Adversity is no stranger to the nameless Narrator of Ellison’s novel. The Narrator effortlessly encounters adversity in every endeavor he undertakes. The seemingly endless barrage of adversity molds the Narrator profoundly and forcefully; more so than any of its contemporaries. The ending, instead of giving the reader some much needed closure, opts to leave the reader desiring more. Most prevalently, it leaves the reader asking the question: did the reader prevail or fail in the face of adversity? In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man the Narrator survives in the face of adversity because he sheds his detrimental labels yet, fails to obtain anything of value during his journey.
Near the end of the book the Narrator finds himself trapped in the bottom of a sewer with three matches and his briefcase. In an effort to survive, the Narrator decides to burn the items of his brief case and use them as a torch for his exploration of the sewer. This small act of survival plays a major role on the figurative stage. The burning of the items associated with his past is analogous to the shedding of the exasperating labels bestowed upon the reader. One by one the reader burns the things that defined him: his high school diploma, his Brotherhood name, and the threatening letter he received while in the Brotherhood. All of these items pushed the Narrator down a new, more injurious path, ironically culminating in a fiery exuviation of each item. In the case of the Narrator, the end did justify the means. The Narrator was met with fierce challenges as a result of having each item however, the Narrator became at peace with himself, gained a greater awareness, and was able to see past his own illusion; glimpsing the truth.
Finally, despite the Narrator becoming a better man in the face of adversity he fails to win anything or achieve anything of value. Over the course of the novel, the Narrator is a firmly in neutral. Just when the Narrator is about to grasp success and overcome his tribulations, he manages to let it slip through his hands. For example, having been expelled from his university, the Narrator is given what appears to be a route back to the realm of higher education. The Narrator, now motivated more than ever, has the rug pulled out from under him when he opens one of the letters; revealing that the second chance was actually a wild goose chase with nothing at the finish. Similarly, the Narrator, having just gained the burrow of Harlem as his own territory in the Brotherhood, enjoys great success and becomes a prominent political figure. This success is short lived when the Narrator is reassigned to another territory, never to regain his fame again. Ironically, the only thing the Narrator is able to gain is the innate ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The adversity the Narrator faces yields both positive and negative results. He fails in prevailing and prevails in not failing when he comes face to face with catastrophe. One positive is matched with one negative and in essence the Narrator simply survives when encountering calamity; and it only seems natural that a man invisible to all is a master of survival.