Big brother

Morally ambiguous characters offer personas that, while difficult to unravel, add depth and nuance to works of fiction. In Invisible Man, author Ralph Ellison depicts Brother Jack as a morally ambiguous figure whose characterization changes the protagonist’s purpose. When the narrator first meets Brother Jack, Jack seems compassionate; he offers the struggling narrator a high-paying job to combat racial prejudice. But as the plot develops, the narrator realizes that Jack’s intentions are not as altruistic as they initially seemed: he is intent only on blindly imposing the Brotherhood’s ideologies, with little regard for the plight of African-Americans or the narrator. Brother Jack’s duality frequently changes the narrator’s perspective on the Brotherhood’s mission, ultimately fueling his entire journey.

Jack is introduced as the narrator’s main contact to the Brotherhood, a society seemingly intent on addressing racial injustice. After hearing the narrator’s exhortation at the Provos’s eviction, Jack invites him to join the Brotherhood, offering him a large salary and a home to advance Harlem’s black community by “ articulat[ing] the grievances of the people” (292). It seems that he genuinely cares about African-Americans, not as an indistinct group, but the circumstances of its individuals. In convincing the narrator to join the Brotherhood, he explains that “ too many have been dispossessed of their heritage, and we have banded together in brotherhood as to do something about it” (304). Thus, he establishes himself as a selfless champion of the black community’s rights, a notion that the narrator quickly absorbs. He also convinces the narrator that his involvement will be especially important for the community, supporting his provocative, emotion-based rhetoric. In their first meeting, Jack tells the narrator that his abilities are special, that “[h]istory has been born in [his] brain” (291). Jack’s continuous praise for the narrator’s talents reassures him that his efforts could generate real change. Even after the narrator’s first address is condemned by the other brothers for being reactionary and unscientific, Jack defends the narrator, pointing out that the narrator “ has succeeded by instinct where for two years your science has failed” (351). His support for the visceral speech shows that he is genuinely concerned with bringing the black community together, not just blindly enforcing the Brotherhood’s dogma. Jack’s morality, his interest for the advancement of African-Americans and his belief in the narrator, inspire the narrator to dedicate his life to the Brotherhood.

It eventually becomes clear that Jack cares only about his power and the Brotherhood’s creed, seeing the narrator as only a tool for its furtherance. During the narrator’s first day at the Harlem office, Jack warns that the Brotherhood’s discipline “ is very strict, but within its framework [he is] to have full freedom to [his] work” (360). In his oxymoronic juxtaposition of “ freedom” and “ framework,” Jack’s support for the narrator’s creative work is hindered by his internal desire to enforce the Brotherhood’s principles. And despite his original concern African-Americans’s struggles in Harlem, he quickly abandons the city after the organization’s attention shifts to a national scale. When the narrator returns from the Woman Question, he finds that much of the brothers have been laid off; in particular, he finds brother Clifton who is peddling racist dolls in the streets and is later killed by police. Jack and the Brotherhood’s traitorous abandonment of Harlem leave the narrator feeling lost, realizing that “ all [their] work had been very little, no great change had been made” (444). Jack responds to the narrator’s criticism of Harlem’s abandonment by explaining that the Brotherhood does not “ not shape [their] policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street,” but rather tells them what to think (473). During this confrontation, it becomes wholly evident that Jack lacks any compassion for Harlem’s racial struggles, but is instead occupied with garnering power to enforce the Brotherhood’s ideology. The narrator also realizes that Jack is no different than Norton or Bledsoe; that he “ was simply a material, a natural resource to be used” (508). Feeling utterly betrayed, having fallen victim to a futile ideology prescribed by a corrupt, power-hungry man, the narrator declares that his mission will never be the same again, launching his crusade against the Brotherhood.

While the narrator scorns Jack for being morally bankrupt, Jack is possibly blind to his own moral shortcomings. Early on, Jack genuinely hopes the Brotherhood will effect real change for struggling African-Americans; this is clear in his persuading the narrator to join the Brotherhood and his continued defense of the narrator’s controversial style. But he soon becomes engrossed in the Brotherhood’s strict ideologies and the power that comes with upholding it. Perhaps it is Ellison’s symbolism of Jack’s eyes that describes the dichotomy best: his good eye represents his morality, his blind eye – sacrificed for the Brotherhood – indicates that his morality has been blinded by his attachment to the Brotherhood’s principles. Jack’s morality guides the protagonist’s journey. Originally well-intentioned, Jack’s sensibility and support guide the narrator into the Brotherhood with hopes of changing the world. As Jack’s empathy became shrouded by dogma, he turns against the Brotherhood entirely. Decidedly moral or immoral characters (Mary, or the cruel men who made the boys fight) had measured effects on the narrator’s journey, but Jack most profoundly affected the narrator by constantly prompting him to reconsider his mission, supporting much of the plot.