Invisible Man is a novel by Ralph Ellison about an African American man whose color renders him invisible, published by Random House in 1952. It addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.


 The grandson of slaves, Ralph Ellison was born in 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was raised largely in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was a construction worker, and his mother was a domestic servant who also volunteered for the local Socialist Party. As a young man, Ellison developed an abiding interest in jazz music; he befriended a group of musicians who played in a regional band called Walter Page’s Blue Devils, many of whom later played with Count Basie’s legendary big band in the late 1930s. Ellison himself studied the cornet and trumpet, and planned a career as a jazz musician. In 1933, he left Oklahoma to begin a study of music at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Institute, which is now called Tuskegee University, was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington, one of the foremost black educators in American history, and became one of the nation’s most important black colleges. It later served as the model for the black college attended by the narrator in Invisible Man.
Ellison left the Tuskegee Institute in 1936 and moved to New York City, where he settled in Harlem. As an employee of the Federal Writers’ Project, Ellison befriended many of the most important African-American writers of the era, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. Ellison also befriended the eminent jazz writer and sociologist Albert Murray, with whom he carried on a lengthy and important literary correspondence, later collected in the book Trading Twelves. After a year editing the Negro Quarterly, Ellison left for the Merchant Marines, in which he served during World War II. After the war, Ellison won a Rosenwald Fellowship, which he used to write Invisible Man. The first chapter appeared in America in the 1948 volume of Magazine of the Year, and the novel was published in its entirety in 1952.
Employing a shifting, improvisational style directly based on Ellison’s experience of jazz performance, Invisible Man ranges in tone from realism to extreme surrealism, from tragedy to vicious satire to near-slapstick comedy. Rich in symbolism and metaphor, virtuosic in its use of multiple styles and tones, and steeped in the black experience in America and the human struggle for individuality, the novel spent sixteen weeks on the best-seller list and won the National Book Award in 1953. Achieving one of the most sensational debuts of any novel in American history, Invisible Man was hailed by writers such as Saul Bellow and critics such as Irving Howe as a landmark publication; some critics claimed that it was the most important American novel to appear after World War II.
Invisible Man was heavily influenced by the work of a number of twentieth-century French writers known as the existentialists. Existentialism, whose foremost proponents included Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, explored the question of individuality and the nature of meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe. Ellison adapted the existentialists’ universal themes to the black experience of oppression and prejudice in America. He also engaged powerfully with the tradition of African-American social debate. In the character of Dr. Bledsoe, the novel offers a vehement rejection of the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, which advocated that blacks should work toward economic success as a means of achieving racial equality. It also critiques, through the character of Ras the Exhorter, Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of black nationalism.
Despite—or possibly because of—the overwhelming success of Invisible Man, Ellison never published another novel in his lifetime. Though he published two books of essays—Shadow Act in the 1960s and Going to the Territory in the 1980s—Ellison spent his later decades laboring on a vast novel, which he never finished. Upon his death in 1994, Ellison left behind more than 2,000 pages of unedited, incomplete manuscript. In heavily abridged and edited form, this manuscript was published five years after his death under the title Juneteenth, to generally unfavorable reviews.

                                 PLOT OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK
The narrator begins telling his story with the claim that he is an “invisible man.” His invisibility, he says, is not a physical condition—he is not literally invisible—but is rather the result of the refusal of others to see him. He says that because of his invisibility, he has been hiding from the world, living underground and stealing electricity from the Monopolated Light & Power Company. He burns 1,369 light bulbs simultaneously and listens to Louis Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” on a phonograph. He says that he has gone underground in order to write the story of his life and invisibility.
