Foremost in the novel is the unnamed figure of the narrator. His is the voice through which the entire panorama of Invisible Man is reflected, a life begun in the Deep South and brought north to Harlem as America’s premier black city-within-a-city. In language full of richly oblique double-meanings and nuance, often bluesy and vernacular, he speaks of writing “confession,” of implying from within his specific case history that of an altogether wider, historic black America. He also serves as Ellison’s own surrogate, from start to finish cannily and reflexively aware of his literary “performance.” In both the prologue and the epilogue, and at each turning point in his career—the Battle Royal, the Trueblood “quarters,” the Golden Day, the Liberty Paints factory, The Brotherhood, his incarnation as Bliss Proteus Rinehart, the Riot, and his final “hibernation”—he functions as both the subject and the object of his own story, both the teller and, as it were, the tale. Few novels have created a subtler autobiographical self.
The narrator’s encounter with Bledsoe, the president of the black college to which he wins his scholarship, introduces the first of a line of characters marked out by splits and self-division. In one guise, Bledsoe plays the perfect Uncle Tom, fawning and grateful, and dancing to the tune of Norton, the white philanthropist from Boston. In another, he plays the black despot, the college’s administrative tyrant known to the students as “Old Bucket-head.” Ellison so fashions him as a kind of harlequin, one self hidden within the other.
Norton (“northern,” as his name implies) in turn acts out his double game. He can flatter himself that his “destiny” lies in helping black students to become dutiful mechanics and agricultural workers. However, when he encounters the incestuous True-bloods, impoverished black sharecroppers living in The Quarters, he reveals his own hitherto unacknowledged dark longings for his dead daughter. In the Golden Day brothel, Ellison has the veterans, ironically to a degree, associate him with a roll-call of other white would-be American messiahs, among them John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Jefferson.
The narrator subsequently hears the sermon of the Reverend Homer Barbee on returning Norton to the college. This blind “Homer” preaches a truly parodic Emersonianism, a message of uplift at odds with the life actually led by black Americans within a fearful, racist white Dixie.
On arrival in Harlem, the narrator meets one of the strong female presences in the novel, Mary Rambo. She takes him in, mothers him, and typifies a standard of black community care. He also meets in Brother Jack, the leader of The Brotherhood, another of Ellison’s deft caricatures. Patronizingly, Jack appoints the narrator “the new Booker T. Washington,” his personal apparatchik. He also speaks the language of “scientific terminology,” “materialism,” and other quasi-Marxist argot. When he leads a witchhunt against the narrator, only to have his “buttermilk” glass eye pop out, he grotesquely reveals himself for what he is, a half-seeing—or truly one-eyed—Jack.
Tod Clifton, the Harlem youth leader, is the novel’s martyr figure. Pledged to fight black joblessness, the color line, and (at the outset) Black Nationalism, Tod is shown to move increasingly into a fascination with Ras’s Caribbean “Africanness.” That he ends up peddling Sambo dolls, then shot by a white policeman, and finally the name at the center of the Harlem riot that ensues, points to Ellison’s interest in the black activist as both individual and icon.
In this, Tod links perfectly to Ras, The Destroyer, the militant Rastafarian whose politics recall the back-to-Africa nationalism of Marcus Garvey. However, if Ras derides The Brotherhood as a white-run fraud serviced by deluded black lackeys, he himself becomes a figure derided, an anachronistic Don Quixote replete with horse and shield. The novel thus returns in the aftermath of the riot to the narrator as once more the presiding “character” of Invisible Man, each figure he has put before readers part real, part mythic.