Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

In this post, I write a comparison essay outlining differences in "cave allegory" imagery in Plato's Republic and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
Two Books in Conversation
In an ancient conversation two-thousand five hundred years ago between friends, now called The Republic, recorded by the Greek philosopher Plato, Socrates discusses the problem of whether human beings are capable of educating true lovers of wisdom and the possibility of living within a just society. In the course of the dialogue, there is a section in the seventh part, after a discussion on the degrees of knowledge, when Socrates and his friend Glaucon speak analogously of life is like a cave, a dark shadow of the real world. Socrates imagines the cave as “an underground cave-like dwelling place” (514 A).
“The Allegory of the Cave”
As Socrates discusses the cave-dwelling to his friend, He conceives of people living in a cave, with their “legs and necks fettered from childhood,” so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads” (514 B). They do not realize that behind them is a fire. Between them and the fire are fake animals and statues, reproductions in stone or wood carried by men that are cast in shadow form on the wall by the fire “like a screen at a puppet show in front of the performers who show their puppets above it” (514 B). They imagine one prisoner being freed from this cave-like existence and finding light in the real world. When the one prisoner adjusts to the light in “the real world” and sees that it is beautiful he retreats back into the cave to free his friends, to enlighten them. But they rebel against him, comfortable in their lethargy and the convenient darkness, so they kill him. This story is popularly known as “Plato’s Cave” or the “Allegory of the Cave.” It has become a hallmark image of Western Philosophy and the ineluctable pursuit for the quest for truth.
Invisible Man
In 1952, a story was written about an unnamed, young, naive black man. The imagery of shadow and invisibility, imprisonment and freedom also mark this story as it did the ancient Greek allegory. After receiving a prize for a speech he gave to his high school somewhere in the South, the unnamed protagonist and a group of black students are invited to an underground meeting with the prominent white men of the town. After witnessing a shameful striptease by a young white girl with a tattoo of the American flag on her belly, the black boys are crowded into an open rink and forced to box in a battle royal. Afterward, the white men beckon the story’s protagonist to the crowded, bloody center to deliver his prize speech. When he proceeds to mention “social equality,” a forbidden phrase, the tension in the room is tightened, as if they would kill him if he advanced any further notion of racial equality. Thus the story of the Invisible Man begins. He goes to college up North. He joins a group of communist sympathizers called the Brotherhood. He is duped and used by both. After he has been jerked by the educational and political systems -- systems in general -- he retreats into the cave, for enlightenment. He finds shelter in a basement of an all-white apartment building in New York City, his cave. He goes into the cave, as he says, “The point now is that I found a home -- or a home in the ground, as you will” (5).

It is a cave of light, for he has strung the walls and floor with bright filament light bulbs. It is an act of passive aggression, though. It is his punch in the face to the outside, hegemonic white order. The protagonist imagines the above landlords wondering how so much electricity is being expended. And while the light is being sucked from Monopolated Power and Light, our hero listens to Louis Armstrong and rhapsodies into a metaphysical reverie to match the best of philosophical discourses.

Thinking Both Stories Together

Both stories, while obviously different, are parallel stories that think together issues of justice, education and as well gesture toward some answer to the question of what is truth and justice. It is not presumed that either story somehow miraculously interprets the other in some kind of fantastical hermeneutical wonderworld. But rather, the reason to think “Plato’s Cave” with Invisible Man is to ponder a bit about the central question(s) each text poses. So, what I will attempt to do in this paper is to discuss parallels of thought and imagery in both texts and the ways they both play and collide and converge images with going down into a “cave” and coming back into the “light.” In this way, hopefully, the exploration will provide a lens to discover plenteous fruits in both stories. We will look at the battle royal scene in Chapter One (which can be seen as an entire piece in of itself, separate from the novel, especially since it is highly anthologized and taught as a “short story” and also we will look at the sections in the novel that describe the narrator beneath a high tower residential apartment building in New York City.

