The Symbolic Function of the Sambo Doll in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

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In 1952, Ralph Ellison published the only novel of his career: Invisible Man; telling the story of an unnamed “invisible” narrator. Early on, the narrator delineates his invisibility to “people refus[ing] to see [him];” society neglects to see him as a result of his black lineage (Ellison 3). Ellison incorporates several objects, frequently appearing and reappearing throughout the novel, to expose social and intellectual issues imposed on the black community. Amid the “procession of tangible, material objects” moving “in and out of the text” is the dancing Sambo doll whose purpose is to symbolically represent cruel stereotypes and the destructive power of injustice that blacks fall victim to (Lucas 172). Ellison’s rendering of the small…show more content…
When the invisible man finds himself in the factory hospital, following the explosion, he physically mirrors the image of a Sambo doll when he receives electric shock therapy. When the doctors administer electric shock therapy to the narrator, Ellison is directly connecting this image with the image of the dancing Sambo dolls the narrator later finds Clifton peddling on the streets. The electric is administered to the narrator through wires which are connected to his body and controlled by the white doctors. The doctors and onlookers act in an insincere manner finding the situation to be a form of entertainment, saying: “they really do have rhythm, don't they” (Ellison 237). This reference to rhythm implies that, like Sambo dolls, the narrator has rhythm and provides entertainment for the white community. The scene where Clifton is seen peddling the dancing dolls on the street is symbolic for both the narrator and Clifton. Clifton entertains the crowd by yelling “shake him, stretch him by the neck and set him down, – He’ll do the rest,” which only confirms to the white onlookers that they can control and manipulate the blacks to do as they demand (Ellison 432). Clifton’s puppeteering of the dolls is symbolic because the dolls make him feel a sense of authority and control in a way he never felt in the Brotherhood. Asserting his own controls of the doll is symbolic of his acceptance of his own black identity the Brotherhood
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