As a young man, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the narrator lived in the South. Because he is a gifted public speaker, he is invited to give a speech to a group of important white men in his town. The men reward him with a briefcase containing a scholarship to a prestigious black college, but only after humiliating him by forcing him to fight in a “battle royal” in which he is pitted against other young black men, all blindfolded, in a boxing ring. After the battle royal, the white men force the youths to scramble over an electrified rug in order to snatch at fake gold coins. The narrator has a dream that night in which he imagines that his scholarship is actually a piece of paper reading “To Whom It May Concern . . . Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”
Three years later, the narrator is a student at the college. He is asked to drive a wealthy white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton, around the campus. Norton talks incessantly about his daughter, then shows an undue interest in the narrative of Jim Trueblood, a poor, uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter. After hearing this story, Norton needs a drink, and the narrator takes him to the Golden Day, a saloon and brothel that normally serves black men. A fight breaks out among a group of mentally imbalanced black veterans at the bar, and Norton passes out during the chaos. He is tended by one of the veterans, who claims to be a doctor and who taunts both Norton and the narrator for their blindness regarding race relations.
Back at the college, the narrator listens to a long, impassioned sermon by the Reverend Homer A. Barbee on the subject of the college’s Founder, whom the blind Barbee glorifies with poetic language. After the sermon, the narrator is chastised by the college president, Dr. Bledsoe, who has learned of the narrator’s misadventures with Norton at the old slave quarters and the Golden Day. Bledsoe rebukes the narrator, saying that he should have shown the white man an idealized version of black life. He expels the narrator, giving him seven letters of recommendation addressed to the college’s white trustees in New York City, and sends him there in search of a job.
The narrator travels to the bright lights and bustle of 1930s Harlem, where he looks unsuccessfully for work. The letters of recommendation are of no help. At last, the narrator goes to the office of one of his letters’ addressees, a trustee named Mr. Emerson. There he meets Emerson’s son, who opens the letter and tells the narrator that he has been betrayed: the letters from Bledsoe actually portray the narrator as dishonorable and unreliable. The young Emerson helps the narrator to get a low-paying job at the Liberty Paints plant, whose trademark color is “Optic White.” The narrator briefly serves as an assistant to Lucius Brockway, the black man who makes this white paint, but Brockway suspects him of joining in union activities and turns on him. The two men fight, neglecting the paint-making; consequently, one of the unattended tanks explodes, and the narrator is knocked unconscious.
The narrator wakes in the paint factory’s hospital, having temporarily lost his memory and ability to speak. The white doctors seize the arrival of their unidentified black patient as an opportunity to conduct electric shock experiments. After the narrator recovers his memory and leaves the hospital, he collapses on the street. Some black community members take him to the home of Mary, a kind woman who lets him live with her for free in Harlem and nurtures his sense of black heritage. One day, the narrator witnesses the eviction of an elderly black couple from their Harlem apartment. Standing before the crowd of people gathered before the apartment, he gives an impassioned speech against the eviction. Brother Jack overhears his speech and offers him a position as a spokesman for the Brotherhood, a political organization that allegedly works to help the socially oppressed. After initially rejecting the offer, the narrator takes the job in order to pay Mary back for her hospitality. But the Brotherhood demands that the narrator take a new name, break with his past, and move to a new apartment. The narrator is inducted into the Brotherhood at a party at the Chthonian Hotel and is placed in charge of advancing the group’s goals in Harlem.
After being trained in rhetoric by a white member of the group named Brother Hambro, the narrator goes to his assigned branch in Harlem, where he meets the handsome, intelligent black youth leader Tod Clifton. He also becomes familiar with the black nationalist leader Ras the Exhorter, who opposes the interracial Brotherhood and believes that black Americans should fight for their rights over and against all whites. The narrator delivers speeches and becomes a high-profile figure in the Brotherhood, and he enjoys his work. One day, however, he receives an anonymous note warning him to remember his place as a black man in the Brotherhood. Not long after, the black Brotherhood member Brother Wrestrum accuses the narrator of trying to use the Brotherhood to advance a selfish desire for personal distinction. While a committee of the Brotherhood investigates the charges, the organization moves the narrator to another post, as an advocate of women’s rights. After giving a speech one evening, he is seduced by one of the white women at the gathering, who attempts to use him to play out her sexual fantasies about black men.