The Battle Royal Scene
The descent into the battle royal scene, the descent into hell in chapter one of Invisible Man can be seen analogously with the imagery of the dark cave in Plato’s allegory and the realization of one prisoner that there is a difference between the dark world below and the world of light, of reality above. The subterranean denizens of Plato’s dark cave only know the shadows cast on the wall of the cave by a fire. The prisoners deem reality to be the shadows of the artificial objects as that which is really real. They are deluded. They are like the protagonist in Invisible Man who enters unknowingly into a world he never knew existed. “I was naive,” he says (15). All of his life, he had been looking for something and everywhere he looked somebody else was telling him what he should be looking for instead of realizing it himself (Ellison 15).

Ellison does not give him a name. He is nameless. He has no marked identity that identifies him. He is called “invisible” and “a negroe” but never called by name. He is unable to have an identity because in actuality he has no real identity in the eyes of the community in which he exists. The unnamed prisoners in Plato’s allegory do not have names either. They do not have self-awareness. They are drones. They are denizens of a shadow world for the purpose of “the community.” Ellison is capturing this image in the same way in his text of invisibility. The invisibility of the “Invisible Man” becomes not only a metaphor of manipulation but also it is a metaphor of the black man’s place in society. He is meant to be invisible. He is told to be unseen. He is encouraged only to stare straight ahead at the shadows on the wall and never to claim any kind of individuality.

In The Republic, the prisoners in the cave do not know that the shadows cast on the wall are actually representations of artificial objects, placed there like puppets, crafted, exhibited like a show, or a spectacle (514 B). They only know what has been shown to them to be real. Or, to put it another way, what has been demonstrated to be real. The protagonist in Invisible Man only slightly suspects the larger picture and is still at the level of “demonstration” at the novel’s outset. Before his descent into the battle royal in chapter one he has had no idea who the puppet masters are, i.e., the lily-white men who actually run the inside workings of his small southern town. He sees for the first time the engineers of his existence, the lily-white men who hold power and control in his hometown in chapter one. He meets the puppet masters face to face. In Plato’s story, the prisoners are shackled, literally like black people were shackled and sold as slaves. But not only are they shackled, but they also do not realize they are prisoners. They do not realize who really runs the show. They are blind.
“They are like us,” Socrates says (515 B). While, in Invisible Man, there is knowledge of a slave past for black Americans, the narrator is quick to remind us that he is not ashamed of his black past (15). He is only ashamed of himself for at one time being so ashamed. The realization he has of his own imprisonment past and the imprisonment of blacks today is the locus of a premonition the narrator has that he is, in fact, invisible, which we will talk about later. But first, let us look at the moments when “he begins to turn around,” like the prisoner in Plato’s cave who first turns around to see what is behind the proverbial curtain.

Ellison’s hero does turn around. He sees sickeningly for the first time. He is forced to turn around and see the raw reality, the machine that runs existence, the gristle mill of reality. When his grandfather, in a departure from his usual genteel disposition, tells his son on his deathbed, “to live with your head in the lion’s mouth” (15) is shocking to the family present. Then he tells his son to kill the white folk with yeses, “undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death” (16). It is shocking to the family present because the grandfather was seen as a man who would never buck the system, but in his death woes he discloses to his family that he, in fact, was privy to the puppet work; he knew the way the system really worked. His words, nevertheless, disturb the family. No one likes the truth. So they close the blinds; they hide his words. They prefer to keep their heads to the wall, to keep the shadow reality going and not turn their heads to the staged machinations. The grandfather’s method is to make ‘em believe they have you controlled but in reality, you are really letting them “swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). This is shocking and disturbing to the young man of the story, but he also does not forget what his grandfather said and he comes to believe his grandfather’s words. And when he is invited by the superintendent of schools to deliver his speech again to “a gathering of the town’s leading white citizens” in chapter one, what his grandfather said becomes grossly laid bare (17). He sees the duality of the system, the nature of reality that both the grandfather and Socrates speak about; a world of two worlds where one is merely a reflection of the other. He sees laid bare “the cheat and illusion” that Socrates describes (515 C). The differences can be horrifying, as the narrator soon finds out. It [the speech he gave to his school] was a triumph for our whole community” (17). But this triumph is turned into a farce, into a bleary and violent experience for the narrator.

