“Invisible Man” is a 1952 novel by the acclaimed black author Ralph Ellison. The novel was very well-received and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. It has since been featured in Time magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th century and won the Modern Library ranking of the same name. It is considered a classic of 20th-century American novels and African-American literature.
Its aim was to address intellectual and social issues of the black community during the 1950’s as well as issues of personal identity and individuality. The narrator of the story, who is never given a name, begins by telling us that he is an “invisible man” who is invisible by nature of his race. As a black man living in America, he is looked past and ignored as well as treated like a child by white people.
The narrator takes the reader through his life starting at the age of 17 when he is graduating high school and up to his time as a spokesperson for a association for the advancement of black people called the Brotherhood. Throughout the story, the narrator relates his experiences being treated poorly and even damagingly by white people. At the end of the novel, after being betrayed by the Brotherhood he reveals that he is living in a disused basement but that he feel freer than ever from his mental constraints.
The book starts with a prolog where the narrator introduces himself and says that he is an “invisible man”. He clarifies that his invisibly does not come from a super power but from the fact that he is a black man and that people are unwilling to notice him. The narrator says that this invisibility has both upsides and downsides.
The narrator describes his life now. He lives secretly in the basement of a building which only allows white tenants and steals electricity. He listens to Louis Armstrong jazz records at full volume and prepares for some unnamed action. He remembers a recent incident where he was walking through the park at night and a white man stumbled into him. The white man insulted him and the narrator attacked the man in anger. The next day the incident was reported as a mugging. The narrator thinks this is interesting because he feels that, although the white man was the one being attacked he still had control over the situation. If he had called a police officer, the narrator would have been arrested immediately.
In chapter one, a narrator is a man in his forties who is looking back on his life and reminiscing. He relates that there was a time when he had not yet discovered that he was an invisible man. He tells the reader that his grandparents were former slaves who believed after the end of the Civil War that they had achieved equality with white people. On his deathbed, his grandfather compared the lives of black Americans to a war and said that he felt like a traitor to his race. He advised his family to undermine white people by being agreeable and the narrator took this advice. He knows receives praise from the white people in his town for being meek.
The narrator goes on to remember being asked to give a graduation speech at his high school commencement in front of the town’s leading white citizens. He prepared a well thought out speech about the advancement of black people in America but when he got to the gathering it was revealed to be a ‘battle royal’ in which the white men were forcing many of his male, black classmates to wear boxing gloves and fight each other in a ring. The white men put blindfolds on the young men and ordered them to fight viciously. The narrator makes it to the last round where he is defeated. After the fight, the white men lead the students to a rug where gold coins (later found to be worthless painted brass) and crumpled dollar bills are lying on the floor. The students grab for them only to find that the carpet is fitted with an electric current that shocks them. The white men try to get the boys to fall face first onto the rug during the scramble.
The narrator is actually allowed to deliver his speech but the white men heckle him as he quotes Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Exposition Address. The narrator accidentally uses the phrase, ‘social equality’ instead of ‘social responsibility’. This angers the white men, who demand that he explain himself. He replies that he misspoke. After the speech, he is given a calfskin briefcase and the narrator is surprised to find a scholarship to a state college for black youth inside. That night the narrator dreams of his grandfather laughing at him derisively. The narrator goes to the college and soon begins his first semester.
The narrator goes to the college and soon begins his first semester. At the end of his second year, he begins working as a chauffeur for one of the college’s founders, a wealthy white man. The man, Mr. Norton, requests that the narrator take him to the countryside and he accidentally drives him to the black side of town where overworked sharecroppers live in former slave shacks stacked on top of one another. Mr. Norton is intrigued by the scene and even more so when the narrator tells him that a man named Jim Trueblood lives in one of the cabins. Jim Trueblood is regarded badly by the town as he impregnated his young daughter.