After a short time, the Brotherhood sends the narrator back to Harlem, where he discovers that Clifton has disappeared. Many other black members have left the group, as much of the Harlem community feels that the Brotherhood has betrayed their interests. The narrator finds Clifton on the street selling dancing “Sambo” dolls—dolls that invoke the stereotype of the lazy and obsequious slave. Clifton apparently does not have a permit to sell his wares on the street. White policemen accost him and, after a scuffle, shoot him dead as the narrator and others look on. On his own initiative, the narrator holds a funeral for Clifton and gives a speech in which he portrays his dead friend as a hero, galvanizing public sentiment in Clifton’s favor. The Brotherhood is furious with him for staging the funeral without permission, and Jack harshly castigates him. As Jack rants about the Brotherhood’s ideological stance, a glass eye falls from one of his eye sockets. The Brotherhood sends the narrator back to Brother Hambro to learn about the organization’s new strategies in Harlem.
The narrator leaves feeling furious and anxious to gain revenge on Jack and the Brotherhood. He arrives in Harlem to find the neighborhood in ever-increased agitation over race relations. Ras confronts him, deploring the Brotherhood’s failure to draw on the momentum generated by Clifton’s funeral. Ras sends his men to beat up the narrator, and the narrator is forced to disguise himself in dark glasses and a hat. In his dark glasses, many people on the streets mistake him for someone named Rinehart, who seems to be a pimp, bookie, lover, and reverend all at once. At last, the narrator goes to Brother Hambro’s apartment, where Hambro tells him that the Brotherhood has chosen not to emphasize Harlem and the black movement. He cynically declares that people are merely tools and that the larger interests of the Brotherhood are more important than any individual. Recalling advice given to him by his grandfather, the narrator determines to undermine the Brotherhood by seeming to go along with them completely. He decides to flatter and seduce a woman close to one of the party leaders in order to obtain secret information about the group.
But the woman he chooses, Sybil, knows nothing about the Brotherhood and attempts to use the narrator to fulfill her fantasy of being raped by a black man. While still with Sybil in his apartment, the narrator receives a call asking him to come to Harlem quickly. The narrator hears the sound of breaking glass, and the line goes dead. He arrives in Harlem to find the neighborhood in the midst of a full-fledged riot, which he learns was incited by Ras. The narrator becomes involved in setting fire to a tenement building. Running from the scene of the crime, he encounters Ras, dressed as an African chieftain. Ras calls for the narrator to be lynched. The narrator flees, only to encounter two policemen, who suspect that his briefcase contains loot from the riots. In his attempt to evade them, the narrator falls down a manhole. The police mock him and draw the cover over the manhole.
The narrator says that he has stayed underground ever since; the end of his story is also the beginning. He states that he finally has realized that he must honor his individual complexity and remain true to his own identity without sacrificing his responsibility to the community. He says that he finally feels ready to emerge from underground.


Character List

The narrator -  The nameless protagonist of the novel. The narrator is the “invisible man” of the title. A black man in 1930s America, the narrator considers himself invisible because people never see his true self beneath the roles that stereotype and racial prejudice compel him to play. Though the narrator is intelligent, deeply introspective, and highly gifted with language, the experiences that he relates demonstrate that he was na├»ve in his youth. As the novel progresses, the narrator’s illusions are gradually destroyed through his experiences as a student at college, as a worker at the Liberty Paints plant, and as a member of a political organization known as the Brotherhood. Shedding his blindness, he struggles to arrive at a conception of his identity that honors his complexity as an individual without sacrificing social responsibility.
Brother Jack -  The white and blindly loyal leader of the Brotherhood, a political organization that professes to defend the rights of the socially oppressed. Although he initially seems compassionate, intelligent, and kind, and he claims to uphold the rights of the socially oppressed, Brother Jack actually possesses racist viewpoints and is unable to see people as anything other than tools. His glass eye and his red hair symbolize his blindness and his communism, respectively. Read an in-depth analysis of Brother Jack.
Tod Clifton -  A black member of the Brotherhood and a resident of Harlem. Tod Clifton is passionate, handsome, articulate, and intelligent. He eventually parts ways with the Brotherhood, though it remains unclear whether a falling-out has taken place, or whether he has simply become disillusioned with the group. He begins selling Sambo dolls on the street, seemingly both perpetrating and mocking the offensive stereotype of the lazy and servile slave that the dolls represent.
