision than any other aspect in the novel, highlighting the significance of Mary’s purpose in the novel. Additionally, she argues that clearly Mary remained a troubling character for Ellison even after the novel’s publishing, and this is where I intend to build my argument. I agree with Benjamin, that Mary’s character would have sought to undo all that his protagonist wished to accomplish in the narrative.

Lavender, Isiah. “Invisible Women in Invisible Man”. A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, Vol. 27, No. 3, 146–151, 2014.

Lavender takes from the work of Stanford, Tate, and Sylvander in order to argue that Ellison’s work is actually showing the power that exists within invisibility. Lavender takes the position of arguing that the protagonist of Ellison’s novel is driven by his encounters with the women he meets. He argues that the blonde “stripper” at the beginning gives the invisible man a lesson on invisibility. He argues that each woman, because they are stereotyped and invisible yet are still able to be strong autonomous figures, show the protagonist to find his own strength and autonomy in his invisibility.

Stanford, An Folwell. “He Speaks for Whom? Inscription and Reipscription of Women in  Invisible Man and the Salt Eaters” MELUS, vol. 18, no. 2, 1993, pp. 17–31.

Stanford, in this article, shows how Toni Cade Bambara revises the work done by Ellison in her novel. Stanford shows how Bambara responds to the gender erasure that happens in Ellison’s work by complicating his portrayal of women by going against the essentialism he perpetuates. In my paper, I will use this article mainly to build off of Stanford’s analysis of the dichotomy that exist within the portrayal of women. She argues that Ellison either shows women as the seductress (Emma, Sybil, the blonde woman at the beginning and Trueblood’s daughter) or the caretaker (Mary Rambo). I will also utilize her reading of the excised chapter of Invisible Man which shows Mary Rambo as a more complex character which seems to critique the essentialism that runs throughout the novel.

Steward, Douglas. “The Illusions of Phallic Agency: Invisible Man, Totem and Taboo, and the       Santa Claus Surprise”. Callaloo 26.2 (2003): 522-35.

Given that my concern with the stereotypical portrayals of women, I think that it is important to see the relationship with masculinity. Steward argues that the invisible man in this article becomes disillusioned when he realizes the intrinsic link between “whiteness” and “the illusion of phallic agency”. He argues that his quest to manhood, becomes a quest of rooting his subjectivity in an “endurable” masculinity. Overall, he is consistently confronted by the Brotherhoods attempts at “castration” and the constant use of castration imagery included by Ellison. As a result, he is forced to realize that the idea of agency and autonomy linked with the phallus is an illusion and he must acknowledge it as a myth.

Sylvander, Carolyn. “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Female Stereotypes”                      Negro American Literature Forum 9.3 (1975): 77-79.

Carolyn Sylvander’s piece on Ellison’s Invisible Man, charts each women introduced in the novel with the stereotypes they call forth. In doing so, she utilizes Ellison’s comments about the dehumanization process of stereotyping against him, noting the hypocrisy evident in his work. She charts the ways in which Mary, Sybil, Emma, and the other women in the novel are characterized as less than human, through their objectification. Overall Sylvander acknowledges that Ellison, in his attempt to acknowledge the invisibility of a racialized man in America, contributes to the ways in which mainstream white America simultaneously rendered women invisible. She ends her piece noting that whether or not Ellison was deliberate in his stereotyping, he inevitably prevented the possibility of his female characters being fully human.


Tate, Claudia. “Notes on the Invisible Women in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible   Man”. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Casebook. 2004.

Claudia Tate, takes the argument made by Carolyn Sylvander and complicates it. While Tate agrees with Sylvander’s argument that the women in the novel are stereotypical, she argues that many characters subvert the very stereotypes placed upon them. Tate takes an argument made by Ellison in his essay Twentieth Century Fiction which states that often if we take stereotypes and interrogate them we often find the very complexities of human character they seek to obscure. Tate takes the stereotypical figures of Emma and Mary Rambo and argues that they are much more than the “seductress” and the “mammy” figure critics have acknowledged them to be. Ultimately Tate argues that the invisible man in Ellison’s story, upon his encounters with each of these women, culminating with his meeting Sybil allow him to come to the realization that occupies the same marginal position as these women. It is upon this realization that he has contributed to their marginalization and perpetuated the invisibility process as the white men he argues rendered him invisible, he reaches his moment of disillusion.


My ballroom diagram starts with Ellison in the middle because each of the critics I use base their conclusions on his novel. My diagram begins with Carolyn Sylvander. She has served as the basis for a lot of the other authors. Essentially she argues that the women in the novel are one-dimensional and stereotypical. She critiques Ellison for rendering women invisible in a novel where he seeks to examine how mainstream white America renders black men invisible. She highlights the hypocrisy in his work. Claudia Tate builds off of her work arguing that although the women are stereotypical, they often subvert the very stereotypes placed upon them. Ultimately she shows the ways in which the women drive the narrative and aid the protagonist on his journey. Ann Stanford also critiques Ellison for his “gender erasure” but posits that we can look to black women writers, specifically Toni Cade Bambara to see how they are responding to and revising Ellison’s work. Isaiah Lavender draws from all three of these critics and posits that each of the women in the novel show the author that there is power and agency within invisibility.

As my research currently stands, I wish to argue that the stereotypical portrayals of women serve a narrative purpose. Where Tate argues that the women give him a lesson in how to be invisible, and Lavender argues that each woman shows him the power in his marginal position, I seek to argue the opposite. I believe that the women he encounters remain marginal because they threaten the very stable and visible identity he seeks to create. If, as Steward posits, the protagonist associates power and agency with the white phallic symbol, it can be argued that he marginalizes the women who show the fragility this identity. The women he encounters are erased from the narrative when they threaten his conceptualization of himself which adheres to this “illusion”. It is easier to construct an identity rooted in this homogeneous understanding of masculinity when the women against which he constructs this identity capitulate to essentialist notions of womanhood. Ultimately, using  Benjamin’s reading of the excised chapter of Mary Rambo, I will argue that Mary poses the biggest threat to the protagonist’s conception of the self, which is why “she poses the biggest threat”. If the earlier version of Mary had been included one which would have turned the stereotype on its head it would have  complicated and effectively destroyed the protagonist’s path to invisibility. I am still working through this argument and upon reading additional sources I think that I can narrow it further.

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