Pulling Strings – Essay

Sample essay on Pulling Strings for school and college students.

Children play with dolls but many people just collect them. Which brings us to an interesting point, are people simply dolls for other people to play with or collect? One could make the argument that we are all Tod Cliftons’, doomed to dance by invisible strings while wearing a mask of individualism. However, unlike Tod Clifton, most of us will not realize that who pulls the string, is not ourselves.

Ralph Ellison’s novel, the invisible Man is fraught with images of dolls as if to constantly remind the reader that no one is in complete control of themselves. Our first example of doll imagery comes very early in the novel with the Battle Royal scene. The nude, blonde woman is described as having hair “that was yellow like that of a circus kewpie doll”. Ellison draws a very strong connection between the plight of the Negro man and the white the work is no coincidence. The woman and the African are merely showpieces for the white men in the novel.

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Tod Clifton’s dancing Sambo dolls are the most striking example of doll imagery. This small tissue paper doll has the capability to powerful and enigmatic Clifton is the one hawking the abominable dolls, the narrator is so filled with humiliation and rage that he spits upon the dancing figure. But what is it that has caused this surging of fury? It is Tod Clifton and not the narrator’s sudden comprehension of his own situation that causes his wrath. The line “For a second our eyes met and he gave me a contemptuous smile” illustrates this moment of realization for our narrator. It shows the reader that Tod Clifton was aware of his position as a puppet all along and chooses to enlighten the narrator at this particular point in the novel.

The invisible Man recognizes that all his life he’s been a slave and a puppet to others. Whether those others were Bledsoe, his grandfather, or the brotherhood is irrelevant, but there has always been and imperceptible string attached to him governing everything he does. Not only a string but also his own physical characteristics echo those of the grotesque Sambo dolls.

Its cardboard hands were clenched into fists. The fingers outlined in orange paint, and I noticed that it had two faces, one on either side of the disk of cardboard, and both grinning. Hands doubled into fists? This is the brotherhood message in a nutshell, Strong, ready to fight for what one supposedly believes in. Yet, at the same time these fists are controlled exclusively by the one holding the strings. And the black Sambo puppet blissfully unaware that he is merely a plaything. He smiles to the crowd and back to the puppeteer. It is the grin on the face of this doll that initially angers the Invisible Msn. But why?

Thinking back to the very start of the novel we have the Grandfather’s dying words to our narrator,”…overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, and agree them to death and destruction…” It would seem as though the Grandfather and Tod Clifton are in league with one another as they both have a firm grasp on what power men have over men.


We get a powerful and disturbing image of this very idea when the Invisible Man is in the factory hospital after the explosion. It is a scene that seems to fade into the mishmash of confusion that accompanies this part of the novel, but it is nonetheless very important. As the narrator lies in his glass enclosed box with wires and electrodes attached all over his body, he is subjected to shock treatment.

“Look, he’s dancing,” someone called. “No, really?” They really do have rhythm, don’t they? Get hot, boy! It said with a laugh.

At the end of the narrative, while escaping the hell of the Harlem riots, the Invisible Man stumbles upon an open manhole and the gloom below.

While trying to keep warm and get a good look at the place he in, he begins t burn the various objects in his briefcase. When he comes to the flimsy tissue-paper doll e finds that it will not burn. He remarks “it burned so stubbornly that I reached inside the case for something else.” The doll’s difficulty in burning is symbolic of the fact that we, men, will never fully be able to break free from our puppetlike imprisonment.


We control others, and others control us – that is the sum and substance of life.

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