Ras the Exhorter -  A stout, flamboyant, charismatic, angry man with a flair for public agitation. Ras represents the black nationalist movement, which advocates the violent overthrow of white supremacy. Ellison seems to use him to comment on the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who believed that blacks would never achieve freedom in white society. A maverick, Ras frequently opposes the Brotherhood and the narrator, often violently, and incites riots in Harlem. Read an in-depth analysis of Ras the Exhorter.
Rinehart -  A surreal figure who never appears in the book except by reputation. Rinehart possesses a seemingly infinite number of identities, among them pimp, bookie, and preacher who speaks on the subject of “invisibility.” When the narrator wears dark glasses in Harlem one day, many people mistake him for Rinehart. The narrator realizes that Rinehart’s shape-shifting capacity represents a life of extreme freedom, complexity, and possibility. He also recognizes that this capacity fosters a cynical and manipulative inauthenticity. Rinehart thus figures crucially in the book’s larger examination of the problem of identity and self-conception.
Dr. Bledsoe -  The president at the narrator’s college. Dr. Bledsoe proves selfish, ambitious, and treacherous. He is a black man who puts on a mask of servility to the white community. Driven by his desire to maintain his status and power, he declares that he would see every black man in the country lynched before he would give up his position of authority.
Mr. Norton -  One of the wealthy white trustees at the narrator’s college. Mr. Norton is a narcissistic man who treats the narrator as a tally on his scorecard—that is, as proof that he is liberal-minded and philanthropic. Norton’s wistful remarks about his daughter add an eerie quality of longing to his fascination with the story of Jim Trueblood’s incest.
Reverend Homer A. Barbee -  A preacher from Chicago who visits the narrator’s college. Reverend Barbee’s fervent praise of the Founder’s “vision” strikes an inadvertently ironic note, because he himself is blind. With Barbee’s first name, Ellison makes reference to the Greek poet Homer, another blind orator who praised great heroes in his epic poems. Ellison uses Barbee to satirize the college’s desire to transform the Founder into a similarly mythic hero.
Jim Trueblood -  An uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter and who lives on the outskirts of the narrator’s college campus. The students and faculty of the college view Jim Trueblood as a disgrace to the black community. To Trueblood’s surprise, however, whites have shown an increased interest in him since the story of his incest spread.
The veteran -  An institutionalized black man who makes bitterly insightful remarks about race relations. Claiming to be a graduate of the narrator’s college, the veteran tries to expose the pitfalls of the school’s ideology. His bold candor angers both the narrator and Mr. Norton—the veteran exposes their blindness and hypocrisy and points out the sinister nature of their relationship. Although society has deemed him “shell-shocked” and insane, the veteran proves to be the only character who speaks the truth in the first part of the novel.
Emerson -  The son of one of the wealthy white trustees (whom the text also calls Emerson) of the narrator’s college. The younger Emerson reads the supposed recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe and reveals Bledsoe’s treachery to the narrator. He expresses sympathy for the narrator and helps him get a job, but he remains too preoccupied with his own problems to help the narrator in any meaningful way.
Mary -  A serene and motherly black woman with whom the narrator stays after learning that the Men’s House has banned him. Mary treats him kindly and even lets him stay for free. She nurtures his black identity and urges him to become active in the fight for racial equality.
Sybil -  A white woman whom the narrator attempts to use to find out information about the Brotherhood. Sybil instead uses the narrator to act out her fantasy of being raped by a “savage” black man.



Racism as an Obstacle to Individual Identity
As the narrator of Invisible Man struggles to arrive at a conception of his own identity, he finds his efforts complicated by the fact that he is a black man living in a racist American society. Throughout the novel, the narrator finds himself passing through a series of communities, from the Liberty Paints plant to the Brotherhood, with each microcosm endorsing a different idea of how blacks should behave in society. As the narrator attempts to define himself through the values and expectations imposed on him, he finds that, in each case, the prescribed role limits his complexity as an individual and forces him to play an inauthentic part.
