Ambiguous Identity and Misunderstanding in the Invisible Man and the Buddha in Suburbia

Finally, I have finished another exercise in Politic of Narrative Methods class. In this essay, I tried to answer questions below addresing Identity problem in Ellison’s the Invisible Man and Kureishi’s the Buddha of Suburbia. Another essay regarding the narrative level can be seen as well in my previous post here. Have a good day.

How does the protagonist-narrator’s multifaceted Reinhart identity represent the unstable selfhood in his pre-invisible period? How is invisibility more secure and stable? What about Karim’s identity? In what ways do varied narrative strategies correspond to ambivalent and/or ambiguous identities?

How do circumstances of speech acts influence how utterances are understood? Consider the yellow-cur incident in Lord Jim and the invisible man’s “speak[ing] for you,” as well as the misunderstanding that occurs with Mr. Norton. Is there such an instance in The Buddha of Suburbia?

‘[T]here’s your universe, and that drip-drop upon the water you hear is all the history you’ve made (…) And high above me now the bridge seemed to move off to where I could not see, striding like a robot, an iron man, whose iron legs changed doomfully as it moved. And then I struggled up, full of sorrow and pain, shouting ‘No, no, we must stop him!’ (Ellison, 1970: 459)

The real Rinehart never essentially appeared in Ellison’s the Invisible Man because he did not need to. Still, everyone in Harlem had mistaken the narrator as Rinehart. The narrator acknowledged Rinehart as “Rine the runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehard the Reverend (Ellison, 1970: 400). Initially, the narrator refused people who said himself as Rinehart, but it caused him got troubles. Thus, the narrator “thought, but perhaps agreeing will cause[d] less trouble than denying (Ellison, 1970: 399).” After that, the narrator accepted Reinhart’s identity. Nevertheless, these acceptance signify the unbalanced selfhood of himself. He “was both depressed and fascinated (…) to know Rinehart and yet (…) [he’s] upset because [he] know[n he did’t] have to know [Reinhart]. In other words, the narrator “simply bec[ame] aware of his existence, being mistaken for him. In the other words, the narrator had accepted that “Rinehart was real. It couldn’t be, but it [was]. And it can be, [was], simply because it’s unknown” (Ellison, 1970: 401). Consequently, I can agree that invisibility is more secure and stable for the narrator to identify himself. Being invisible, the narrator would not be seen by the system. In other words, people would not be able to give him labels as what happen to Rinehart. The narrator therefore, could freely recognize himself without influenced by society.

Somehow, it was similar with Karim in The Buddha of Suburbia. Karim, as well as the narrator in TIM, was narrator and main character in TBS. He grew up in the suburbs of London but moved to London proper later with his family. The novel followed Karim grew from his teenage years into his early 20s which shown how his own worldview reformed gradually. However, as well as the narrator in TIM, most of story in TBC told about identification. Karim expressed who he was and how he definite his own identity and situation in the first lines of the novel.

I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories (…) the odd mixture of continent and blood, of here, of belonging and not (Kureishi, 1990: 3).

Neither proud not embarrassed being English or Indian, as a teen, Karim, was more concerned with music, sex, and clothes than his genetic identity. He trapped between “belonging and not” his Indian culture and need to blend in British civilization. Nevertheless, Karim consistently negotiated his mixture identity by giving a space for both identities. Reveling in main London fashion, he appropriated the qualities of British teen, but also acquiescent much of his Indian culture. Moreover, by moving to London proper, Karim who was from a lower middle class family, could get better opportunity to increase his social class in terms of further education. Karim found that the city was full of optimism, innovation, chance, delight, and “thousands of black people everywhere, so [he] wouldn’t feel exposed” (Kureishi, 1990: 121). In other words, he would be invisible like the Invisible Man.

Therefore, both of the works were a giant piece written in the mode of historiographic metafiction. The narrators which was also the main character, saturated their own protagonist story with ideas and policies that captivated the hybrid nature of both, life in overall and human identity in specific. The narrator’s ability to see the past and present had stressed his paradox cognitive (in)capacity. By doing these, the reader should follow the narrator histories to know exactly the reason why both of the narrators told his stories.

Furthermore, the yellow-cur incident in Conrad’s Lord Jim was mostly in the form of speech acts. Speech acts which are the acts of communication expressed a certain attitude. The type of speech act being performed matches to the type of attitude being spoken. However, the content of its utterance is not fully determined by its linguistic meaning—for instance, the meaning of the word ‘you’, in TIM, does not determine which person is being referred to. It could be narrate, the reader, or probably characters in the story. Consequently, it could bring misunderstanding. In the chapter six, the yellow-dog or “wretched cur” (Conrad, 1900: 57) helped to convey Marlow and Jim together so that Marlow could study Jim and his story. Moreover, this incident had the purpose to express in detail Marlow’s early misinterpretation of Jim and how the misinterpretation was initiated, specifically, by Jim’s simplicity and desire for self-justification.

‘I will allow no man,” … he mumbled threateningly. It was, indeed, a hideous mistake; he had given himself away utterly. I can’t give you an idea how shocked I was. I suppose he saw some reflection of my feelings in my face, because his expression changed just a little. “Good God!” I stammered, “you don’t think I …” “But I am sure I’ve heard,” he persisted, raising his voice for the first time since the beginning of this deplorable scene. Then with a shade of disdain he added, “It wasn’t you, then? Very well; I’ll find the other’ (Conrad, 1900: 60).

Marlow consequently, approached to recognize these misunderstanding better, but he had to state that he could never be certain of understanding him even to the end of their relationship and in spite of his intimate and cumulative knowledge of Jim. These misunderstanding also happened to the narrator in TIM. We were understand that the narrator was not white and therefore it brought misinterpretation to the relation between the narrator and the whites and also the blacks. In the chapter six, when the narrator went to college, and has his ill-fated meeting with Mr. Norton, Bledsoe who was the president of the college, could not be able to “see” the narrator. Bledsoe questioned the narrator why he took Mr. Norton to the “Quarter.” He refused to believe that it was Norton’s request that Norton drove the narrator to the college. “Nigger, this isn’t the time to lie! I’m not a white man. Tell me the truth!” (Ellison, 1970: 116). The narrator surprised being called a nigger and his cultural loyalty was questioned. Bledsoe suggested that “white is right.” Moreover, the entire events was in speech acts so that the reader could not get what the narrator thought (Ellison, 1970: 115-7). These made the misunderstanding even bigger which established as the mark of invisibility, the refusal to “see”, which Bledsoe did. The narrator consequently, was victimized by Bledsoe’s incapability to “see” the truth of who he was as the same way he was victimized, in the opening paragraph of the novel, by the blonde man he fought. Nevertheless, I was fail to find these instance, how the speech acts influences the misunderstanding of the narrative, in the Buddha of Suburbia.


Conrad, Joseph. (1900). Lord Jim. London: Blackwood’s Magazine.

Ellison, Ralph. (1970). The Invisible Man. Middlesex: Penguin Book.

Kureishi, Hanif. (1990). The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber Limited.


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