What starts out as an “innocent” invitation from the town’s leading figures, is disfigured into a strange netherworld of mixed images and realities. What is happening in this section is the transformation of the narrator as he begins the painful realization of distinctions between what is false and what is authentic. He is viscerally confronted with the world of the prisoner, of the slave, and the world of the white folk who hold control over the prisoners.

The realization that he is only a puppet on a stage, like the prisoner in Plato’s allegory is twisted and manipulated the deeper he goes into the shadows in the battle royal sc
ene. Instead of delivering his speech as he thought would, he is first asked to attend a boxing match. He sees all of the prominent men of the town drinking and smoking black cigars and eating from a buffet table. He has been corralled into an open Rococo hall with other black boys. What is interesting is that the narrator does not identify with these boys. They are tough boys who are obviously there to box and do not look kindly on the narrator’s presence. One of them openly is angry that the narrator is there because he has taken the place of another boy. The narrator concludes that he is not like them; they do not have “the grandfather’s curse worrying their minds” (17). In fact, the narrator feels superior to them. It is as if he sees them still trapped in the cave, not yet enlightened.

Two things happen in this scene that distorts reality for the narrator, though. The young, blonde stripteaser and the actual boxing match which gives a twisted skew when he is finally able to give his speech after this harrowing event. The language of the scene is filled with the language of non-knowledge. Ellison permeates the text with a language of imperception and lack of insight. Words like dead, irrational, blindness, abstract, hollow, impersonal, darkness, and bleary give this section a feel of unknowability. You feel as if you are in a dark place. This is a world of imperceptibility where the demarcating lines between what is real and what is false have been blurred. Just as the text is blurry, the reader feels the blurring effect, and also, the narrator as well.

If you remember the allegory of the cave, in the section where Socrates talks about objects being cast on the wall as shadows, to give the perception of reality that does not really exist, a chimera of reality, a veiled image of the really real, as he calls it, “a strange image” (515 B). This strange image is the image of how most of us see the world, those of us who do not examine their own existence and their place in the world. The narrator sees this “strange image” for the first time when he sees the young girl propped on the stage to entertain the men. “A sea of faces, some hostile, some amused, ringed around us, and in the center, facing us, stood a magnificent blonde -- stark naked” (18). The girl has become an object. She is not only an object of sexual desire. She is an object. She has been made into an image for the men to slurp at and to groan, to grab. She has been made into a falsity. She has been cast as a shadow on the wall for others to pine after and to fantasize. Even though she is flesh and blood, she has been made into a fantasy.

She has been made into an artificial object. “Her hair was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll, the face heavily powdered and rouged, as though to form an abstract mask, the eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue, the color of a baboon’s butt” (19). Notice the language here. It is a language of falsity and artificiality. Not that the girl in of herself is artificial. She is a real person. She is a human being. She has flesh. She has blood that courses through her. But this authentic person has been made into an object, cast as a shadow onto the wall of a projected reality made for the pleasure, for the visceral pleasure of the men present.