Upon arriving in New York, the narrator enters the world of the Liberty Paints plant, which achieves financial success by subverting blackness in the service of a brighter white. There, the narrator finds himself involved in a process in which white depends heavily on black—both in terms of the mixing of the paint tones and in terms of the racial makeup of the workforce. Yet the factory denies this dependence in the final presentation of its product, and the narrator, as a black man, ends up stifled. Later, when the narrator joins the Brotherhood, he believes that he can fight for racial equality by working within the ideology of the organization, but he then finds that the Brotherhood seeks to use him as a token black man in its abstract project.
Ultimately, the narrator realizes that the racial prejudice of others causes them to see him only as they want to see him, and their limitations of vision in turn place limitations on his ability to act. He concludes that he is invisible, in the sense that the world is filled with blind people who cannot or will not see his real nature. Correspondingly, he remains unable to act according to his own personality and becomes literally unable to be himself. Although the narrator initially embraces his invisibility in an attempt to throw off the limiting nature of stereotype, in the end he finds this tactic too passive. He determines to emerge from his underground “hibernation,” to make his own contributions to society as a complex individual. He will attempt to exert his power on the world outside of society’s system of prescribed roles. By making proactive contributions to society, he will force others to acknowledge him, to acknowledge the existence of beliefs and behaviors outside of their prejudiced expectations.
The Limitations of Ideology
Over the course of the novel, the narrator realizes that the complexity of his inner self is limited not only by people’s racism but also by their more general ideologies. He finds that the ideologies advanced by institutions prove too simplistic and one-dimensional to serve something as complex and multidimensional as human identity. The novel contains many examples of ideology, from the tamer, ingratiating ideology of Booker T. Washington subscribed to at the narrator’s college to the more violent, separatist ideology voiced by Ras the Exhorter. But the text makes its point most strongly in its discussion of the Brotherhood. Among the Brotherhood, the narrator is taught an ideology that promises to save “the people,” though, in reality, it consistently limits and betrays the freedom of the individual. The novel implies that life is too rich, too various, and too unpredictable to be bound up neatly in an ideology; like jazz, of which the narrator is particularly fond, life reaches the heights of its beauty during moments of improvisation and surprise.
The Danger of Fighting Stereotype with Stereotype
The narrator is not the only African American in the book to have felt the limitations of racist stereotyping. While he tries to escape the grip of prejudice on an individual level, he encounters other blacks who attempt to prescribe a defense strategy for all African Americans. Each presents a theory of the supposed right way to be black in America and tries to outline how blacks should act in accordance with this theory. The espousers of these theories believe that anyone who acts contrary to their prescriptions effectively betrays the race. Ultimately, however, the narrator finds that such prescriptions only counter stereotype with stereotype and replace one limiting role with another.
Early in the novel, the narrator’s grandfather explains his belief that in order to undermine and mock racism, blacks should exaggerate their servility to whites. The narrator’s college, represented by Dr. Bledsoe, thinks that blacks can best achieve success by working industriously and adopting the manners and speech of whites. Ras the Exhorter thinks that blacks should rise up and take their freedom by destroying whites. Although all of these conceptions arise from within the black community itself, the novel implies that they ultimately prove as dangerous as white people’s racist stereotypes. By seeking to define their identity within a race in too limited a way, black figures such as Bledsoe and Ras aim to empower themselves but ultimately undermine themselves. Instead of exploring their own identities, as the narrator struggles to do throughout the book, Bledsoe and Ras consign themselves and their people to formulaic roles. These men consider treacherous anyone who attempts to act outside their formulae of blackness. But as blacks who seek to restrict and choreograph the behavior of the black American community as a whole, it is men like these who most profoundly betray their people.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Probably the most important motif in Invisible Man is that of blindness, which recurs throughout the novel and generally represents how people willfully avoid seeing and confronting the truth. The narrator repeatedly notes that people’s inability to see what they wish not to see—their inability to see that which their prejudice doesn’t allow them to see—has forced him into a life of effective invisibility. But prejudice against others is not the only kind of blindness in the book. Many figures also refuse to acknowledge truths about themselves or their communities, and this refusal emerges consistently in the imagery of blindness. Thus, the boys who fight in the “battle royal” wear blindfolds, symbolizing their powerlessness to recognize their exploitation at the hands of the white men. The Founder’s statue at the college has empty eyes, signifying his ideology’s stubborn neglect of racist realities. Blindness also afflicts Reverend Homer A. Barbee, who romanticizes the Founder, and Brother Jack, who is revealed to lack an eye—a lack that he has dissimulated by wearing a glass eye. The narrator himself experiences moments of blindness, such as in Chapter 16 when he addresses the black community under enormous, blinding lights. In each case, failure of sight corresponds to a lack of insight.
