Ralph Ellison\'s Invisible Man


The Liberty Paint Factory in Ralph Ellison\'s Invisible Man provides
the setting for a very significant chain of events in the novel. In
addition, it provides many symbols which will influence a reader\'s
interpretation. Some of those symbols are associated with the structure
itself, with Mr. Kimbro, and with Mr. Lucius Brockway.

The first of many instances in these scenes that concern the invisible
man and the symbolic role of white and black in the novel is when the
narrator is sent to the paint factory by the young Mr. Emerson to try to
find a job. Mr. Emerson, however, only sends him out of pity. The
narrator arrives and immediately notices the huge electric sign that reads
"KEEP AMERICA PURE WITH LIBERTY PAINTS". Later on, the reader will learn
that Liberty Paint is famous for its white paint called none other than
"Optic White". In effect, the sign advertises to keep America pure with
whites and not just white paint. Next, the invisible man must walk down a
long, pure white hallway. At this time he is a black man symbolically
immersed in a white world, a recurring idea of the novel.

After receiving his job, the narrator goes to meet Mr. Kimbro. In
this scene, Kimbro teaches the narrator how to make the ordinary white
paint into "Optic White": Ten drops of a black formula must be mixed in to
the white paint, of which the surface is already brown. The narrator does
not understand this, and inquires about it, only to be insulted by Mr.
Kimbro. Mr. Kimbro, in no way what so ever, wants any of his workers to
think. He just wants them to obey. So the invisible man, although still
unable to comprehend this idiosyncrasy, does not persist. The white paint
may represent the white world, perhaps even America, as alluded to in the
company\'s advertisement. The black formula is what makes the white paint
into "Optic White", a much better, whiter, white. The formula, perhaps,
represents the behind the scenes blacks that worked for the whites so that
society persisted as it did in that time period. This idea will be touched
upon once again later on in this series of scenes.

The invisible man then falls victim to a bad set of circumstances. He
runs out of formula, and since Kimbro is not around, he tries to get
himself some more. However, there are two containers with what appear to
be the same kind of formulas, just with different markings. Naturally, the
narrator uses his intuition and discovers that the two liquids in the tanks
smell differently, and one smells like the formula he was using. He gets
more of that solution, and continues his work, only to be scolded later by
Kimbro that he chose the wrong one. Once again, Kimbro states that he does
not want any thinkers working for him. He wants a submissive black that
will just follow the "rules" established in his "society". After fixing
his mistake, the narrator is sent back to the office to find another
position: Kimbro does not want the invisible man working for him. In the
scene that follows, the invisible man meets Mr. Lucius Brockway, deep down
in the paint factory.

Mr. Brockway, a black man, can be thought of a symbol himself. He is
the black formula that makes the white paint work. He is one of the many
blacks that keep the paint factory working. He is one of the many blacks
that keep society as the whites like it. Mr. Brockway makes the powder
that is the base of the paint. Again, a black influence that makes the
"Optic White" paint possible appears. When the narrator returns from
getting his lunch, he is confronted by Mr. Brockway about the union. It is
here that the reader learns that the blacks that, in effect, run the paint
factory, are being hired so that the company does not have to pay union
wages. This is important because it shows that the blacks are once again
being taken advantage of by the whites, yet they are still working behind
the scenes to make things run like clockwork.

Through out this commotion, the narrator has not been fulfilling one
of his duty by watching the pressure gauge. The pressure builds up, and
right before the narrator has a chance to turn it off, it explodes. Once
again, he is a black man immersed in a world of white. This explosion
leaves him in the factory hospital. In the