Invisible Man - Mary's Bank

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Mary’s Cast Iron Bank

by Sean Lowe

Invisibility is the theme of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man.   One aspect of invisibility is the experience of being prejudged.  People are “blind” to Invisible Man’s individuality because they stereotype him.  A symbol of such prejudice is a coin bank Invisible Man finds in Mary Rambo’s house.  It is “the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro, whose white eyes stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before the chest” (319).  The bank certainly symbolizes racism and stereotyping, as it is a heinous stereotype.  This symbolic bank reveals much about racism and the narrator’s invisibility.

            The existence of the bank and Invisible Man’s breaking it assert the existence of the racism and prejudice in a society that ostensibly tries to reform itself.  This racist symbol exists in the house of a woman who constantly makes comments about gaining “credit to the race” (255).  This juxtaposition suggests that although society, represented by Mary Rambo, talks about equality, it ironically retains racist views.  Also indicative of racism is the bank’s “legend, FEED ME” (321) and how well fed this symbol of racism is.  “It was choking, filled to the throat with coins (321).  This gorged bank symbolically displays how racism and stereotypes are fed by society.  It reinforces events of the novel where characters foster racism.  For example, Norton and the college town give money to Trueblood, a black man who impregnates his daughter.  They wish to promote Trueblood because he represents black failure.  He, like the cast-iron bank, is a stereotype of black inferiority.  Both symbols are fed, given money, exemplifying how society continues to uphold its racist viewpoints.  The bank also serves to symbolize how society’s efforts to eliminate prejudice have failed.  Invisible Man shatters the bank, destroying the symbol of racism.  However, the feed me legend, the ideological message of the bank, remains.  The bank’s destruction mirrors society’s unsuccessful efforts to eliminate racism.  For example, the founder’s college is meant to remove racial barriers, but through Bledsoe and its Booker T. Washington wait-for-equality philosophy, it permeates racial inequality.

Invisible Man’s attempts to rid himself of the bank empirically reveal his invisibility to blacks.  Blacks refuse to allow Invisible Man to get rid of it, symbolically illustrating how they are racist themselves.  When Invisible Man first tries to throw the bank away in a trash can, a “short yellow woman” comes out and makes him retrieve the bank.  She tells him, “We keep our place clean and respectable and we don’t want you field niggers coming up from the South and ruining things” (328).  She cannot see Invisible Man for who he really is because she has stereotyped him.  It is fitting, then, that she should stop him from expelling the bank.  Her action of forcing the narrator to retain the symbol of racism underlines her racism.   Invisible Man next tries to toss the bank away into the snow, only to have it returned by a black man.  The man asks the narrator if he lost the bank.  When Invisible Man denies any knowledge of it, the man distrusts him, and his prejudice against Invisible Man bubbles to the surface.  He accuses Invisible Man of being “some king of confidence man or dope peddler” (330).  “You young New York Negroes is a blip!” he says. “I swear you is!  I hope they catch you and put your ass under the jail!” (330).  Invisible Man has hardly spoken when the black man stereotypes him.  The prejudice of these two blacks makes the narrator invisible because they cannot see his individuality.  They do not see a person, but only a stereotype.  The act of preserving the bank symbolically reinforces the idea that these people, although black, hold prejudice and are guilty of blindness.

The bank also emphasizes the futility of Invisible Man’s quest for equality.  Invisible Man’s places the cast-iron bank in his briefcase and carries it around until the end of the novel, symbolically displaying how he carries the burden of prejudice and stereotyping, his invisibility, throughout the entire novel.  Invisible Man is continually held back by racist forces like the college and the Brotherhood.  Racism restrains him in his pursuit of true liberty, and the bank symbolizes this impediment.  During the riot, Invisible Man “suddenly knew why [the briefcase] was heavy, remember Mary’s broken bank and the coins” (539-540).  This briefcase, and the racist symbols it contains, weighs him down, symbolically expressing how racism has weighed down Invisible Man in his quest for enfranchisement.   Invisible Man is not only held back by racism, but also inadvertently feeds it.  Invisible Man unwittingly supports racial inequality through the Brotherhood, helping them as they “make greater sacrifices” (503) of the black race.  The narrator’s carrying the “self-mocking image” (319) of the bank mirrors this unconscious support of prejudice.  Although racism and the bank weigh down Invisible Man, he nevertheless supports its oppressive weight. 

 The cast-iron bank strengthens the complex theme of invisibility in Invisible Man.   It emphasizes the idea that the narrator’s efforts to rid society of its backwards stereotyping are futile.  At the end of the novel, the symbol of such narrow-minded ideology remains.    The bank is a symbol that expresses how such blindness will always exist in our society.

This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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