Because he has decided that the world is full of blind men and sleepwalkers who cannot see him for what he is, the narrator describes himself as an “invisible man.” The motif of invisibility pervades the novel, often manifesting itself hand in hand with the motif of blindness—one person becomes invisible because another is blind. While the novel almost always portrays blindness in a negative light, it treats invisibility much more ambiguously. Invisibility can bring disempowerment, but it can also bring freedom and mobility. Indeed, it is the freedom the narrator derives from his anonymity that enables him to tell his story. Moreover, both the veteran at the Golden Day and the narrator’s grandfather seem to endorse invisibility as a position from which one may safely exert power over others, or at least undermine others’ power, without being caught. The narrator demonstrates this power in the Prologue, when he literally draws upon electrical power from his hiding place underground; the electric company is aware of its losses but cannot locate their source. At the end of the novel, however, the narrator has decided that while invisibility may bring safety, actions undertaken in secrecy cannot ultimately have any meaningful impact. One may undermine one’s enemies from a position of invisibility, but one cannot make significant changes to the world. Accordingly, in the Epilogue the narrator decides to emerge from his hibernation, resolved to face society and make a visible difference.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Sambo Doll and the Coin Bank
The coin bank in the shape of the grinning black man (Chapter 15) and Tod Clifton’s dancing Sambo doll (Chapter 20) serve similar purposes in the novel, each representing degrading black stereotypes and the damaging power of prejudice. The coin bank, which portrays a grinning slave who eats coins, embodies the idea of the good slave who fawns over white men for trivial rewards. This stereotype literally follows the narrator, for even after he has smashed the bank and attempted to discard the pieces, various characters return to him the paper in which the pieces are wrapped. Additionally, the statue’s hasty swallowing of coins mirrors the behavior of the black youths in the “battle royal” of Chapter 1, as they scramble to collect the coins on the electrified carpet, reinforcing the white stereotype of blacks as servile and humble.
The Sambo doll is made in the image of the Sambo slave, who, according to white stereotype, acts lazy yet obsequious. Moreover, as a dancing doll, it represents the negative stereotype of the black entertainer who laughs and sings for whites. While the coin bank illustrates the power of stereotype to follow a person in his or her every movement, the Sambo doll illustrates stereotype’s power to control a person’s movements altogether. Stereotype and prejudice, like the invisible strings by which the doll is made to move, often determine and manipulate the range of action of which a person is capable.
The Liberty Paints Plant
The Liberty Paints plant serves as a complex metaphor for American society with regard to race. Like America, it defines itself with notions of liberty and freedom but incorporates a deeply ingrained racism in its most central operations. By portraying a factory that produces paint, Ellison is able to make his statements about color literal. Thus, when the factory authorities boast of the superiority of their white paint, their statements appear as parodies of arguments about white supremacy. With the plant’s claim that its trademark “Optic White” can cover up any tint or stain, Ellison makes a pointed observation about American society’s intentions to cover up black identity with white culture, to ignore difference, and to treat darker-skinned individuals as “stains” upon white “purity.”
Optic White is made through a process that involves the mixture of a number of dark-colored chemicals, one of which appears “dead black.” Yet the dark colors disappear into the swirling mixture, and the paint emerges a gleaming white, showing no trace of its true components. The labor relations within the plant manifest a similar pattern: black workers perform all of the crucial labor, but white people sell the paint and make the highest wages, never acknowledging their reliance upon their darker-skinned counterparts. This dynamic, too, seems to mirror a larger one at work within America as a whole.

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