Mr. Norton asks to meet Trueblood and listens in fascination as the man recounts that on the night he had an incestuous encounter with his daughter, he woke from a strange dream to find that he was raping her. Trueblood confesses that many white people of the town have wanted to hear the story and have showered him with money and help. Confirming this, Norton gives Trueblood a one-hundred-dollar bill before he leaves.The narrator brings Norton to a notorious black bar in downtown to get so whiskey to calm his nerves. While inside, Norton is propositioned by a prostitute, and insulted by a group of black veterans. The veterans also hound the narrator for being Norton’s chauffeur and ferrying him around.
The narrator brings Norton to a notorious black bar in downtown to get so whiskey to calm his nerves. While inside, Norton is propositioned by a prostitute, and insulted by a group of black veterans. The veterans also hound the narrator for being Norton’s chauffeur and ferrying him around. When a fight breaks out, Norton collapses from shock and has to be dragged out by the narrator. The narrator brings Norton back to the college campus and drops him off at his rooms.
After leaving him, the narrator goes to find Dr. Bledsoe, the president of the college to inform him of what happened. Dr. Bledsoe, after hearing of the night’s events, becomes furious over the situation and scolds the narrator for showing the powerful white trustee a part of town that is so dangerous. Dr. Bledsoe instructs the narrator to leave and to attend a church service that evening. Later that afternoon, however, the narrator receives a note that Bledsoe wishes to see him in Norton’s room and arrives to find that Bledsoe had to leave suddenly but will be in his office after the service. Norton says that he explained to Bledsoe that the narrator was not to blame for the incident that day and he feels that the president understood. The narrator apologizes to Norton again and offers to drive him to the train station. Norton turns him down, politely and reminds the narrator of his meeting with Bledsoe.
The narrator attends the mandatory chapel service and listens to Reverend Homer A. Barbee speak about the founder of the college a black man who was born into slavery and almost died as a small child when a cousin splashed him with lye. After nine days in a coma, he woke up and felt that he had been resurrected. He later taught himself to read and escaped slavery after which he traveled north and gain further education. Years later she returned to Atlanta and founded the college. The narrator finds the sermon very moving. As Barbee finishes and goes back to his chair, he stumbles and loses his glasses. The narrator then realizes that Barbee is blind.
After the service, the narrator has his meeting with Bledsoe who is still angry. Bledsoe insists that white people often give such silly instructions as Norton did that day and that having grown up as a black man in the south, the narrator should know by now how to lie his way out of such situations. Bledsoe insists that the narrator is punished. But instead of suspending him he informs him that he will be spending the summer in New York so that he can earn his tuition. Bledsoe also hints that if the narrator does well at this he will send a letter to some of the trustees recommending him for a job after school is over. The narrator assures Bledsoe that he doesn’t resent his punishment but he hears his grandfather’s dying words as he does so.
The narrator takes a bus to New York where he runs into one of the veterans who mocked Norton inside the bar. He discovers that the man is being sent to a psychiatric facility in Washington D.C. by Dr. Bledsoe. The narrator is shocked by this but the veteran is not. He winks at the narrator and reminds him to look under the surface of things more often. He instructs the narrator to hide his real self from white people and the invisible man who is pulling his strings.
Upon arriving in New York, the narrator is astonished to see black police officers directing white people in traffic. He sees a gathering in Harlem where a man with an Indian accent talks about chasing the whites out. The narrator, nervous that a riot may break out, quickly leaves and finds a place to rent a room called the ‘Men’s House’.
The next day the narrator begins working for one of the men that Bledsoe arranged for him to meet. Bledsoe had given the narrator letters to give to these men but when Mr. Emerson’s son reads the letter he appears to be agitated. The narrator then takes the letter only to see that Bledsoe has not written a recommendation, instead, he has written to all of the men saying that the narrator has been permanently expelled from the college and sent away to protect the school. Bledsoe requests that the narrator is allowed to continue on thinking that he is working toward coming back to school while remaining as far as possible away.