Also, there is something else here, something more sinister. The puppet masters are there too. And they are shown to be amused and hostile. They want to watch the black boys’ shamed faces. The lily-white men of the town want to see these boys humiliated. They are there to watch the black boys writhe and respond to the image that has been set before them. They are dangling what they cannot have in front of their faces, to spit in their faces a taboo object of their desires. It is a cruel reversal of roles. It not only plays on the prejudices and beliefs by white men of what a black man wants but it twists desire and sexuality into something that is far removed from any sense of intimacy -- or of reality, for that matter. The scene is parallel to the image in Plato’s story where the men are behind the prisoners with artificial objects set in front of a fire so as to cast images on the wall. As Socrates call the chimeras in the dialogue, “human images and shapes of animals” (515 B). This girl is illuminated by the fires, by the fires of the puppet master’s control and the lascivious fires of male sexual fantasy. Thus, the girl is used as an artificial object to exploit the black youths’ own sense of self, of their own inherent sexuality -- to put them properly into their place by dangling before them a white body. It “violently” remind them who they are. Prisoners.

One of the boys pleads to go home, hiding an erection. Another boy faints. All the while the din of the clarinet music plays and the old white men yell invectives. The narrator has also been caught up into the disgusting display. He at once desires after the girl placed in front of him while at the same time he wants to destroy her. He wants at the same time to disappear from the scene -- the intensity of it is too great to cover the girl’s body from his own eyes and the eyes of the others, but also he wants to devour her, to caress her and to “love her and murder her,” to hide from her, and yet to stroke the tattooed American flag on her belly (19).

The “kewpie doll” girl wears a mask of rouge and her “eyes hollow and smeared a cool blue the color of a baboon’s butt.” The words, abstract, mask, and hollow are keywords that parallel the words, artificial, fake, and shadows. Her eyes are hollow because she has not been allowed to see. She is actually terrified. She is not present by her own volition. She has been propped up as a doll. She has been made into an artificial creature. She wears a mask. Not only on her face, but on her entire body. The narrator notices the terror and disgust in her eyes, “almost like my own terror and that which I saw in the other boys” (21). Once the actual battle royal begins, the terror increases into a violent squall.

When the girl is finally taken away from the scene the battle royal begins. The boys are blindfolded and brought to the rink. Whereas the blond girl was an object of desire, an artificial creature made apparent for the pleasure of the crowd, the actual battle royal makes the boys an object of violence and bloody humiliation. They are now just like the blonde girl, terrified and afraid and completely used.

“But now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness. It was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths. I could hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin” (21).

Chairs are thrown on the ground. Violence ensues. In this scene, the narrator loses all sense of individuality. When the bloody match is over he scrambles for the award prize, a toss of coins scattered on the rink. When he goes to grab the coins, he is electrified by a set up electrified rug. “A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat” (27). He is completely a pawn of the puppet masters.

The narrator is a puppet on the stage. He has been duped to say what the leaders want to hear. He is just a black boy. But he remembers his grandfather’s words. To a controlling white class, he is a person without any real merit. He has just been made to believe he has merit. Merit has been cast as a shadow on the wall and he was told to believe in those shadows. He was ignorant of the reality that “merit” had been taken away from him, hidden from him.

The shadow is the speech he gives on humility. He is awarded the opportunity to speak on behalf of his school on the topic of humility as a way to progress (even though he really does not believe what he says; his grandfather’s last words prevents him). This speech is a shadow speech. The anarchy of the scene is brought to an irrational and nonsensical conclusion when the M.C. of the battle royal calls the narrator to the center of the rink to deliver his speech.

It is manufactured by the puppet masters, like the men who cast images on the wall for others to believe in as real. The speech, although lauded by the town and the superintendent of schools as brilliant, is really a cover; there is something else that they do not want others to see. The shadow reality is comfortable. It is convenient. It is knowledge that does not disturb the system that has been set into place. It is knowledge at the base level. If knowledge could be measured in degrees, then this would be knowledge that almost borders on the knowledge of nothing. This is exacerbated by the fact that he gives his speech
again at the battle royal in front of the puppet masters, not veiled by the genteel veneer of polite society where blacks are politely put in their place. In this scene, all of the curtains have been drawn. Exposed as black, exposed for how he is really perceived, how he is really considered in “polite society,” the veil is lifted. The men hardly listen to his speech, even though he speaks it loudly, blood running down his mouth and in his throat. The shadow world is only broken when he belts out the phrase “social equality” instead of “social responsibility.” This is important. This is like the prisoners in the cave turning around to see or worse to speak. Prisoners are not supposed to speak words that counter the accepted discourse. The aberration from the prescribed words stuns the men’s cacophony. At this point, the narrator, in speaking out for himself if even for a brief moment is refusing to be a puppet, he is refusing to be chained to a wall of polite “yesses” and “no sirs.” In the apparent world of civil society, the narrator’s speech was accepted with graciousness and applause; now, here in the underworld of bruteness and visceral vice, the speech is greeted with laughter and mockery. And in an ironic twist of events, the narrator is awarded a scholarship to go North to attend a black college.

