Jacques Lacan, a post-structuralist (a movement closely associated with post-modernism) developed an idea called the ‘mirror stage’, one that I believe is extremely applicable to the ideas Ellison expresses throughout Invisible Man. He writes that a child, at a young age, sees himself in a mirror and equates the image of wholeness he sees in his reflection to the identity he should achieve in his life (the ideal-I). Yet the child’s identity is fragmented and subverted as he attempts to attain this image of a whole identity, due to the perceptions of others, and social and cultural restraints (social-I).
Lacan writes, “The mirror stage is a drama whose internal pressure pushes precipitously from insufficiency to anticipation—and, for the subject caught up in the lure of spatial identification, turns out fantasies that proceed from a fragmented image of the body to what I will call an “orthopedic” form of its totality—and to the finally donned armor of an alienating identity that will mark his entire mental development with rigid structure” (6).
At the novel’s beginning it becomes quickly apparent that the narrator does not have his own identity. His identity and persona are based off of the beliefs of others, and he holds no concrete beliefs of his own: instead, he dutifully adheres to what Bledsoe, the college, and Southern society itself have drilled into his mind over the years. By conforming to the ideology of others, the narrator lives under the mistaken assumption that he is ‘visible’ to others, though his invisibility has never been clearer. Take, for example, Mr. Norton.
“Through the rear-view mirror I could see him studying a wafer-thin watch, replacing it in the pocket of his checked waistcoat. His shirt was soft silk, set off with blue-and-white polka dotted bow tie. His manner was aristocratic, his movements dapper and suave” (Ellison 37).
“…I identified myself with the rich man reminiscing on the rear seat…” (Ellison 39).
“When I took a quick glance into the mirror he was smiling again. I wanted to ask him if being rich and famous and helping to direct the school to become what it was wasn’t enough ; but I was afraid” (Ellison 44).
When the narrator looks into the mirror, he only sees Mr. Norton instead of his own reflection. He is invisible in that he never once looks at his own reflection, but instead keeps worriedly looking in the direction of Mr. Norton. How can the concept of Lacan’s mirror stage can be applied quite literally to this scenario? Please post your response before class time tomorrow.