I was publicized, identified with the organization both by word and image in the press. On the way to work one late spring morning I counted fifty greetings from people I didn’t know, becoming aware that there were two of me: the old self that slept a few hours a night and dreamed sometimes of my grandfather and Bledsoe and Brockway and Mary; the self that flew without wings and plunged from great heights; and the new public self that spoke for the Brotherhood and was becoming so much more important than the other that I seemed to run a foot race against myself. (380)
There were quite a few instances throughout Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man, that detailed interesting representations of consciousness. The most compelling portrayal, however, was the excerpt above. This passage complicates the idea of consciousness. The narrator comes to an awareness of there being “two” of himself. Does this assume that there can be multiple selves? And does it make a difference which self is becoming aware of this? This portrayal of consciousness shows the narrator becoming aware through the sudden changes in his life. Thus, consciousness is connected to and may in some ways be triggered by the external world. Based on this, can it be inferred that there is a third self for the narrator, who lives underground and is reflecting on his life—the invisible self? Or does this invisible self encompass all the other selves and allow for their existence? These are just a few questions that were evoked by the passage.
This excerpt also indicates the self as other. This “other”, is the self that is least important for the narrator. This idea of a better self is continued when the narrator says that he “seemed to run a foot race against [himself]”. This race is the interminable desire of the self to get ahead. It may just be that in each successful attempt to change one’s life, a new self is created because a new identity is adapted to fit the different situations.
One of the literary techniques that Ellison uses to give readers a sense of his protagonist’s mental life is the omniscient narrator. The fact that the protagonist plays a dual role as the main character and omniscient narrator allows the story to be entirely built upon his perspective. Therefore, readers are able to know what his thoughts are as well as the things that affect him the most, based on his choice to narrate them. This also allows for questions about memory and how much of it is distorted.
One of the more frequent ways in which readers can access the protagonist’s mentality is through non-verbal dialogue. Much like the above passage, the protagonist often narrates his own thoughts and syntheses of ideas about himself and his own identity. These thoughts can help readers to understand the way the narrator’s mind works especially in noting the specific events or times in which he pauses to reflect.