Emerson’s son tells the narrator that his father is strict and unforgiving but that he, himself will help the narrator get a job at the Liberty Paints plant. The narrator is angered when he leaves Emerson’s office and wishes to take revenge on Bledsoe. He begins working at the Liberty Paints plant the next morning, despite his anger and his supervisor, Mr. Kimbro shows him what he is to do. The narrator’s job is to open buckets filled with a foul-smelling brown substance and drip a black chemical into them. Then he is to stir the bucket until it becomes glossy white paint. Kimbro insists that Liberty Paints white paint is the purest white that can be found in any paint plant and that it can cover up anything.
Later on, the narrator finds that he has run out of the black chemical and must go to get more from the supply room. Once there, he finds seven tanks filled with different chemicals and cannot distinguish which one he is to use. Going by smell alone, the narrator accidentally picks the wrong chemical and ruins some seventy-five buckets of paint. Kimbro is angered by this and sends the narrator to the furnace room to assist the engineer instead. Brockway does not take kindly to assistants and is hesitant to assign the narrator to any task. Finally, he instructs him to watch the pressure gauges on the boiler.
When lunch time comes, the narrator goes back to the locker room to gather his things and accidentally walks in on a union meeting. Some of the men in the meeting accuse him of being a spy since he is Brockway’s assistant. The men decide to investigate the narrator and send him away with his lunch. When Brockway hears of the meeting, he is enraged and threatens to kill the narrator if he discovers that he belongs to the union. The narrator denies this but the two being to fight until Brockway bites the narrator and loses his dentures.
The boilers begin to hiss and Brockway realizes that they have not been watching them while they were fighting. He instructs the narrator to turn the valve but the narrator cannot do so in time and the boiler explodes. The narrator is knocked unconscious during the explosion. The narrator soon wakes in a hospital and is unable to answer any of the doctor’s questions. He begins receiving electro-shock treatment and overhears the doctor’s arguing about whether or not it is a good idea to continue to treatment.
The narrator receives more electro-shock treatment and when asked by the doctor’s what his name is, he realizes that he cannot remember. Eventually, he is released and the doctors tell him that he is cured. The narrator discovers that he is to receive a compensation check from the factory for being injured while working. The narrator leaves the hospital feeling very different. He realizes that he feels like he has gotten over his fear of important men like Norton or Bledsoe. As he is walking, the narrator collapses and some men help to carry him to the house of a kind black woman named Mary. He stays there for a few hours until he feels recovered and Mary tells him that he should come back sometimes if he wants to rent a room.
The narrator returns to the Men’s House and inwardly scorns those around him. He finds that he feels angrier now and when he sees a man that he initially mistakes for Dr. Bledsoe he empties a spittoon on the man’s head before realizing that he has mistaken the man’s identity. The man is a prominent Baptist preacher in the area. The narrator narrowly escapes the situation before he is caught. He later learns that he has been banned from the Men’s House and asks a porter to retrieve his things from his room. He goes back to Mary’s house and takes a room with her. The narrator begins to feel a “spot of black anger” within him and longs to take up activism for the black community.
Soon, the narrator stumbles across a black family being evicted from their apartment and delivers a rousing speech to the bystanders that incite them into resistance. The crowd carries the black families belongings back into their house to the chagrin of the white landlord. When the police arrive, the narrator runs only to be approached by a white man who tells him that the speech was a: “masterful bit of persuasion”. The man takes the narrator to a coffee house and tries to persuade him to become a paid spokesperson for a political organization in Harlem. The narrator turns him down and the man, named Brother Jack, accepts this, but gives him a phone number to call in case he changes his mind.
