Critical Essays Wordplay in Invisible Man


Ellison obviously delights in wordplay to achieve what he describes as blues-toned laughter. One of the more fascinating aspects of the novel, Ellison's wordplay — allusions, puns, and rhymes as well as powerful metaphors and similes — adds a dimension of literary and cultural richness to the novel.

Ellison bases much of his wordplay on black vernacular, the ordinary language of black Americans, enriched by colloquial expressions and proverbs as well as excerpts from songs and stories rooted in African and African American culture. Vernacular refers to the native form of ordinary language, as opposed to the literary or learned forms. Vernacular includes pronunciation and local dialect. A faucet on the West Coast is a spigot on the East Coast, while heavy traffic in the Midwest becomes gridlock in California.

In Chapter 25, Dupre, providing instructions for burning down the tenement building, warns, "After that it's every tub on its own black bottom!" Ellison might have used the more common and less colorful phrase, After that it's every man for himself, but this would not have grounded the scene in black culture. The two winos use a vivid simile to describe Ras on his horse, "looking like death eating a sandwich." A third example is Trueblood's play on the word whippoorwill: "we'll whip ole Will when we find him."

Ellison achieves much of his comic effect through a unique form of wordplay called playing the dozens. Rooted in black vernacular, playing the dozens is a subversive type of wordplay in which the oppressed (blacks) use the language of the oppressor (whites) against them without directly confronting or openly challenging the oppressor. Ranging from mildly insulting to overtly obscene, playing the dozens is a coded language that uses puns, hyperbole, humor, irony, repetition, reversal, and understatement to score points, and often includes sexual innuendo and references to "your mama." Following are some examples of this type of wordplay in the novel:

Puns. Puns involve a word or words that sound alike in order to juxtapose, connect, or suggest two or more possible applications of the word or words, usually in a humorous way: trigger/nigger, Ras/race, yam/I am, trusties/trustees, Monopolated/manipulated, exhorter/extorter, homburg/humbug, Rambo/Sambo, and taboo/tatoo. Other examples include plays on characters' names, such as Wrestrum (restroom), Tobitt (two-bit), and Tatlock (deadlock). In the end, the narrator becomes whole in his hole.

Hyperbole. Hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration used for effect and not meant to be taken literally: He's as strong as an ox; I've told you a million times. . . . Examples in the novel include Scofield pulling a quart bottle of Scotch out of his hip pocket and the woman carrying a whole side of beef on her back.

Humor. Ellison coins new terms and creates his own language. Having established the traits and eccentricities of a character, the character's name conveys a certain action or activity. Examples include "Bledsoing," referring to his sunglasses as "Rineharts" and expressing his intent to "out-Tobitt Tobitt."

Irony. Irony involves expressing the opposite of what one believes to be true. Examples of irony include the narrator's desire to follow in Dr. Bledsoe's footsteps, which he ultimately does, even though he is expelled from college; the narrator's desire to see Dr. Bledsoe exposed as a "chitterling eater," when he himself is so exposed by the drunk at the Chthonian; and the image of Mary's bank exploding, shortly after the narrator tells us that his head is about to explode. The ultimate irony is that the Invisible Man, obsessed with the blindness of others, is blinded. He refuses to see the truth even when others point it out to him.

Repetition. The refrain of the line "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" as well as various takes on the song "Poor Robin" ("They picked poor robin clean") and numerous references to "buckets" in a variety of contexts, ranging from the metaphorical buckets in Booker T. Washington's "Cast Down Your Bucket" speech to paint buckets at the Liberty Paint Factory and buckets of coal oil at the Harlem Riot, all provide examples of repetition.

Reversal. The novel presents images of inverted reality as well as numerous reversals: black is white, dark is light, freedom is bondage, and underground is aboveground. Trying to elevate himself above others whom he considers beneath him, the narrator becomes involved with the Brotherhood, eventually causing his downfall.

Understatement. Understatement involves depicting a scene or describing an image in weaker terms than warranted by truth, accuracy, or importance, thereby underscoring its importance. Trueblood's simple understatement, "I was lost" to describe his sexual feelings towards his daughter, is a key example.

Other examples of wordplay include oxymorons ("[T]he darkness of lightness" and "The end is in the beginning") and double entendres. The blindfolds described as "broad bands" could also refer to radio waves. The word party could be interpreted as a social event or a political party in Brother Jack's comment to the narrator, "It's a party, you might like it." And, of course, the novel contains various plays on the word race, which include racism, horse races, running, and the human race. Numerous allusions to biblical, literary, and historical events are significant because they allude to the strength enslaved black Americans found in their folk culture, history, and religion, enabling them to survive the horrors of slavery.

Ellison's language of music and war supports his underlying themes: the power of music (especially jazz and blues), and America's continuing race war.

Achieving powerful effects, Ellison simply varies the spelling of certain words. Indicated in Chapter 25, referring to the boys in blond wigs, he uses the feminine spelling of blonde, linking the image to that of the naked blonde in Chapter 1. Perhaps the subtlest example of this tactic is spelling briefcase as brief case. By varying the spelling of this word, Ellison not only draws attention to the briefcase itself; he also alerts us to the narrator's story about his experiences as a black man in white America, represented by a brief case (an abbreviated argument) for racial justice and social equality.