Lit Lib: Unspoken Words
January 17, 2013
I recently had both the necessity and the pleasure to do a close reading of Ralph Ellison’s book, Invisible Man. The prose is incredibly frantic, but in that way that perfectly complements the mentality of the narrator. The imagery is vivid, bordering on the edge of graphic. The content is wrenching as it strips away the illusions of society and exposes the raw flesh of a man beaten by social expectation. However, I have to posit that Ellison’s true genius is in the blank spaces, in what he doesn’t say.
The narrator encapsulates the experience offered by the novel in saying that "it was a strangely satisfying experience for an invisible man to hear the silence of sound." In essence, this is what the reader sees through the book; they see a man that falls between the cracks of society, living a life that the average individual never sees or even hears about. There are certain discrepancies that are obviously intentional but never quite explained, leaving the reader to fill in the blank spaces and come to their own conclusions. For instance, the narrator never actually says what the Brotherhood is, but combining the events of the book with a historical reference implies that the Brotherhood could very well be the Communist Party. This is a mundane example; the beauty of Ellison’s anti-explanatory lowlighting is truly fleshed out in the more theological aspects offered by the book.
Though Ellison shows mastery in utilizing this rhetorical technique, he is hardly the first author to implement it. In fact, most authors make small points in what they neglect to say. Though I am sure that it is predated, the earliest text that I have read applying this rhetorical technique is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. By leaving out key bits of information, what can seem at first like an oversight can actually be a condemnation by omission – what you don’t say about a person’s character can be just as meaningful as what you do say.
Let me issue this challenge. Next time you read a book, think about the blank spaces and about what is missing from the book.
Oak Grove Branch