The narrator does change his mind within a few hours and calls Brother Jack who comes to pick him up in a car with several other men. Jack takes the narrator to a cocktail party where he introduces him to his mistress a woman named Emma who asks Jack if he doesn’t think the narrator should be: “a little blacker”. Jack explains to the narrator that the organization is called the Brotherhood and it’s main focus is social activism for black people who have been: “dispossessed of their heritage”. He begins to talk about Booker T. Washington and changes that have to be made before an impending world crisis. Brother Jack tells the narrator that in order to accept the position he must move to a new apartment that will be paid for by the Brotherhood and break all ties with his past. Jack gives the narrator a new name and three hundred dollars in order to pay off his back rent.
The next day the narrator pays off his debt to Mary and leaves the house without telling her that he isn’t planning on returning. He then contacts Jack who wants him to give a speech at a Harlem rally that night. The narrator attends the rally and becomes so nervous on stage that he forgets all of the catchphrases that the Brotherhood has told him to use. He manages to create a moving speech on the spot but the Brotherhood are unsatisfied. They feel that he is a good natural speaker, but that he needs more of their influence.
Months pass as the narrator studies the Brotherhood’s rules and ideology. The Brotherhood eventually votes to elect him as chief spokesperson for the Harlem branch of their operation. After this, the narrator is given an office and introduced to a black member of the executive committee, Tod Clifton. Tod informs the narrator that the Brotherhood’s main opponent is a man named Ras the Exhorter, a black nationalist who is bent on complete distrust of all white people. At a protest against Ras shortly after, a fight breaks out between his people and the Brotherhood’s and the narrator sees Clifton and Ras locked in an intense fight. Ras asks Clifton why he works for the Brotherhood since he is one of the few black people in their ranks and assures him that his comrades will turn on him one day.
The narrator becomes well known in the community and works hard for the Brotherhood. However, he is still plagued by nightmares of his grandfather. The narrator is soon interviewed for a magazine but this upsets another member of the Brotherhood who accuses him of trying to use the group to further his own interests. The Brotherhood removes him from his post and transfers him out of Harlem to work as a women’s rights spokesperson during the investigation.
The narrator chooses to fully dedicate himself to this assignment. Soon the investigation is completed and the Brotherhood informs him that he has been cleared of the charges laid against him. They also inform him that Clifton has disappeared. Ras has been gaining many followers while the Brotherhood has been losing them. The narrator discovers that many of the jobs that the Brotherhood promises to Harlem residents have disappeared.
The narrator returns to the office one day to find that he has been excluded from a strategy meeting and furiously storms out. He finds Tod Clifton on the street peddling dolls that represent a racist stereotype. The narrator is angered by this, too. Some police officers come to break up the demonstration that Clifton is giving and in the confusion Clifton strikes one of the officers. The officer then shoots the man dead. In shock, the narrator returns to his office. Several crying Brotherhood members ask him if it is true that Clifton is dead. He confirms that it is and tries to call the headquarters to report this but receives no answer.
The narrator organizes a funeral march for Clifton and claims the body from the morgue. Hundreds of former and current members of the Brotherhood show up to march and the narrator delivers a somber speech. He senses a deep running tension in the gathering and hopes that the tension will be harnessed into the Brotherhood reclaiming their influence in Harlem. Brother Jack and the other executives in the Brotherhood call the narrator out for associating their organization with the protest of Clifton’s death. The narrator defends himself by saying that the black community is against the Brotherhood for the moment and that he thought this would help. The two argue for a while before one of Jack’s eyes – a fake one – pops out of his head and falls onto the desk. In the shocked silence, Jack informs the narrator that he lost the eye while doing his duty for the Brotherhood. The argument dies down after this and Jack tells the narrator to consult with Brother Hambro to learn about their new program.
The communities anger over Clifton’s death reaches a peak and Ras, (now calling himself ‘Ras the Destroyer’) begins swaying more people to his side by disparaging the Brotherhood. The narrator consults with Hambro who tells him that the Brotherhood is going to give up its influence in Harlem in order to pursue change on a more national scale. The narrator is enraged by this and makes a plan to follow his grandfather’s advice and “yes them to death”. He plans to fill out fake membership cards to convince the Brotherhood that their Harlem membership is bigger and to make the Brotherhood believe that the community is on their side with this decision. Riots begin breaking out in Harlem and Ras incites them further. The narrator sends out Brotherhood members to try and calm the crowds and convince them that they are planning on instituting clean-up campaigns around Harlem.
