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Music in Invisible Man

An analysis of the motif of music and its roles in the novel "Invisible Man."

Jessica Crtalic

on 25 February 2016

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Transcript of Music in Invisible Man

"'What I want to know is,' he said, 'is you got the dog?'" ...
"If he is, you lucky it's just a dog -- 'cause, man, I tell you I believe it's a bear that's got holt to me."
"Somewhere a machine began to hum... But now the music became a distinct wail of female pain. I opened my eyes."
Rebirth through Music
Out of Tune
"The one who called himself a composer was banging away the one wild piece he seemed to know on the out-of-tune piano, striking the keyboard with fists and elbows and filling in other effects in a bass voice that moaned like a bear in agony."
"Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I'd like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue" -- all at the same time."
The Motif of Music in Invisible Man
What did I do to be so black and blue?
The narrator's specific reference to this song by Louis Armstrong is suggestive toward the developing theme of identity in this novel. The description "black" is used to refer to the narrator himself. It defines his race and and cultural roots. The word "blue" is specifically referenced to depict his melancholy position. The combination of the color descriptors "black and blue" is meant to signify his defeat, as if he has been beaten up and is now black and blue as in bruises.
The out-of-tune piano corresponds to the out-of-tune description of the people attending the Golden Day. Music tends to enhance the feeling sensation within the narrator. This musical element is used to enhance the sense of chaos occurring and the level of intensity to which the narrator is sensing it. It's ironic that the one who claims to be a composer is out-of-tune and thus not composed in this scene.
The machine he was connected to, as if to signify an umbilical cord, can be analyzed to serve as a motherly figure. The blatant absence of a fatherly figure allows the narrator to address the previous prompting of the veteran, who told the narrator to be his own father, or basically to create his own identity. Through this musical scenario, the narrator is able to begin the construction of his own identity from a blank foundation as if he has been reborn.
Pick Poor Robin Clean
"O well they picked poor Robin clean
O well they picked poor Robin clean
Well they tied poor Robin to a stump
Lawd, they picked all the feathers round from Robin's rump Well they picked poor Robin clean."
This tune depicts the betrayal that the narrator feels has been imposed upon him by Bledsoe of the University through letters of condemnation, who was supposed to guide his ambitions to success. The tune depicts how the narrator feels as though he has been stripped of his chances of success through the University and job opportunities in his new location, just as the robin is picked clean of his feathers.
Peetie Wheatstraw
The character of Peter Wheatstraw is used to refence the blues singer Peetie Wheatstraw. Through this character, the invisible man learns that he cannot escape his cultural roots. The man sings a tune with multiple animals referenced and proceeds to ask the narrator about having the dog, to which the narrator is confused and unfamiliar. Deriving from black culture, this statement not only serves as a greeting of "How are you doing?", while simultaneously serving as the question "Are you in control?" The fact that the narrator does not understand what the man is asking is showing the destruction of the narrator's ties to his racial roots. He is attempting to part with his roots while he
is in the north, such as when he orders toast and orange
juice instead of the pork chops and grits that he is
offered. Peter Wheatstraw reminds the narrator that
he cannot lose his roots.
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