Although the novel goes into detail about the events of his college days and also his entrance into the world of politics, the part of the novel that I want to focus on next as a parallel to Plato is the cave sections, the sections where the narrator tells his story, from his warm, cozy underground dwelling which gives another perspective on the play of reality and falsity in this story.

“My Hole is Warm and Full of Light”

The narrator tells us that one thing he has learned in his life is that he is invisible. He is invisible because no one sees him. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3). He is not invisible because he has lost self-awareness. His invisibility is not a result of a lack of epistemic certainty. He has been faced with harsh truths. He has been again and again viscerally made aware of his place in reality, his place in the social structure and the way the United States treats black society and culture. He is not like the sleepwalkers, as he calls them, who must pay the price for their ignorance. He is not like the strange people who inhabit the world of Plato’s cave. The narrator has woken up. He can say at the same time that he is of flesh and blood. He is not a chimera. He is not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind” (3).

This mind that he possesses, this realization that he has of the world around him, the curse of his grandfather and the alacrity of his own perception, makes him like the freed prisoner of Plato’s allegory, the one man who frees himself and escapes the shackles of the cave. The man, “who stands up suddenly and turns his head around and walk and to lift up his eyes to the light” (515 C). Both he and the platonic hero both have turned their heads. Both have woken up suddenly and have walked to the light. Also, both have experienced the pain of realization. There is a sharp pain in realizing the truth because it means the death of various presupposed truths.

For the invisible man it is the pain of realization that others are not there to help him. He has followed other people’s paths, like the Brotherhood, with all of its grand ideals. He has come to the painful realization that others do not care much for the truth. Others do not consider authenticity to be a virtue. The narrator is sick of spouting out platitudes. “I became ill of affirmation, of saying “yes” against the nay-saying of my stomach -- not to mention my brain” (564). To get this point, the narrator had to undergo the painful realization of truth. In Plato’s story, the freed prisoner cannot stand the light of the sun at first once he is freed from the shackles of his shadow existence. His skin chafes and his eyes burn (515 E). It is only after a long time that he is able to discern the sun and the stars, to see how the world really is in a clarified vision. He is eyes are restored. Like the narrator, they both can say “Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistible as a club” (563). The key phrase is, “once you get used to it.”

For “once you get used to it” any other form of life seems worthless. For as the narrator says “to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death (7). And also in the allegory of the cave, the dialogue’s interlocutors, Socrates and Glaucon, both comment that anyone who has seen the light of truth would endure anything except going back into the darkness of the cave, to be shackled and to be fed a lie. “Yes, he [Glaucon] said, I think he [the freed prisoner] would choose to endure anything rather than such a life (516 E).

The life the narrator desires is not the false life of a society that is Janus-faced, at once accepting him, but actually rejecting him. The life the narrator desires is the freedom to be himself. His revelation is that light, the light of truth, does not come from external structures of the state and society but rather from himself. When he finds himself at the end of the story in a dark basement, he decides to stay there for a while because he cannot return to the outside world of illusions because it is a world of deception and emptiness. “I could only move ahead or stay here [the basement], underground” (562).