In the last chapter, a large riot breaks out with Ras as the leader. This makes the narrator realize that the Brotherhood has been planning race riots all along by deliberately giving up Harlem to Ras and allowing it to fall into chaos. During the riot, the narrator becomes trapped in the fray and Ras sees him and calls for the crowd to lynch him. The narrator barely escapes and runs into two police officers who only ask to see what is in his briefcase instead of helping him. The narrator runs from them and falls into an open manhole. The police laugh at this and put the manhole cover back on so that he will be trapped underground.
Underground and in complete darkness, the narrator burns the items in his briefcase one by one for light. This includes his high school diploma and the paper that Jack gave him with his new name. He sleeps eventually and has nightmares about all of the white men he has known mocking him. He wakes, screaming and decides to stay underground to escape them.
In the epilog, the narrator ends the story by saying he has included all of the important parts of the story. He says: “I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole – or showed me the hole I was in, if you will – and I reluctantly accepted the fact”. He wonders whether his decision to separate from society has put him behind in social activism or ahead and decides to leave that question up to people like Jack. He decided to embrace his invisibility and lives in a secret room in a closed off the basement. He begins thinking of his grandfather’s last words and wonders if he got them wrong all along. If his grandfather, in fact, meant by saying “yes” that he should accept the evils of society and attempt to transcend them. He recounts that he recently bumped into an older white man on the subway and realizes that he was Mr. Norton. Norton didn’t recognize him and seemed to think that the narrator was insane.
The narrator says that he wonders why he decided to write this book and that the process of writing it has not made him any less angry. He decides that he is going to end his seclusion and announces that even an invisible man has a social responsibility.
The Narrator – the main character of the story. The narrator never gives his real name in the story although he dominates the narrative and tells it from his own perspective. The choice to keep his name absent is a stylistic decision that plays into the idea of him being an ‘invisible man’. If he does not matter because he is a black man then, he concedes that his name does not matter either. He considers himself merely the vessel for his story.
The narrator is given many different names throughout the story (by the hospital, the Brotherhood, etc.) but none are ever presented in the text. The story is a chronicle of the moral and psychological growth of the narrator and the themes revolve around his growth as a person and the development of his character.
In the beginning of the novel, the narrator is a very innocent and naive young man who likes to believe the best in people and is respectful of authority. For instance, after he is included in the ‘battle royal’ in chapter 1 and physically assaulted at the behest of brutish white men he accepts their scholarship with gratitude and feels grateful. In this way, the narrator is unreliable and the reader is asked by Ellison to look past what he is relating and make your own assumptions.
Later on in the novel the narrator transforms into a more savvy but bitter man and forms his ‘invisible man’ theory. By the end of the novel he has rejected society and lives underground but a hint of his youthful exuberance still remains as he plans on rejoining society soon.
Brother Jack – the head of the committee in the Brotherhood. Jack propositions the narrator with the idea of him becoming the Brotherhood’s spokesperson in Harlem after hearing him deliver a rousing speech on the street. Ellison uses Brother Jack as a demonstration of the flawed ideologies that fail to address the real issues in the black community and instead cloud the issue. In particular, Jack portrays the Communist Part in the 1930’s who seemed to the black community like allies but later shifted their focus and betrayed the cause.
Initially, Jack seems like a kind ally to the narrator but he is revealed to be just like all of the other powerful white men in the book who is using Jack to meet his own ends. When the tone of the Brotherhood’s idea’s change, Jack abandons the black community of Harlem without looking back. Jack’s glass eye symbolizes how his commitment to the Brotherhood’s ideas has blinded him in a literal way.
