The Symbolic Briefcase in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man Essay

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The Symbolic Briefcase in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

The narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is the victim of his own naiveté. Throughout the novel he trusts that various people and groups are helping him when in reality they are using him for their own benefit. They give him the illusion that he is useful and important, all the while running him in circles. Ellison uses much symbolism in his book, some blatant and some hard to perceive, but nothing embodies the oppression and deception of the white hierarchy surrounding him better than his treasured briefcase, one of the most important symbols in the book.

The briefcase is introduced in the very first chapter. The narrator receives it after giving a speech endorsing
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No matter where it sends him, for as long as the narrator carries that briefcase, he is jerked around like a puppet on a string, kept running by all those for whom that message was meant.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the items the narrator stores in the briefcase are just as important and telling as the briefcase itself. First, there are Bledsoe’s letters. Bledsoe, the president of the college, expels the narrator, telling him to go to New York City to find work. He gives the narrator letters of recommendation and promises that he can return to the college after the summer. The narrator optimistically stuffs the letters into his briefcase and journeys to New York only to find himself ignored by the men for whom the letters are intended. After delivering his last letter, he discovers the truth of Bledsoe’s “recommendation.” Bledsoe has written in each letter that the narrator shall “never, under any circumstances, be enrolled as a student here again” (190). He also writes to ask “that he continue undisturbed in these vain hopes while remaining as far as possible from our midst” (191). The narrator discovers that Bledsoe’s letters were only meant to keep him chasing his own tail.

Another item the narrator stores in his briefcase is a coin bank. Right before he is about to leave Mary (the kind lady who gives him refuge in New York) to join the Brotherhood, the narrator notices a “cast-iron figure
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