How Machine Birthed a Man


Man becomes machine in the movie, I, Robot after Detective Spooner’s arm is replaced with a robotic counterpart.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man holds a variety of challenging and symbolic themes revolving around the life of a nameless narrator. By overcoming racial boundaries, educational triumphs, and endless oppression, the narrator attempts to solidify his identity in society. This, however, is a goal that is never completed despite numerous situations to which the narrator can be reborn and re-establish his identity.

Invisible Man provides insight into the racial oppression and lack of identify within an unidentified African American man. A variety of events causes the narrator to not only question, but discard his identity as a black and educated man. His inability to determine his individuality and self is a recurrent theme within Invisible Man. Furthermore, the narrator questions and re-evaluates his identity following every traumatic or stressful event and subsequently finds himself in the beginning stages of a new identification of self.  In Chapter 11 of Invisible Man, the narrator wakes up in a hospital setting following an injury at a former job. He awakens to the doctor asking him questions in an attempt to learn who the narrator is. The narrator cannot give the questioning doctors a sure answer to their questions regarding his identity; he is only able to confirm that he is in great deal of pain before he loses consciousness and undergoes a lobotomy.

In the next instant, the narrator is once again asked what his name is and who his mother is by the doctor’s via placard cards. It is during this interrogation that the narrator wonders exactly who his mother could be and what the source of a high-pitched screaming noise could be. The narrator evidently identifies the screaming noise as a nearby machine, but compares the machine to the possible screams of his mother, or the woman who birthed him.

One can interpret a plethora of symbolic instances in chapter 11 of Invisible Man, however in going with the theme of machine and man in this blog, we can examine the symbolism of the screaming machine.  In the scene, the narrator, much like a child, has no conscious idea of who he is or who he has come from. The doctors continuously question the man’s identity, nonetheless he can only identify that he is in pain. Once he is asked who is mother is, the narrator mentions the presence of a “screaming” machine to which he compares to the screams of his mother. My interpretation of this scene is that he is being reborn, as the screams of his mother would be the screams of labor and thus undergoing a transformation which will help him move into a differing period of his life. Furthermore, his rebirth does not involve a parent figure, which can be symbolic of his necessity to manufacture his own identity rather than accept one that is enacted onto him from others. His rebirth symbolizes his transformation of self and ability to reform his identity with a seemingly clean slate.

Rebirth is a common and recurrent theme within Invisible Man as the narrator continually attempts to find his identity as an African American male in society.


Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House Inc, 1980. Print.

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