Ras the Exhorter – a powerful man in the activist community in Harlem. Ras’ main goal is to further the advancement of black people by distrusting and oppressing whites. He is a black nationalist who possesses an almost god-like power over the rioting in the book. Although he does not show much instinct for planning, Ras still manages to control many of Harlem’s activists. It is later revealed that the Brotherhood was letting him take control so that they could shift their focus. Regardless of this fact, by the end of the book, Ras does indeed have the control he wanted.
Mr. Norton – a white trustee of the college who has a bad experience in the black part of town while being chauffeured by the narrator. Mr. Norton initially seems to be a supporter of the cause and an ally to the narrator but reveals himself to be a closet racist. He treats the black people he encounters on his short trip with the narrator like animals in a zoo and insists on hearing the horrific tale of Jim Trueblood’s rape of his daughter from the man himself. After ward, Norton gives the man a hundred dollars as if he has just been entertained and is paying for it. Norton becomes so overwhelmed by the black crowd in the bar that he faints and has to be revived by the narrator. Years later, when the narrator encounters him on a train, Norton does not recognize him and assumes that the man is insane.
Tod Clifton – the youth leader in Harlem for the Brotherhood. Clifton is committed to helping black youth in the area and very kind and protective of the narrator as a result. At one point, Clifton disappears suddenly and reappears having left the Brotherhood and started selling racist caricature dolls on the street. He is accosted by policemen for this and ends up getting shot by them. It is his death that begins sparking riots in Harlem.
Ralph Ellison Biography
Ralph Ellison was a respected American novelist and leading figure in African-American literature in the pre- Civil rights era. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on March 1st, 1913. One of three brothers, Ellison faced much hardship growing up as a black man in the early 20th century.He struggled to find a job to help support his family and worked as a shoeshine boy, a busboy and a hotel waiter among other things. As a
He struggled to find a job to help support his family and worked as a shoeshine boy, a busboy and a hotel waiter among other things. As a child he developed a love of music and received free saxophone and trumpet lessons from the father of a friend.Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute, a respected black college in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington. He was admitted to be the trumpet player in the school’s orchestra.
Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute, a respected black college in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington. He was admitted to be the trumpet player in the school’s orchestra. In 1934, Ellison began working in the Universities library where he began reading classic novels. Ellison left the University in 1936 without graduating and then moved to New York City.He began living in Harlem and met Langston Hughes
He began living in Harlem and met Langston Hughes a influential black author of the time who introduced him to Richard Wright another renowned black author. After writing a book review for Wright, the man encouraged him to begin trying to write as he thought he had talent.Ellison’s first published work was a story called ‘Hymie’s Bull’ that was published in 1933. For the next few years, Ellison continued to write book reviews and articles.
Ellison’s first published work was a story called “Hymie’s Bull” that was published in 1933. For the next few years, Ellison continued to write book reviews and articles for magazine. In support of the Communist party, he also wrote some literature espousing their beliefs.
During World War II, Ellison and Wright lost their faith in the party as they felt that it had shifted it’s focus and betrayed black Americans. In 1938, Ellison met Rosa Araminta Piondexter whom he married that same year. They split up in 1943 after Ellison had an affair with another woman. Ellison enlisted in the Merchant Marine Service during World War II and it was while he was doing this that he wrote his most famous work, “Invisible Man”. His second wife, Fanny McConnell helped him with editing the book.
The book was a success and won the U.S National Book Award for Fiction the next year. Ellison began working as a respected, recognized author and touring other countries to lecture and give talks.
In 1958, Ellison wrote a second novel, “Juneteenth” and followed it in 1964 with “Shadow and Act”, a collection of essays. Soon after he began teaching at Yale University and Rutgers University. Ellison lost most of his work on his last novel in a fire and never managed to finish it. He passed away from cancer on April 16th of 1994 and his ashes were interred in a crypt in Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan.