Bliss Proteus Rinehart, a con artist in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952), takes his middle name from the sea god Proteus, who had the power to assume many different shapes and disguises in order to elude those who would capture him and compel him to answer their questions. Like his namesake, Rinehart assumes many disguises: “Rine the [numbers] runner and Rine the gambler and Rine the briber and Rine the lover and Rinehart the Reverend.” Ellison maintains that Rinehart's major function is to provide a mode of escape for the narrator. In truth, like Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, everyone talks about Rinehart, but no one ever sees him. He is the trickster par excellence.
Despite the fact that Rinehart never appears physically he is a powerful force in the novel because he represents a particular type of male. His first name, Bliss, his big hat, his dark shades, his Cadillac, his zoot suit, and his jivc talk suggest a ghetto-specific culture that has always been associated with the Black males of America's inner cities. But in these stereotypical images of Black men Ellison sees the possibility of freedom and growth. The narrator, through his education and his association with the Brotherhood, has been molded into a being still limited in his vision of himself and his universe, still limited in recognizing the potential of Blacks. Rinehart represents chaos, but he also represents freedom and growth. Through Rinehart, Ellison suggests that there are both negative and positive aspects of all cultural traditions and that instead of rejecting those traditions because we do not understand them or because they are outside of the traditional value system, we should embrace them and make them a part of the traditional culture. Through Rinehart, Ellison suggests that Blacks should not forget or deny their culture, their experience, their history.
Ralph Reckley, Sr.