Ellison uses a cave-like place for this habitation of light. He is using the allegory of the cave ironically. In Plato’s story, the cave is the place of delusion and chimera. It is the movement to the outside where the freed prisoner sees reality. The same thing is going on here with Ellison’s narrator. The dark cave of delusion and chimera is the shadow world where one is not allowed to be authentic, to be a true form. The world that is true and filled with light is a world the narrator creates for himself.

He goes into his underground dwelling place and strings lights from every corner because he loves light. Here he is not invisible. He is not jerked by every system he has encountered. For those who are enlightened, as the Greek philosophers knew, “their souls are always pressing upward to spend their time there [in enlightenment], for this is natural if things are as our parable indicates” (517 C-D). The narrator in Invisible Mani has reached this point of enlightenment when he is living in his underground hole, his warm hole, as he calls it, filled with light. His soul is always pressing upward to spend time in enlightenment.

So the “cave,” the warm hole that he inhabits, is not the grisly scene of the battle royal or the hypocritical state of the all-black college or the tentacle-like Brotherhood, but rather, the cave is a place of light. It is where the narrator gradually comes to feel his vital awareness (7). It is important that he uses the word “gradual”. Socrates and Glaucon speak about the freed prisoner, once he is in the open light and he opens his eyes. First, the prisoner would only see the shadows. Then he would be able to see the reflections in the water. And only later, would he be able to see “things themselves,” and from there “be able to contemplate the appearances in the heavens and heaven itself.” At first, it would only be at nighttime when it would be easier to discern reality than in the daytime. But finally, he would be able to discern the sun, “and see its true nature, not by reflections in the water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place” (516 A-B). This gradual revelation puts the narrator of Invisible Man on par with the platonic hero who gradually adjusts to the light. It is where he is able to say, “And I love light” (7). “Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form .... without light I am not only invisible but formless as well; and, to be unaware of one’s form is to live a death” (6).

This is why critics call this novel a kunstlerroman, because it is about the birth of the artist. The artist must come face to face with the illusions and with the delusions that surround him. The artist must be awoken. The artist inevitably sees himself as awake. He is not a sleepwalker. But he is aware of those who sleep.
“I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers” (5).
It is as if the narrator had read Plato’s allegory. Because in the allegory the freed prisoner does, in fact, awaken the sleeping ones. He goes back into the chimeric abode to awaken his friends. But they do not take kindly to his nudging. They are dangerous awake (like a child awoken by his parent on a school day!). And they kill him. “And if it were not possible to lay hands on and to kill the man who tried to release them and lead them up, would they not kill him?” (517 A). Both the narrator and Glaucon would say, “they certainly would” (517 A).

But in the end, the narrator does come out; he emerges from his cave. For he can live with the sleepwalkers, not awaken them, but also be mindful of his own existence and who he really is.

To end this discussion is not to preclude examination of other parallels in the story to Plato’s allegory of the cave. There is the scene when he first goes to college and he meets Dr. Bledsoe and the unraveling of his place in a black college and the college’s real intentions. There is the scene with the Brotherhood when they do not allow him to speak his mind but rather speak prescribed words and blank texts. There is the scene when he attempts to awaken a sleepwalker in the subway. But, I think what is important in understanding this novel, is the notion of gradual education and the realization that true knowledge first is painful, then one slowly begins to perceive and to grow. That it is necessary to retreat into a cave, to come out again and to go back, to not wake the sleeping ones lest they kill you, but always be aware of who you are and never be ashamed.
     Works Cited
Ellison, Ralph.  Invisible Man.  New York: Modern Library.  1994.
Plato.  The Republic.  Translated by G.M.A. Grube  In Classics of Western Philosophy. 
    Selected and Edited by Steven M. Cahn.  Indianapolis: Hackett.  1977.
Subscribe to the RSS feed of Stones of Erasmus
Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Adult Education, Homeschooler, Not Grade Specific - TeachersPayTeachers.com


Be courteous. Speak your mind. Don’t be rude. Share.